Steve McNulty was sent-off and Shaun Whalley missed a penalty as the Town went down to Southport on the opening day of the Skrill Premier season.
The Sandgrounders’ winner came in the first half courtesy of a deflected free-kick from Jamie Milligan but the Hatters – reduced to 10 men just before the hour following McNulty’s red card – missed the chance to take a point when Whalley saw his penalty saved by home goalkeeper Danny Hurst.
The dramatic, if disappointing start to the season all began with injuries ruling out Ronnie Henry and Jon Shaw that meant Town boss John Still picked a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Jonathan Smith at right-back and Jake Howells playing behind Mark Cullen in attack. Cullen was one of three players given their debuts for the Hatters, with ex-Sandgrounder Whalley and midfielder Luke Guttridge also given their bows. Centre-half Alex Lacey was given his first league start.
Sporting their new all white away kit, the Hatters were slow to get going and, after the game was stopped when a flare was thrown onto the pitch, Southport came close in the eighth minute when Chris Almond’s left-wing cross was headed wide by Danny Hattersley.
On 11 minutes Whalley got his first chance to run at his former employers having been picked out by a wonderful Guttridge pass, but the winger failed to pick out Cullen in the penalty area with his high cross.
Goalmouth action was at a real premium but on 22 minutes the hosts took the lead in fortunate circumstances. Guttridge conceded a free-kick 20 yards from his own goal and Milligan’s resultant set-piece clipped the Town wall and left Mark Tyler flat-footed and unable to prevent Southport from going 1-0 up.
Buoyed by that goal, Southport should have doubled their lead four minutes later when Almond’s low cross found Hattersley but his first-time side-foot shot lacked the power and Tyler was grateful to make a comfortable save.
The Hatters were struggling to create chances in the final third but on 34 minutes a dangerous left-wing cross from Dave Martin was headed goalwards by Cullen. The striker’s effort lacked the pace and direction but the ball fell to Whalley on the right and his rasping cross-cum-shot stung the fingers of Danny Hurst, the home goalkeeper.
That was as good as it got for the Town in the first half, with Cullen flicking a header at the near post from a Martin corner over the bar before Milligan twice went close with free-kicks from a similar position to his goal as the half came to a close.
Still reacted to his side’s indifferent first half display by making a change at the break, introducing last season’s leading goalscorer Andre Gray for Howells.
It was Southport though, that almost went 2-0 ahead 10 minutes into the second half when Tyler had to dive at full stretch to keep out Matty Challoner’s low effort from just inside the penalty area.
However, just as the Town had begun to force the hosts back with a period of possession, they were rocked by the dismissal of captain McNulty, who was given his marching orders shortly before the hour.
Lacey took over the captain’s armband and Anthony Charles replaced Martin as the Town reshuffled now a goal and a man down.
Tyler prevented Southport taking further advantage with a routine save following Paul Rutherford’s mazy run and shot before the goalkeeper pounced on the loose ball just after the hour mark after the Town failed to clear their lines at a corner.
The Hatters were struggling to find a way through the home defence but they spurned a huge chance to level with 15 minutes left on the clock. Gray was upended in the penalty area by Luke George but Whalley saw his resultant spot-kick well-saved by Hurst, diving away to his left. The keeper stopped Smith’s follow-up before the hosts managed to clear another effort from Whalley off of the line and away to safety.
Southport missed a number of chances as time ticked down as the Town pushed for a late leveller. A combination of good goalkeeping from Tyler and poor finishing gave the Hatters a chance in five minutes of added time but having failed to test Hurst once more it was the hosts celebrating an opening day victory.
Southport: Hurst, Challoner, Flynn, George, Fitzpatrick, Milligan, Brown, Chalmers, Rutherford, Almond, Hattersley.
Subs: Stevenson, Ledsham, Tames, Osawe, Akrigg.
Town: Tyler; Smith, McNulty, Lacey, Griffiths; Martin (sub Charles 59), Taiwo (sub Parry 72), Guttridge, Whalley; Howells (sub Gray 46); Cullen.
Subs not used: Justham, Robinson.
Attendance: 2,210, including 839 from Luton.