Another shut-out for the Town, but no Cup re-run
EXETER CITY 0
LUTON TOWN 0
Att: 3,823 (634 Hatters)
The Hatters recorded a fourth clean sheet in five league games to strengthen the best defensive record in the division at St James Park this afternoon, but couldn’t repeat their potent performance of three weeks ago when they left Exeter with a comfortable FA Cup victory.
For only the second time this season, the Town were involved in a goalless draw – following the stalemate at Notts County a month ago – with Olly Lee and Alan Sheehan coming closest to breaking through the hosts’ defence in the second half.
They had to be grateful at the other end for the help of the woodwork and some fine defending, and goalkeeping from Christian Walton, to keep the Grecians out as Paul Tisdale’s side created some dangerous openings.
Town boss Nathan Jones made two changes to the side that lost at home to Portsmouth on Tuesday night. Captain Scott Cuthbert returned to the starting XI after missing last Saturday’s match at Morecambe through illness, and being on the bench in midweek.
And Jordan Cook – who came on after an hour against Pompey after missing the trip to Lancashire through suspension – was in from the start, with Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu and Alex Gilliead dropping to the bench.
The Hatters enjoyed plenty of possession in the opening exchanges, with Lee playing in a more advanced role than normal at the tip of the midfield diamond behind top scorer Danny Hylton and Isaac Vassell, and Glen Rea pushed up from centre-half to the holding role in the engine room.
But the hosts looked dangerous on the break and they had the first attempt in the 18th minute when Jake Taylor whipped in a right wing cross and David Wheeler sent a glancing header goalward, but it was comfortably held by Walton.
The Town’s first effort came in the 21st minute, but Cameron McGeehan – making his 100th appearance in a Hatters shirt – couldn’t find the net when Sheehan rolled a short free-kick his way after Glen Rea had been fouled 25 yards out.
Just after the half-hour, Vassell attempted to inject some pace into the Town attack by going on a driving run into the Grecians’ area that almost got Hylton and McGeehan in when it was halted by last-ditch tackles.
Then McGeehan – after a long spell of patient possession around the halfway with himself, Rea and Cuthbert trading passes among themselves – latched onto a loose ball just outside the area, but his left-foot drive was deflected wide.
Jones’ side were starting to make advances, asserting their authority on the game as the half progressed – but it was Exeter who would go closest a minute before the break, when Pierce Sweeney crashed a right-foot volley just wide after Mullins had headed a deep cross clear.
In the final seconds, Hylton – who had been booed continuously by the locals with his two-goal FA Cup show fresh in their minds – got his head on a Sheehan free-kick, but couldn’t keep his effort down and the sides went in goalless at the interval.
Seven minutes after the break, City had the best chance of the game so far when Ollie Watkins slipped a ball through the heart of the Town defence for Reuben Reid to race on to. After checking back on the sliding Cuthbert, Reid pulled the trigger but found his shot blocked by a combination of James Justin and Walton.
Seconds later, Justin was fouled midway inside the City half and Sheehan once again delivered an inviting cross that Hylton met with his head, but couldn’t direct his attempt on target.
On 56 minutes came the Hatters’ best opening of the match. It started with some quick feet from Walton in his own box, Mullins played it down the line and Hylton laid it off on halfway for Lee, who set Vassell away on the left wing.
The ex-Truro City man, starting his third successive league game for the Hatters, drove to the byline and cut the ball back for Lee, who had continued his run from deep, by Exeter keeper Christy Pym saved well at his near post.
Pym was called into action again in the 63rd minute when Sheehan curled a free-kick over the wall, and it was destined for the top corner until the home stopper clawed it around the post for a corner.
This was much better from the Hatters, with Mpanzu introduced from the bench in place of Lee, but at the other end, Walton had to be alert to push a Lloyd James free-kick away in the 69th minute as it zipped across his six-yard box.
Then two minutes later, Watkins went closer than anyone to breaking the deadlock when his 20-yard shot skimmed the top of the Town crossbar.
Sheehan was fouled on the left on 75 minutes, but the Irishman picked himself up to whip in another dangerous delivery that Mullins headed back across the face of goal, but McGeehan couldn’t quite rise to meet inside the six-yard box and Pym managed to clear.
Reid soon went close again for the Grecians, but Walton got down low to save his snap shot as Justin closed him down 15 yards out.
Jones introduced Gilliead and Marriott in the search for a winner, but it wouldn’t come and in the end, most people left believing a point apiece was fair as the Hatters stayed fifth in the Sky Bet League Two table.
TOWN: Walton, Justin, Mullins, Cuthbert (c), Sheehan, Rea, McGeehan, Cook (Gilliead 72), Lee (Mpanzu 61), Hylton, Vassell (Marriott 83). Subs: O’Donnell, Smith, Mackail-Smith, King (GK)
Yellow: Cuthbert, Rea, Mpanzu
EXETER: Pym, Woodman, James, Watkins, Wheeler (Simpson 87), Moore-Taylor, McAlinden (Oakley 64), Taylor, Sweeney, Reid, Brown. Subs: Harley, Grant, Ampadu, Stacey, Olejnik (GK)