Birthday boy Cameron McGeehan hit a late winner as the Town ended a run of seven straight defeats with a hard-fought win at relegated-threatened Tranmere.
The midfielder celebrated his 20th birthday by helping the Hatters to three important points when following up in the 81st minute after striker Mark Cullen had seen his penalty saved by home goalkeeper Peter Brezovan – the Town’s first penalty in six months.
But against a Tranmere side themselves low on confidence, and at the wrong end of League 2, the Town had goalkeeper Elliot Justham to thank for making a fantastic late save to ensure the Town held on to keep them in the hunt for a Play-Off place with five games to go.
After Good Friday’s 3-2 defeat to Exeter, Town boss John Still made three changes to the side for the trip to Prenton Park with McGeehan, Scott Griffiths and Ryan Hall given starts. Lewis Kinsella, Luke Guttridge and Alex Lawless were the men to miss out – the latter two were on the bench, however.
Tranmere, only relegated from League 1 last term, were in real danger and began – and would end – the game in the relegation places. But the home support almost had a goal to celebrate in the fourth minute. Captain James Jennings’ sliderule pass sent Jennison Myrie-Williamson through on goal. However the home forward’s shot from six yards was kept out well by Justham.
And, if the truth be told, that was the nearest either side came to finding the target in a first 45 minutes that the Hatters just about shaded.
The Town were comfortable in possession and restricting Rovers attacks, but the Hatters were playing some patient passing football and on 16 minutes Paul Benson’s glancing header from Cullen’s deep cross was turned away by home stopper Brezovan.
Benson was inches away from getting a toe to Luke Wilkinson’s long ball forward on 19 minutes but seven minutes later the Town breathed a huge sigh of relief when Myrie-Williams mis-kicked his shot at the backpost after Rob Taylor had slalomed down the left flank to deliver the cross.
As the half wore on the more frustrated the home crowd got, and the Town weren’t far away again from creating a chance on 37 minutes when Jonathan Smith’s dangerous low cross was millimetres away from being turned in by Hall, sliding in on the stretch.
The home side upped the ante slightly before half-time but captain Stephen McNulty dealt with their only real threat – an angled drive at goal by George Green.
And that was the first half.
The second was only a minute old when home midfielder Max Power went down on the edge of the Tranmere box and after five minutes down receiving treatment he was taken off on a stretcher.
After the stoppage Justham comfortably held onto Green’s curling free-kick on 56 minutes and the Hatters keeper was easily able to hold onto another free-kick from an almost identical position on 65 minutes from Myrie-Williams.
Two minutes later Hall tried his luck from a direct free-kick at the other end with the Town winger not far away with his effort that struck the stanchion.
However, after home substitute Marc Laird saw his shot from distance fly wide, the Hatters then took the lead – and won their first penalty in 192 days – dating back to the 2-0 win over Oxford in September.
Benson did well to flick-on Griffiths’ long ball forward, allowing Cullen to race in goal. The striker nodded the ball past one defender before he was sent tumbling by Brezonvan. However, Cullen’s effort was parried by the keeper, diving to his right – but luck was on the Town’s side as McGeehan was quickest to the loose ball and he tucked home his second goal since rejoining the Hatters from six yards.
Ahead with 10 minutes to go the Town now needed to stay focused to see out the victory and the Hatters were indebted to a marvellous save from Justham with five minutes to go when the keeper flung himself at Laird’s goalbound header from 12 yards after Kayode Odejayi had teed up the chance.
Tranmere continued to rally and sub Iain Hume nodded a near-post corner narrowly over the crossbar before Justham stopped another effort from distance from Green in the third of seven additional minutes.
As time ticked down the Hatters defended stoutly and could have even snatched a second on the break in the final moments but it mattered not – the Town held on to record their sixth away win of the season to get their Play-Off bid back on track and, most crucially, earn their first three points in eight games.
Next up? The small matter of league leaders Burton Albion on Saturday at Kenilworth Road. BE THERE!
TOWN: Justham; Harriman, Griffiths, McNulty, Wilkinson; Smith (sub Howells 90), Doyle, McGeehan; Hall (sub Lawless 74), Cullen, Benson (sub Stockley 82).
Subs: Lacey, Guttridge, Robinson, King.
Attendance: 6,035, including a superb 526 backing the Hatters.