The Hatters fell to their second defeat in three league games at the hands of Dartford at Princes Park. On a cold night both sides fought mainly for possession in the middle as chances were few and far between. The game was decided by a 72nd-minute strike from Ryan Hayes.
As the Town look to put an end to their three game baron run Paul Buckle elected an explosive line up which included former Dart David Martin. Jon Shaw and Andre Gray continue their partnership up top with Arnaud Mendy in for the suspended Alex Lawless in the only change from the 1-1 draw with Forest Green.
Early showing was from the hosts however with Tom Bonner heading over with just seven minutes on the clock. Richard Rose drew the foul from Martin and gave Ryan Hayes the opportunity test the Town back line. His in-swinging delivery teased Tyler off his line with Bonner nipping in front to head over.
A second test quickly followed with Janos Kovacs last ditch tackle stealing the ball from the toes of Danny Harris who haired into the six yard area looking to latch onto Adam Green's early cross.
The Darts continued to press for the opener and nearly found their rewards through captain Elliot Badbrook. A heavy collision in the middle between Mendy and Mark Arber saw the ball ricochet into the path of Collier who galloped away from Kovacs. Holding the ball up and waiting for reinforcements, Collier picked out the run of Badbrook on the edge and slipped it into his path. His low drive was slammed clear by Henry.
Almost immediately, buoyed by their attacking efforts the Darts again pushed into the final third. A lapse in concentration from McNulty's as cue pass fell to the feet of Noble who played in Collier to shoot first time. Tyler was down early to make the save, grasping onto the grounded ball.
The Hatters had their first sighting at goal briefly before the 20 minute mark as Gray attacked the back-line. Picking up the ball deep in the Darts half Gray bounded towards goal menacingly before unleashing a fierce drive at goal which cannoned back off the upright.
Finally chances began to flourish for the Hatters as Gray and Shaw linked up again to almost devastating effect. A long searching clearance from McNulty found the head of Gray who knocked the ball down to the feet of strike partner Shaw wide on the right. Shaw then skipped past his marker and launched a deep cross, evading the goalkeeper and dropping inches past the far post.
End to end football at Princes Park as Dartford responded with an effort of their own. Mendy's stumble in the middle of midfield allowed Noble to gobble up possession and stride into the Hatters half. The midfielder then picked out Harris wide left who instantly cut the ball back to meet the run of Green. The full back surged onto the pass and looked to slide the ball into the corner but Tyler, again was down early to palm it away from danger.
As the fourth official held up the board to indicate just one added minute Neilson took the initiative to drive at the defence and create an opportunity. Picking the ball up after a clever round the corner pass from Smith, Neilson turned and drove into the Darts area and as he looked to pull a left footed effort off at goal the ball was clipped away from his feet. That passage was not over however as Martin turned the ball back into the area towards Gray who flicked the ball back to Nielson who swivelled and volleyed goal wards. As it looked like the Hatters would take the half-time interval a goal to the good Arber cleared from off the line to seal a goalless first period.
The second half began at a very high tempo with the Hatters taking command. Nielson again causing problems as his attempted through ball to Gray dropped back to his feet allowing him to ride two flailing challenges and shoot goal wards. His goal bound effort cannoned back off of a Dartford body and to the feet of Mendy who shifted the play wide to Martin first time before being thrust out of play. The resulting corner, aimed for Shaw was headed away as the centre forward challenged.
Continued pressure from the visitors as they raised their involvement from the first half. Gray again found himself in possession on the edge of the area after clever work from Howells and back heeled the return pass into his path. Howells was in a straight race with keeper Bettinelli who slammed to the floor and gripped the ball away from the toes of the fullback.
The first change for the Hatters to mark the hour milestone as Shaw's departed for Scott Rendell in a straight swap at the point of the Hatters attacking threat.
The change nearly wreaked its rewards instantly as Henry and Neilson combined well to swing a deep cross into the area. Martin lurked far post and nodded back across an empty net with Rendell millimetres from prodding into an empty net.
That proved to be the last piece of action for former Dart Martin who exchanged handshakes with JJ O'Donnell who replaced him down the left flank.
Again the substitute didn't take long to introduce himself as the combative Smith retained possession in midfield before the ball worked it sway to Neilson on the right. Driving past his marker Nielson again whipped in a teasing cross with O'Donnell peeling off his man and powering goal wards. Rendell was snooping around the goalmouth so Bettinelli had to cling onto it and did to ease Dartford's worries.
The deadlock was broken by a magnificent goal from Dartford's Ryan Hayes. The Hatters had allowed very few sightings at goal in the second period but when Hayes received the ball on the far touchline he had only one thing in his mind. Cutting inside Hayes whipped his shot into the top corner to give Dartford a 72nd-minute lead.
The response was swift from the Hatters with Rendell heavily involved. Winning the ball back from the Dartford back line his low cross evaded everyone leaving Gray to chase the lost cause. Retrieving the ball in the far corner he shifted the ball back to Howells who swung in an early cross looking for Rendell. Dropping off to the far post Rendell looped his header back across the face and as the Town fans watched with baited breath, saw the ball drop over the top of the crossbar.
A late appeal for a handball waved away by the referee as Gray's flick on seemed to connect with the outstretched arm of Arber but the officials adamantly waved away the appeals of the Hatters players, bench and supporters to the disbelief of Gray and his team mates.