Hatters go down for first time in ten, but still qualify
LUTON TOWN 1
Hutchinson (OG) 57
Smith 81, 87
Att: 2,251 (370 away)
The Hatters were on the losing side for the first time in ten matches tonight as Millwall came back from a goal down to win 3-1 in the third and final game in Southern Group H of the Checkatrade Trophy.
Nathan Jones’ side had already secured qualification to the knockout stages of the revamped competition, as had the visitors from Sky Bet League One after recording identical 2-1 and 2-0 victories over Gillingham and West Brom’s Under-21s.
The Town looked good value for another victory when Lions skipper Shaun Hutchinson turned Craig Mackail-Smith’s low cross into his own net in the 57th minute.
But the visitors from south Londoners turned things around in the closing stages, with substitute Fred Onyedinma netting a 71st-minute equaliser and debutant Harry Smith bagging a double to ensure it’s them who will have home advantage in the second round draw due to take place on Thursday, with the Town set for an away tie.
Jones had named Mackail-Smith in his starting line-up for the first time since the striker broke his leg at Plymouth last March, having made a 20-minute first-team comeback at Exeter three days earlier.
The Town boss selected a more experienced team than in the opening two games in the competition, with Jonathan Smith captaining the side, Stephen O’Donnell at right-back, Jake Gray and Josh McQuoid in midfield and Isaac Vassell partnering Mackail-Smith in attack.
The Hatters started brightly and could have been in front with just four minutes on the clock when a flowing move from their own penalty area, involving Tyreeq Bakinson, Gray, Smith and McQuoid, ended with the latter heading a Jack Senior cross just wide from six yards out.
Senior swung another dangerous cross a few moments later, this time from a free-kick, that just evaded Akin Famewo’s head at the far post, but the teenage left-back was proving a good outlet on both flanks.
It was just after Lions striker Smith had warmed Craig King’s hands in the Town goal that Senior delivered his next inviting cross, on 20 minutes, but Vassell couldn’t keep his towering header down.
The Hatters were moving the ball around with confidence and McQuoid was at the heart of most of the early advances, spraying a lovely ball out to O’Donnell on the right, but his cross was just too high for Smith.
Vassell had another sight of goal in the 27th minute, but this time his left foot shot from the edge of the area was straight at Lions keeper Tom King.
The visiting keeper’s namesake in the Town goal, Craig, was called into action again just before the half-hour when Aiden O’Brien hit a stinging volley on the turn, but the Hatters stopper turned it over the bar.
McQuoid’s work-rate was proving first class, and the striker – playing at the tip of the midfield diamond – sprinted back 50 yards to track the visitors’ rampaging midfielder Calum Butcher and make a crucial sliding challenge.
Vassell latched onto a pass from Gray to send another good effort goalwards in the 36th minute, but Lions keeper King turned it around the post with his foot.
Then the ex-Truro City striker got the crowd going with a surging turn and run down the right wing, then a thunderous challenge on left-back Joe Martin after regaining his footing after seemingly being shoved to the ground in full flow.
Dominant in the air throughout, Vassell then flicked a long kick from King onto Mackail-Smith, who laid the ball back for Smith, whose curling shot from 20 yards was always rising.
The Hatters came out on the front foot in the second half too, and Gray led the first promising break five minutes in with a burst through the middle, but Millwall keeper King was quickly off his line to smother Vassell’s shot.
Millwall responded immediately with David Worrall heading O’Brien’s 52nd-minute cross over the bar, before debutant Smith shot straight at King and O’Brien chipped over the bar into his team’s travelling fans in the Oak Road End.
The Town had the lead on 57 minutes, and Mackail-Smith was instrumental in gaining the advantage, spinning his man to the right of the penalty area and fizzing a low shot across the six-yard box that Lions skipper Hutchinson turned past his own keeper.
Just after the hour mark Millwall had a great chance to level when Onyedinma, seconds after coming on as a substitute, raced clear of Famewo, but Hatters keeper King saved well with his feet.
More quick interplay in midfield resulted in Bakinson spreading the play to O’Donnell on the right, but Smith couldn’t generate enough power in his header from the Scot’s cross to really trouble King.
Millwall drew level in the 71st minute when Gregg Wylde raced clear on the left and crossed low for Onyedinma to slot home under pressure from the sliding Senior.
They came close to taking the lead six minutes later when left-back Joe Martin, son of former England defender Alvin, arrowed a 30-yard shot that King tipped over, seconds before Onyedinma was presented with a great chance to net his second, King again denying him at full stretch.
King was being kept busy in the Town goal and he repelled a stinging effort from Butcher with nine minutes to go, but Smith was on hand to tap in the rebound and grab a debut goal to put the south Londoners in front.
Jones threw on Freddie Hinds, a scorer for the Under-18s in their FA Youth Cup win at Barnet last week, in an attempt to drag the Hatters back into it.
But within seconds, the Lions had extended their lead when Smith claimed his second of the night, heading in a right-wing free-kick from Worrall.
Hinds latched onto a pass from Hatters skipper Smith at the other end and sent in a low cross-shot that Tony Craig turned into his own keeper’s grateful arms.
Jones handed debut to an academy graduate for the 11th time in his ten-month tenure as Hatters boss, with youth teamer Arthur Read coming on in injury-time for Gray, but it would be Millwall who progress as group toppers, with the Hatters through as runners-up.
TOWN: C King, O’Donnell, Musonda, Famewo, Senior, Bakinson (Hinds 86), Gray (Read 90), J Smith, McQuoid, Mackail-Smith (Banton 66), Vassell. Subs: Snelus, Cotter, Bean, Gooch (GK)
MILLWALL: T King, Cummings, Martin, Hutchinson (Craig 84), Worrall (Twardek 89), Wylde, Butcher, O’Brien (Onyedinma 61), H Smith, Rooney, Farrell. Subs not used: Archer (GK), Williams, Pavey, Brown.