Hatters hold to come out on top in five-goal thriller
Drury 19, Wilkinson 31, Smith 45
Hunt 67, Simpson 86
The Town survived a second half onslaught from Cambridge United to record a ninth home league victory of the season.
First half goals from Andy Drury, Luke Wilkinson and Jonathan Smith had put the Hatters well in control at half-time.
But the visitors, who knocked the Town out of the FA Cup earlier this month, dominated the second half and almost came back to equalise in a frantic finale.
With 23 minutes left substitute Johnny Hunt steered home to make it 3-1 and with four minutes remaining fellow sub Robbie Simpson’s strike set-up a grandstand finish.
But the Town held on to move to within four points of top spot in League 2, with a game in hand.
The Hatters began unchanged for the third match running, but it was Cambridge that started the better and Mark Tyler needed to be at his agile best on 10 minutes when tipping former Hatters loan star Cameron McGeehan’s low drive around the post. Unusually the referee signalled for a goalkick.
Two minutes later, though, United came even closer to breaking the deadlock when Tom Elliott nodded a headed against the Hatters’ crossbar following Ryan Donaldson’s left-wing corner.
But after those two early scares, the Town went on the attack and soon after Jake Howells came close to setting up Shaun Whalley in the 16th minute, three minutes later a packed Kenilworth Road had a goal to celebrate. Howells was the architect: his fierce shot from the edge of the box was parried by United goalkeeper Chris Dunn and Drury was on hand to coolly slot home a first-time finish. It was the midfielder’s second goal in three matches.
With the Town’s tails up it wasn’t long before it was 2-0 when Wilkinson doubled the lead on 31 minutes. The defender began the move which led to Howells winning a corner down the left, and from Drury’s dangerous inswinging corner, Wilkinson rose above everyone in the box to nod home his fourth goal of the season.
Wilkinson’s joy was short-lived, however, as four minutes before the break he was withdrawn after feeling a slight hamstring strain and on came Fraser Franks in his place.
But before the referee signalled for half-time there was another goal to celebrate as the Town went 3-0 up. Scott Griffiths’ shot on the edge of the box was blocked but the ball fell kindly at the feet of Jonathan Smith and he smashed home a fierce shot that whizzed past Dunn.
At half-time with the Town three goals to the good, the Hatters unveiled new signing Ryan Hall to Kenilworth Road crowd, but after the break the Town were second best as the visitors’ upped the ante with a nothing-to-lose mentality.
Richard Money sent on Simpson and Hunt at the start of the second period, and United came close to pulling a goal back on 55 minutes when Hunt’s pass across goal eluded everyone in the penalty area.
Back came the Town, though - Jayden Stockley belted a shot well-hit shot on the half-volley inches wide of the target as the Hatters looked to kill Cambridge off completely, and then Whalley weaved his magic down the right on the hour only to see a left-foot shot rise over the crossbar.
But United’s pressure was unrelenting and after denied Donaldson’s deflected drive was saved by Tyler, they pulled a goal back on 67 minutes when McGeehan was found alone down the left and his square pass teed up Hunt to expertly guide a first-time shot into the top corner.
Moments later a mad scramble in the Town penalty area caused havoc as the visitors sensed a real opportunity to get something from the game.
As a result, John Still introduced Mark Cullen and Alex Lawless in a change of tact to try and prevent a United comeback.
But the Town failed to muster a worthwhile chance and Tyler’s blushes were spared on 77 minutes when he misjudged a long ball forward and Simpson almost guided a toe-poke home from the byeline.
If Hatters followers thought it was squeaky bum-time as the clock ticked down, the nerves became even more frayed with four minutes left when Simpson did find the target to get Cambridge to within one goal with a left-foot finish inside the six-yard box.
As three added minutes were shown by the fourth officials, Cambridge gave it one final go and hearts were in Hatters’ mouths when McGeehan raced through – only for Tyler to get there first and smothered the ball.
And that was it. The Town saw it out and celebrated their first home win since 20th December to make it seven games unbeaten in League 2.
Next stop. Oxford away. See you there.
Town: Tyler; Harriman, Griffiths (sub Cullen 73), McNulty, Wilkinson (sub Franks 41); Doyle, Smith, Drury; Howells, Whalley (sub Lawless 70), Stockley. Subs not used: Guttridge, Robinson, Wall, Justham.
Attendance: 10,054, including 939 from Cambridge – the second highest gate of the season.