MATCH REPORT – LUTON TOWN 0-2 DARTFORD FC
On another frustrating afternoon the Town slipped to their third home defeat of the season as Dartford twice took advantage of the Hatters’ set-piece frailties.
It was a similar story to Tuesday night's defeat at Hereford with Paul Buckle's men dominating proceedings for large spells of the fixture but were undone by Lee Noble's first half free-kick before Tom Bonner tapped home from another set-piece to keep-up the Darts’ magnificent start to the campaign following promotion last season.
Goalkeeper Dean Brill kept his place in goal as the Hatters make just two changes from Tuesday night's disappointment away at Hereford. Lathaniel Rowe-Turner and Janos Kovacs dropped to the bench with JJ O'Donnell and Alex Lawless, who both made substitute appearances, in the 1-0 defeat.
The pre-match minutes silence on the eve of remembrance Sunday was immaculate as everyone inside Kenilworth Road paid their respects. With the silence completed the roar marked the start of what promised to be a well-contested promotion clash.
The visitors began brightly and had the first attempt on goal with less than three minutes on the clock. Ryan Hayes drove into the Hatters’ half before shifting the ball onto his left and floating a delivery into the box. The ball was met by the head of Danny Harris who nodded his header wide of the post.
But Kenilworth Road was brought to another silence with five minutes on the clock as the Darts took the lead. Noble swung a set piece into the box which evaded everyone including Brill between the Luton sticks and the ball dropped into the bottom corner.
With the Hatters yet to register an effort on goal the visitors set about doubling their advantage, and very nearly did when Noble again wreaked havoc. As Simon Ainge awaited the ball to drop Noble nipped in in-front of the centre-half before striking goalwards via an Ainge deflection. The ball looped over the crossbar and the resulting corner was dealt with aerially by Ainge.
Jonathan Smith announced himself to the Kenilworth Road faithful on his home début with a number of crunching tackles as he looked to help his side get back into the game. His comfort in using either feet and commitment to winning every ball made him an instant favourite with the Town fans.
He was involved in Town's 15th-minute penalty appeal as his tackle worked the ball to O'Donnell who threaded a pass into the path of Andre Gray. Gray stepped over the ball and was clumsily brought down by Mark Arber. However the referee deemed he played the ball despite Gray's protests that he was impeded before the ball was won.
There was a real sighting of goal for the Hatters when Lawless broke into the Dartford half before Smith pitched it out wide to Rendell who lofted a pass into the path of Gray who had broken the offside trap. Gray then brought the ball down and volleyed goalwards only to find the torso of Marcus Bettinelli, the Dartford keeper, and away from danger.
Chances began to work their way into the game for the Hatters as O'Donnell was given half a chance by the Darts defence after they failed to clear Lawless' driven cross. A short throw-in found its way back to Lawless on the right hand side as he looked to pick out O'Donnell in the middle. It was headed away only as far as Arnaud Mendy who scuffed a shot goal-wards which flicked up for O'Donnell to volley on his weaker side. His effort lacked the golden touch however as it squirmed wide.
A long pass from Ainge towards Fleetwood resulted in the Town's top scorer flicking it on and turning on the afterburners to race away from the defence and latch onto it himself. He looked up to pick out Rendell in the middle but a desperate lunge from Tom Champion deflected the ball out for a corner.
As the corner tally again began to build the Hatters pressed for an equaliser. Howells’ in-swinging delivery evaded the grasp of Bettinelli, who until this point had been dominant in his six-yard-box, and it dropped to the feet of Ainge. Ainge's first touch pinged away from him and Dartford slammed it away.
With this continued attack, holes began to open and Dartford set about exploiting those frailties as Hayes again drove into the Hatters half. With options to his left and his right and Dartford bodies overpowering defensive cover he decided to go alone which allowed Henry to get the block in and his effort looped into the air to Hatters’ relief.
With five minutes to play the half time notes were ripped up as Dartford doubled their lead. With Town pressing and dominating the stats it was the Darts who had the better of the one stat that counted. A teasing free-kick was nodded on by Jacob Erskine toward the back post where Bonner was on hand to tap home from close range.
After three minutes were indicated by the fourth official the Hatters set about trying to somehow find way back into game. However it could have been made even harder for the Hatters were it not for Lawless’ tracking run and header to prevent a third. Hayes again was a threat down the right hand side as he again found space to pick out a cross toward the far post which was nodded off the head of Harris as he drove into the area.
The game restarted with a bang as O'Donnell and the referee got acquainted as he was shown a yellow card for a lunging tackle. The following free-kick was watched all the way into Brill's arms.
Smith came within inches of putting the Hatters back on the tails of Dartford after Fleetwood's trickery worked an opening for him to pull the ball across the six-yard-box. Smith flung himself at it but it crawled agonisingly past his outstretched boot and out for a corner.
Hayes continued to be a thorn in the side of Howells down the left hand side as he twisted and turned into the box before drilling it across the face of the Town goal. It skipped past Ainge and Henry before an Eriskine missed it as it bobbled away.
Buckle introduced Walker just before the hour against Braintree here last month brought an instant response and it nearly paid off again when Howells deep corner was met by Rendell. Rendell's header was tipped onto the bar and over to the frustration of the Hatters front man and the Town supporters.
Smith's commitment and dedication to the cause brought about a booking for the Town's newest recruit. Smith challenged in the middle of the park before it worked its way wide to the full-back which Smith scampered towards. He then lunged into the challenge in a desperate attempt to deflect the ball but caught Richard Rose late and instantly knew his fate.
Another Town booking as the frustration began to boil over. Fleetwood scythed down Hayes as the Darts looked to counter. The referee was again surrounded by incensed Dartford bodies who pleaded for Fleetwood to be disciplined. The man in the middle Mr Evans duly obliged and added Fleetwood to his notebook.
The second penalty appeal of the afternoon was turned down by the referee came when the Darts surged towards goal again. Noble, the architect of many of the visitors chances, slipped the ball wide into the path of Rose whose cross slammed against Lawless from point-blank range. The Darts fans behind the goal protested rigorously for a spot kick but their appeals were waved away.
Substitute Walker looked to make his mark on the game as the clock ticked down on another frustrating afternoon for the home side. Walker dropped his shoulder, cut inside onto his right foot and hammered goal-wards. His effort unfortunately lacked accuracy as it sailed over.
The chance of the game fell to Gray with just over 10 minutes still to play. Rendell spotted the run of Gray who made a bee-line into the area and reversed the pass into his path. The ball got stuck under the forwards feet and he had to swivel and dig out a shot from underneath his feet which blazed over from six-yards.
Seconds later a another golden opportunity fell to Gray. Good work by Smith in the middle allowed Walker to drill across the face of the goal. Gray's eyes lit up, but under a last-ditch challenge from Arber, his effort again failed to trouble the keeper from inside the goalmouth.
Another outstanding save ensured all three points returned to Kent as Gray again couldn't break the deadlock. Smith's searching ball gave Fleetwood a lost cause to chase which he ensured was kept in bounds and forced a Town throw-in. The resulting throw found Lawless whose deep delivery found Gray who headed goal-wards. The ball took a knock off of a flailing Dartford body and required cat-like reflexes from Bettinelli as he savoured his well earned clean sheet.