Town can't find a way through against the Red Devils
The Hatters twice hit the woodwork in a dominant performance against Crawley – but fell to an eighth home defeat of the season at a stunned Kenilworth Road.
Chasing a fifth straight victory, the Town saw efforts from Jonathan Smith and Paul Benson strike the post and bar respectively.
But ultimately it was Matt Harrold’s 12th-minute effort that handed the visitors a third straight win on Bedfordshire soil.
Despite enjoying over 60 per cent possession and forcing 14 corners to Crawley’s one, the Town were left frustrated once more at home.
However, despite the final result there was plenty to be heartened about following a performance which Nathan Jones said afterwards was unlike anything he had seen at League 2 level.
It all began with the manager keeping faith with the same side that beat Leyton Orient last weekend – a result which had hoisted the Town to within three points of the top seven.
The Hatters started well and were a lick of paint away from taking the lead in the ninth minute when Smith’s arrowed shot from 20 yards pinged back off the Crawley post.
Life following the Hatters is never straight forward, however. And, with the Town on the top and the crowd encouraged, typically it was Crawley who went in front on 12 minutes. The Hatters failed to clear their lines following a deep set-piece and Harrold turned and struck a fine low finish into the bottom corner. Goalkeeper Jonathan Mitchell, making his home debut, picked the ball out of the net. It was his first touch of the ball of the game.
Against the run of play and behind, the Town rallied. Patient football resulted in Craig Mackail-Smith flicking a first-time shot over the bar on 17 minutes following Stephen O’Donnell cross, and a minute later O’Donnell’s low cross was cleared by the Crawley defence. As the Hatters continued to probe, Paddy McCourt’s shot was blocked.
Crawley’s threat was minimal, but the Hatters needed a superb last-ditch tackle from skipper Scott Cuthbert to deny Liam McAlinden on the half-hour with the visiting midfielder through on goal and with only Mitchell to beat.
The Red Devils then created a flurry of decent chances themselves. Gwoin Edwards’ shot bounced half-a-yard wide before right-back Lanre Oyebanjo hit an effort wide.
But, as the break approached, the Town upped the ante in search of a leveller. O’Donnell’s low shot was saved by the legs of Crawley goalkeeper Paul Jones on 34 minutes and five minutes before half-time Jack Marriott’s shot zoomed just wide.
As the first half came to a close, Cameron McGeehan blasted a shot over the bar from 25 yards on 42 minutes and Olly Lee did the same from further out bang on the break.
Urged on by the Hatters fans as they headed down the tunnel, the players responded in the same vein in the second period.
But as the Town continued to be patient and probe, Crawley’s back-line stood tall. Jones introduced Joe Pigott for Mackail-Smith 10 minutes after the restart and the striker thought he should have had a penalty just before the hour when going down in the box – only to see his appeals waved away.
McGeehan went close again with another well-hit drive from distance before Mitchell held onto his first real save of the game when holding a rasper from McAlinden.
Still the Town pressed. Crawley continued to shut the door. Jones brought on Danny Green for Smith on 66 minutes.
With 20 minutes left on the clock the door was almost open for an equaliser. McCourt’s superb pass found Dan Potts and his shot was turned away superbly by the flying Jones in the Crawley goal. With the ball still not clear, O’Donnell’s follow-up was deflected high but goalwards – only for the visitors’ Oyebanjo to hack the ball off the line. It just wouldn’t go in.
Pigott’s header wide on 72 minutes followed before Benson was introduced for Marriott with 15 minutes left. And within a minute of coming on the veteran forward saw a header from Green’s right-wing cross come back off the crossbar.
As time agonisingly ticked down against the Town, Potts put a peach of a pass on a plate for someone, anyone, too tuck away with 10 minutes left, only for the ball to elude Pigott. It was turning into one of those days.
Cross after cross into the Crawley box was either cleared or couldn’t quite fall right for the Town and, before you knew, it four minutes of injury time were being shown.
In the first minute of the four the Hatters came close for one last time: Lee strained his neck muscles to meet a Green cross to send a header goalwards. Up went the crowd, up went the ball – only for it to loop millimetres over the crossbar.
And that, was that. And football, as they say, is a funny old game.
The team were applauded off the pitch – an indication of how highly the Hatters faithful thought of the performance.
One thing’s for sure, following the Town is never dull.
See you at Plymouth.
Town: Mitchell; O'Donnell, Potts, Cuthbert, Sheehan; Lee, McGeehan, Smith (sub Green), McCourt; Mackail-Smith (sub Pigott), Marriott (sub Benson).
Hatters subs not used: Justham, Ruddock, Okuonghae, Banton.
Attendance: 8,264, including 197 from Crawley.