A goal in each half from captain Alan Sheehan and leading scorer Danny Hylton secured the Hatters a 2-0 win at lowly Forest Green this afternoon, extending their unbeaten run to ten matches in all competitions despite having to play for over half-an-hour with ten men.
Jack Stacey’s 59th minute straight red card, for a high challenge on Rovers winger Dan Wishart, was the only scar on another excellent day for Nathan Jones side, who had to dig in for three big points despite not being at their free-flowing best.
It is six matches since they last suffered defeat in Sky Bet League Two, and this latest victory combined with Notts County being held to a goalless draw at home by Grimsby, means the Hatters now have a two-point cushion over the second-placed Magpies, and eight points over Wycombe in fourth.
With Sheehan's opener in first half stoppage time, the Irishman's second of the campaign, the Hatters also became the first side in the EFL to reach 50 league goals for 2017-18 - Hylton adding No.51 in midway through the second half with the 14th of his own.
Jones named an unchanged starting line-up for the third game in a row, ignoring the Checkatrade Trophy game against West Ham U21s when he changed the entire XI.
The hosts started playing in their usual expansive style, and they had the first opportunity in the sixth minute when they broke down the right after clearing a Sheehan corner, 17-year-old debutant Jordan Stevens latching onto Charlie Cooper’s lofted pass, but he was unable to beat Marek Stech, who saved with his legs at the near post.
The Czech had to be alert on the quarter-of-an-hour mark as well when Rovers’ top scorer Christian Doidge got on the end of his own flick-on to crack a 15-yard volley straight at the keeper.
Rovers had enjoyed much of the early possession, but the Hatters created a good chance from another Sheehan set-piece, this time a free-kick whipped in from the right, but the recently prolific Dan Potts couldn’t direct his near-post header on target.
The Town left-back and fellow defender Johnny Mullins were soon the first names into referee Lee Swabey’s notepad, for fouls on Keanu Marsh-Brown and Doidge respectively, but Potts was proving his side’s most likely source of a goal, again meeting a Sheehan corner with a towering header around the back in the 31st minute.
This one was on target, but blocked in the six-yard box, and Rovers were soon on the hunt at the other end again, Scott Laird firing a 30-yard free-kick straight down Stech’s throat on 33 minutes.
Town were having more of the ball, however, and Olly Lee and Shinnie – who was startgin to influence proceedings – combined to play Elliot Lee in on the right of the area, but the striker could only find the side-netting with his angled shot.
Hylton was next to have a go for the Town, rounding off a flowing move down the left between Berry and Potts by meeting the latter’s cross with a left-footed half-volley that Brad Collins did well to keep out.
A flurry of Town shots then rained in on the Rovers goal, Shinnie nicking ball from Marsh-Brown and playing Hylton in for a shot that flashed past the far post, before the Scottish midfielder pulled the trigger himself, only to find Collins equal to it.
Elliot Lee was next, seeing a 44th minute effort deflected wide, before a second corner in quick succession lead to the breakthrough a few seconds into added time at the end of the half.
Sheehan trudged over to the left to take it short to Hylton, and the pair’s routine that led to a penalty at Accrington in October, with Hylton going away from goal then back-heeling it into the skipper’s path, presented Sheehan with the opportunity to drive into the box and drill a low shot in off the far post, becoming the 11th different scorer of the Hatters’ last 11 goals.
It had been coming, and the Town kicked off the second half in search of a second, Elliot Lee cutting in from the left and attempting a right-footed curler from 20 yards, but Collins was equal to it.
With 55 minutes on the clock the Hatters had to call on Stech to preserve the lead, the Town goalkeeper flying across his line to keep out Doidge’s header after Reece Brown picked him out in the centre of the six-yard box.
Just before the hour the Town were reduced to ten men when Stacey went in with a high boot on Wishart as the Rovers wide man sprinted inside to meet a cross-field pass.
Ref Swabey wasted little time in producing the red card while Wishart stayed down to have his head bandaged, the game held up for several minutes.
When play resumed in the 63rd minute, Jones made a double substitution, brining James Justin on at right-back and Harry Cornick up front, taking off the Lee brothers, and within five minutes the regrouped Hatters had doubled the lead.
It came in bizarre circumstances, with Hylton closing down keeper Brad Collins as he received a throw-in on the edge of his own six-yard box, nicking the ball after the Chelsea loanee kicked fresh air and rolling it into an empty net for his sixth goal in his last six matches.
Cornick almost added a third after Potts picked him out on the edge of the box at the end of an incisive move down the left, the substitute’s shot drifting just wide of Collins’ right post.
Rovers tried to respond, but Jack Fitzwater volleyed wide in the 72nd minute – as sub Toni Gomes got in the centre-half’s way – then Stech saved Gomes’ 25-yarder comfortably o
Marsh-Brown shot wide in the 82nd minute, just before being subbed, then Jordan Simpson had an effort deflected over before Stech made two good saves in a minute, palming Cooper’s left-wing corner away from the top corner before pushing Luke James’ 20-yard volley past the post.
The Town saw eight minutes of stoppage time out comfortably, however, with Mullins, Sheehan and Potts all putting in big shifts at the back while Cornick saw a great opening, after Luke Berry’s vision had picked him out on the counter-attack, wiped out by a perfectly timed challenge by Simpson.
It’s 12 games on the road unbeaten now for the Hatters in all competitions – and just one defeat in 21 anywhere – as Jones’ table-toppers prove they can grind out a win in difficult circumstances before heading back to Kenilworth Road for next week’s pre-Christmas clash with Grimsby.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Mullins, Sheehan ©, Potts, Rea, O Lee (Cornick 63), Berry, Shinnie (Collins 85), E Lee (Justin 63), Hylton. Subs: Mpanzu, Gambin, D’Ath, Shea (GK)
YELLOWS: Potts, Mullins
RED: Stacey 60
GOALS: Sheehan 45+1, Hylton 68
ROVERS: B Collins, Laird, L Collins ©, Fitzwater, Marsh-Brown (James 83), Simpson, Cooper, Stevens (Gomes 70), Wishart, Brown (Traore 58), Doidge. Subs: Pickering (GK), Bugiel, Roberts, Hendy
YELLOWS: Laird, Doidge
REFEREE: Lee Swabey
ATT: 2,546 (841 Hatters)