Gray 2, Benson 31
The Hatters splashed their way to a seventh straight victory in all competitions to extend their lead at the top of the table to four points with a 2-1 win in sodden conditions against Barnet.
Both sets of players battled through 90 minutes on a drenched afternoon at Kenilworth Road and goals from strikers Andre Gray and Paul Benson proved to be the difference.
The pitch passed an inspection 15 minutes before the game but, with the Town leading 2-0, the match looked as though it had run its course on the hour when referee Kevin Johnson called over the captains of both teams for a discussion. However, the match went on, and Barnet pulled a goal back from Jake Hyde to set-up a nervy final 20 minutes.
But, roared on by 7,500 Luton voices, the Town dug in, slipping and sliding around to secure yet another victory – their 11th straight victory on home soil in all competitions. The final whistle was greeted with one of the loudest cheers of the season.
It all started with the Hatters showing one change to the side that beat Kidderminster on Saturday with Jake Howells replacing Pelly Ruddock, who was recalled from his loan spell by West Ham on Monday.
In the opening stages it was quite clear that the pitch wasn’t in the best of shape as a back-pass from Ronnie Henry held up in the first minute allowing Dani Lopez the chance to test Mark Tyler with a shot from inside the penalty.
But the Town then raced up the other end and took the lead just 90 seconds in. Luke Guttridge’s fine hooked pass ran nicely for Gray and, holding off the attention of his marker, he drilled a low shot past Graham Stack, the Barnet keeper. It was his 14th goal of the campaign.
Ahead they may have been but the Hatters’ biggest threat was falling from the skies as the rain continued to fall. Groans echoed around the old ground as passes from both players held up on the wet turf but the Town, to their credit, continued to play the better football. Matt Robinson drew a fine save from Stack on 12 minutes with a left-foot shot from the edge of the box.
Stack, also the Barnet captain, went down with an injury on 16 minutes and continued, but only for seven more minutes before young goalkeeper Nick Jupp replaced the stopper.
The Town, though, should have been 2-0 up by that point when Gray nodded a left-wing cross from Howells wide of the target on 21 minutes.
However, the Hatters did double their lead shortly after the half-hour mark. Howells was the architect, swinging over a left-wing cross. Gray helped the ball onto strike-partner Benson and he finished well after taking a touch from six yards for his 11th of the goal of the season.
Two goals up the Town had barely given the Bees a sight of goal, but on 35 minutes the visitors’ leading goalscorer Keanu Marsh-Brown fired a low shot across the face of goal and the Hatters could breathe easy again.
Back come the Town as half-time approached. Henry’s right-wing raid a minute before the break set-up Benson but his header dropped wide of the mark.
After a 15-minute break where the youth team players helped groundsmen Richard Bird and Richard Osborne fork holes into the sodden turf, the conditions hadn’t improved but the Town plugged away and almost scored a third goal five minutes after the restart when Guttridge’s low shot on the turn was expertly tipped away by Jupp, getting down well to his left.
The Town were coping the better of the two sides as the rain teemed down and Gray almost conjured a second for Benson on 58 minutes when flashing a right-wing cross into the box.
Two minutes later, though, it looked as if it was going to be all over as referee Johnson called the two captains over. After a two-minute discussion, the referee signalled play on, much to the delight of the home crowd, urged along by Henry’s fist-pump. Up went the noise.
Barnet knew they needed to throw caution to the wind and the Town did well on 65 minutes to clear their lines as the Bees pressed into the Hatters’ penalty area.
However, the Town weren’t so lucky on 71 minutes when the visitors did pull a goal back. Marsh-Brown raced down the right and delivered an inch-perfect cross for Hyde who tapped home past Tyler in the six-yard box.
At 2-1 both sides were giving their all, and the Hatters almost restored their two-goal cushion with 11 minutes left when Benson was close to meeting Howells’ dangerous cross from the left flank.
It really was all hands on deck as time ticked down but the Town were using the ball well and keeping their concentration. Indeed it was almost 3-1 with two minutes left when a sliced clearance from Jupp bounced straight to Howells but his first-time header was gratefully caught by the young keeper.
Three minutes of added time followed. The Town did the sensible thing: kept the ball and kept it simple. And that was that. The roar of the crowd at the end could have been heard for miles.
TOWN: Tyler; Henry, Griffiths, McNulty, Davis; Lawless, Robinson, Howells, Guttridge; Benson, Gray.
Subs not used: Justham, Whalley, Wall, Cullen, Mawson.
Attendance: 7,543, including 292 from Barnet.