Slater hits Hatters with late knockout blow on Boxing Day
LUTON TOWN 0
COLCHESTER UNITED 1
Att: 9,164 (490 away)
The Hatters slipped to a disappointing Boxing Day defeat as Craig Slater struck an 83rd-minute knockout blow to send Colchester home with all three points from Kenilworth Road.
It was a devastating blow for manager Nathan Jones and a Town side who, following a stop-start first half, had the better chances after the interval and had looked the more likely to break the deadlock with Danny Hylton and Johnny Mullins spurning great opportunities.
But ultimately, the Hatters suffered what is only their second defeat in 14 league games as Colchester’s recent run of good form continued with a fourth win in five unbeaten matches taking them up to tenth, while the Hatters remain five points ahead of them in fifth.
Jones had named an unchanged starting line-up for only the second time this season, sticking with the same team that won 2-0 at Blackpool in the Town's last outing before Christmas.
Colchester had the first attempt on seven minutes when Christian Walton readjusted his feet to save a deflected shot from their captain Tom Lapslie, then Owen Garvan had him scampering across his line to ensure a 20-yard volley went wide.
Hylton had the Town’s first sight of goal in the 11th minute, when Stephen O’Donnell made good progress down the right and played the ball inside the area, but visiting keeper Sam Walker got down low to save the top scorer’s angled drive.
Hylton went into referee Gavin Ward’s notepad on 23 minutes after clashing with United centre-half Frankie Kent. The visitors’ defender George Elokobi was also booked for getting involved in the incident.
It was a half that hadn’t caught fire at all, but Walton almost presented Colchester with an opportunity, hitting his attempted pass out to Rea against Denny Johnstone as the U’s striker closed him down.
Luckily for the England Under-21 stopper, the ball rebounded safely into his hands – just as it did in the 29th minute when Johnstone swivelled on a loose ball in the six-yard box, but tamely hit it straight at Walton.
Marriott tried to inject some pace into the Town attack with a burst into the right side of the U’s box, then Cameron McGeehan’s quick feet created him some space to fire an effort in that Walker collected after a deflection took the sting out of the shot.
As the Town pressure mounted, Rea met Alex Gilliead’s right-wing corner to send a 36th-minute header goalward, although Walker plucked it from the air as Mullins looked to get his head on it, then – almost immediately – Walton had to be on his guard to deal with Garvan’s long ranger.
In time added on at the end of the first half, Gilliead floated a lovely ball into Hylton’s feet but Kent stuck to his task as the Town striker got his shot off, and the sides went in at the break goalless.
After starting the second half in the ascendancy, the Town’s best chance of the game arrived in the 52nd minute when skipper Scott Cuthbert headed Walker’s clearance inside his own half and set Hylton through on goal, after he outmuscled Kent on the edge of the U’s area. Unfortunately, the Town hitman’s stab towards goal lacked power and Walker gathered easily.
Walton then produced two saves to deny Garvan and Johnstone, before Gilliead curled a 55th-minute shot towards the top corner of the Colchester goal and Johnstone skipped past Rea, but shot over at the other end as the game finally burst into life.
Gilliead swung in a cracking free-kick towards the far post that Kurtis Guthrie did well to flick behind on the hour, and five minutes later O’Donnell fed Marriott, who turned sharply 20 yards from goal, but saw his left-footed shot deflected wide for a corner.
Olly Lee produced a timely block inside his own box to deny Slater in the 68th minute, then – after a delightful nutmeg took Hylton away from Garvan on the tpuchline in front of the Main Stand – Mullins flashed a right-footed effort over the U’s crossbar from eight yards out after Gilliead delivered another quality set piece.
Havin already brought Isaac Vassell into the attack for Marriott, Jones introduced Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu for Gilliead in the final ten minutes.
But, with 83 on the clock, Slater latched onto a half-cleared corner from the right and struck a crisp half-volley past a clutch of players into the bottom corner to give Colchester the lead.
The Hatters tried to respond immediately, with O’Donnell raiding down the right but unable to find his way past Walker at his near post.
The next chance came three minutes into injury-time when Hylton was presented with another opportunity to the right side of the box, but before he could get his shot away, left-back Ben Dickinson slid in to avert the danger.
With that opportunity went the Town’s last chance of salvaging something from the match, and the same outcome prevailed as on the previous occasion Jones had kept the same team this season, when a 2-0 win at Morecambe was followed by a home defeat to Portsmouth in late November.
We’ll be back at Kenilworth Road in five days’ time, however, to welcome Barnet for the final game of 2016 – and hopefully a more positive end to the calendar year.
TOWN: Walton, O'Donnell, Rea, Cuthbert (c), Mullins, Justin, Lee (Cook 87), McGeehan, Gilliead (Mpanzu 81), Hylton, Marriott (Vassell 66). Subs: Smith, Gray, Senior, Gooch (GK)
Yellows: Hylton, Justin
COLCHESTER: Walker, Brindley, Lapslie (c), Kent, Dickinson, Elokobi, Johnstone (Porter 81), Eastman, Garvan, Slater (Wright 88), Guthrie. Subs: Vincent-Young, Wynter, Doyley, Fosu, Barnes.
Yellows: Elokobi, Eastman