Hatters end 2016 buzzing with win over Bees
LUTON TOWN 3
Att: 8,262 (494)
The Hatters ended 2016 on a real high with a fine win over Barnet at Kenilworth Road this afternoon – ensuring they moved back up to fifth spot in Sky Bet League Two.
The Town have only dropped below that position once this season before Friday night, when Wycombe’s win at Cheltenham knocked Nathan Jones’ side down to sixth spot.
But a brilliant free-kick from Alan Sheehan, Cameron McGeehan’s 11th goal of the season and a stunning strike from Alex Gilliead ensured the Town head to Portsmouth on Monday just a point behind the fourth-placed Hampshire club.
Jones made four changes to his starting line-up from Boxing Day’s 1-0 home defeat to Colchester, with left-sided defenders Sheehan and Dan Potts returning to the team and Jonathan Smith coming into midfield for only his second league start of the season.
The other change saw Jordan Cook return to the side from the off for the first time since the FA Cup win over Solihull Moors on 3rd December, with James Justin, Olly Lee, Gilliead and Jack Marriott dropping to the bench.
Cook was playing up front with Danny Hylton, and the ex-Walsall man had the Town’s first chance inside the opening two minutes.
Referee Mark Haywood had shown Barnet centre-half Bira Dembele a yellow card for a foul on McGeehan with just 80 seconds on the clock, and when the visitors didn’t clear Sheehan’s free-kick properly, Cook fired in a shot from the edge of the area that was deflected inches wide.
A minute later, Hylton played his strike partner into the box and Cook’s low left-footer forced Jamie Stephens in the Bees’ goal into a fingertip save, as the Town earned a succession of corners in a bright, enterprising opening spell.
At the other end, Scott Cuthbert produced a timely challenge on John Akinde as the league’s top scorer was about to pull the trigger from 18 yards, then Johnny Mullins climbed highest at the far post as the Barnet striker looked to attack Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s floated cross.
The pace of the game levelled out and after a bit of a lull, it was the north Londoners who had the next attempt on goal, although Jack Taylor’s 20-yard volley had the pace taken out of it by being hammered into the turf, and Christian Walton was comfortably behind it.
Potts’ return was short lived, a knock to the knee sustained ten minutes earlier forcing him off just before the half-hour, with Gilliead coming on in his place and the formation rejigged to the familiar back four and midfield diamond.
The Town had the lead just after the half-hour though, and it was another piece of set-piece magic from Sheehan that brought it about. Smith, who was pressing with urgency in midfield, was fouled 25 yards out and the Irishman stepped up to curl a beauty around the wall and into Stephens’ top corner.
Barnet were level in controversial circumstances seven minutes later when Dembele turned Taylor’s shot home from close range with the Hatters defence appealing vociferously for offside, Walton so much that he was shown yellow by referee Haywood.
Cuthbert’s excellent defending and sliding clearance up the right touchline led to a chance for Hylton in the 43rd minute, but Stephens proved equal to the Town leading scorer’s cross-shot, then McGeehan’s follow-up effort was easier for the keeper with a deflection looping the ball tamely into the air.
Hylton would have another two chances before the half-time whistle, firstly three minutes into four due to be added on, when he volleyed just over from 16 yards after good work from Smith.
Then, from the Town’s seventh corner of the half in the final seconds, McGeehan had a header cleared off the line, Hylton’s follow-up was blocked – also on the line – and McGeehan’s final effort looped up and over the bar in a real goalmouth scramble to close an eventful opening 45.
It took just 12 seconds of the second half for the Town to register a shot at goal, Smith running onto McGeehan’s lay-off but his right-footed effort was always curling away from the far post.
And it was the same duo who combined to restore the lead in the 49th minute, when Barnet failed to clear a Sheehan free-kick fully, Smith headed the ball back into the area and McGeehan volleyed right-footed into the top corner from 12 yards.
Cook had the ball in the Barnet net once more in the 55th minute, after some lovely link play between Hylton and Gilliead put him in the clear, but on this occasion the assistant’s flag was raised as the ball nestled in the bottom corner of the Kenilworth Road End net.
It mattered little, however, as it was three just seconds later when Cook teed up Gilliead for a wonderful angled strike from the left edge of the area that left Stephens with no chance, and put the Town 3-1 up.
Barnet almost reduced the deficit on the hour when Walton came to punch a Luke Gambin cross, but Michael Nelson beat him to it. Thankfully for the Town keeper, the ball was inches over the bar.
Sheehan went off to a standing ovation on 63 minutes, with Justin coming on to replace him at left-back, but his defensive colleague Cuthbert was producing yet another colossal performance at the heart of the Hatters’ back four, clearly relishing the physical battle with Akinde.
Hylton, with the latest in a catalogue of driving runs, won a corner in the 73rd minute and McGeehan rose highest to meet Gilliead’s delivery, but couldn’t keep his header down.
Barnet brought long-throw expert Sam Muggleton on to replace Gambin, but the left sided midfielder’s first involvement was to take a free-kick 20 yards from the Hatters’ goal, although it flew comfortably over Walton’s bar.
McGeehan was sniffing for a second for himself, and Town’s fourth, but Stephens got his body in line with the midfielder’s 25-yarder in the 81st minute, shortly before Walton had to get down low to his left to turn Curtis Weston’s long-range effort round the post.
Then the England Under-21 stopper flew across his line to keep out Taylor’s 90th-minute volley just before the fourth official signalled five minutes to be added – a period the Town saw out comfortably to secure maximum points at Kenilworth Road for only the second time in seven matches, and sent another 8,000-plus crowd off to celebrate the New Year in style!
TOWN: Walton, O'Donnell, Mullins, Cuthbert (c), Sheehan (Justin 63), Potts (Gilliead 28), Rea, Smith, McGeehan (Lee 87), Cook, Hylton. Subs not used: Gray, Marriott, McQuoid, King (GK)
Yellows: McGeehan, Walton, Rea, Gilliead
BARNET: Stephens, Vilhete, Dembele, Nelson (c), Johnson, Weston, J Taylor, Campbell-Ryce (Akpa Akpro 53), Akinde, Gambin (Muggleton 73), Nicholls (Kyei 68). Subs not used: Vickers, H Taylor, Sesay, Watson
Yellows: Dembele, Muggleton