A mistake from goalkeeper Elliot Justham denied the Town from what could have been a vital point in their quest for the Play-Offs as they went down 1-0 at promotion-chasing Southend.
There seemed little danger on when Michael Timlin’s goalbound shot bounced at Justham’s feet but the ball squirmed through the keeper’s legs to gift the home side victory.
It was tough on the Hatters after such a valiant performance against in-form opponents, who had been reduced to 10 men midway through the second half, but the Town will need plenty of goals next week and hope Shrewsbury see off Plymouth to stand a chance of miraculously gatecrashing the Play-Offs on the final day.
It all started with the Town making one change to the side that beat Hartlepool last weekend with midfielder Nathan Doyle replacing Shaun Whalley, who dropped to the bench.
Against a Southend side unbeaten in their last seven – all without conceding – the Hatters had a great chance inside two minutes. The game was only 65 seconds old when Cameron McGeehan eked the ball into the path of Elliot Lee 12 yards out but the on-loan striker hammered a shot just wide of the post.
Southend, who came into the game having won their last six and with a great chance of winning automatic promotion, responded by pushing the Town back in their own half without seriously testing Justham.
McGeehan, who had made an early impression for the Town playing on the right flank but drifting into a central position, picked up an arm injury and was substituted for Whalley on 20 minutes.
However as the half wore on the Shrimpers upped the ante and the home side came close to opening the scoring on 27 minutes when Timlin’s raking pass from the right found Barry Corr but the Blues striker could only nod straight at Justham from 12 yards.
Three minutes later Justham needed to be alert to turn away a dangerous low effort from Jake Cassidy from inside the six yard box, with the Town stopper doing well to dive to his left to prevent the shot from creeping into the bottom corner.
But as the home side’s frustration in front of goal continued, the Town began to up the ante themselves in a bid to breach the miserly home defence. On 35 minutes Whalley did well to link-up with Mark Cullen down the right but after running into the box and cutting the ball back, Jake Howells was unable to reach the ball in time with the goal at his mercy.
Lee, who spent literally a day on loan at Southend earlier in the season before injuring himself in his first training session, was found in the box by Whalley’s clever reverse ball in a dangerous position before the Shrimpers cleared.
Defensively the Town were looking solid but a mis-placed pass from Jonathan Smith in first half stoppage time almost gifted David Worrall with a chance but the Blues midfielder could only shoot wide.
Southend began the second half in the ascendancy, winning a series of corners, and the Town goal lived a charmed life as firstly Cassidy and then Corr then spurned chances following dangerous crosses from the left flank.
The Hatters, in comparison, were struggling to create many chances themselves, relying on scraps on the break – the best the Town could come up was a left-wing raid from Howells that almost found Cullen.
But it was from the Southend left that the Town were struggling to cope with the home side’s threat, but wave after wave of home attacks were well defended by the Hatters.
The Town though were digging in against the Shrimpers’ frontline and then were given a chance on 65 minutes when the hosts were reduced to 10 men. Whalley sprinted clear of the Southend defence but was sent tumbling by Ben Coker and referee Williamson brandished the red card.
With a man advantage all of a sudden the pressure shift swung in the Town’s direction. Almost immediately after the red card the Hatters thought they should have had a penalty when a Howells cross was deflected behind for a corner with the Town appealing for handball.
And as the Hatters continued to push the hosts back, half-chances fell their way from with Cullen and substitute – and ex-Shrimper – Luke Guttridge not far away from beating Dan Bentley, the home goalkeeper.
Justham then kept out a Corr piledriver on 74 minutes before Whalley conjured up a fine chance with 10 minutes to go, racing onto Guttridge’s excellent pass to drive goalwards, cut inside and have a left-foot shot parried by Bentley.
But with the Hatters at this stage looking the more likely side to break the deadlock, disaster struck. There seemed little worry when Timlin lined up a shot from the edge of the box. But to the Town’s horror, Justham failed to gather and the loose ball and it squirmed horribly underneath the stopper and trickled over the line.
It was a bitter, bitter pill to swallow and tough on Justham but as time ticked down the Town tried desperately to find a precious point with Plymouth in front against Tranmere.
Alex Wall was brought on for Scott Griffiths, moments after the left-back had forced Bentley into action, but despite five additional minutes the home side held on to celebrate an important victory and consign the Town, surely, to League 2 football next term.
There is still hope – but it is faint. The Town will need to beat Stevenage at Kenilworth Road next Saturday and hope Shrewsbury beat Plymouth...only an eight-goal swing will see the Hatters in the top seven. Is it possible? Never say never…See you next week.
Town: Justham; Harriman, Griffiths (sub Wall 83), McNulty, Wilkinson; Smith, Doyle, McGeehan (sub Whalley 20), Howells; Lee (sub Guttridge 65), Cullen. Subs not used: Tyler, Lacey, Hall, Kinsella.
Attendance: 10,730, including a magnificent 2,247 backing the Hatters.