Lee returns to haunt old club with Hatters winner
LUTON TOWN 1
Att: 3,313 (1,687 Hatters)
On Grand National Day, Olly Lee scored the second-half winner at his old club Barnet as the Hatters jumped another hurdle in the race for promotion from Sky Bet League Two.
With the final furlongs of the season being run, Nathan Jones’ side are looking to put a winning surge together and they moved up to fourth place in the table courtesy of a second successive 1-0 victory, and Stevenage’s 4-0 defeat at Colchester, on a sun-drenched afternoon at The Hive.
Apart from the one enforced change from last Saturday’s win over Blackpool, with goalkeeper Matt Macey having been recalled by parent club Arsenal in midweek, Jones otherwise stuck with the same starting XI that beat the Tangerines.
Stuart Moore got the nod between the Town sticks, with Craig King – recalled from his loan spell with Vanarama National League side Southport – on the bench, and the Reading loanee pulled off a string of fine saves to deny Bees top scorer John Akinde in a man-of-the-match display.
Barnet started brightly, two left-wing crosses from Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Elliott Johnson causing consternation in the Town six-yard box, the first one headed well clear by Alan Sheehan and the second drifting through a crowd of players and safely past the far post.
But the Town strung together their first attacking move of note with seven minutes on the clock, James Justin switching a beautiful ball out to opposite full-back Stephen O’Donnell, who laid it inside to Lawson D’Ath, whose low cross-shot was cleared for a corner by the home defence.
Isaac Vassell was soon trying his luck, but was off balance as he shot, before Sheehan let fly from 25 yards on 13 minutes, with more power but the same end result as the ball rattled into the advertising board to the right of the Barnet goal.
D’Ath was seeing plenty of the ball and probing for openings, and it was from a foul on the midfielder by Ruben Bover that Sheehan whipped in a free-kick for Glen Rea to attack, but the centre-half couldn’t direct his header on target.
In the 23rd minute Vassell was presented with another opportunity as home keeper Jamie Stephens mis-hit a clearance straight to the striker’s feet, but the Barnet number one did well to recover and save Vassell’s left-footed effort.
Bees striker Akinde reminded the Town defence why he had scored 24 goals this season on 26 minutes, but Moore stood up well and comfortably saved the ex-Crawley man’s low shot.
After a mid-half drinks break in the early April sun, the Town continued to enjoy a majority of possession without creating a clear-cut chance, and it was Barnet who thought they’d got in next with Bover picking out Mauro Vilhete for a header on goal, although an offside flag was raised.
Vilhete soon fashioned space for another go, this time screwing a 37th-minute shot well wide from the edge of the box, then centre-half Charlie Clough glanced a near-post header over the bar from a left-wing corner with 40 gone.
A minute into time added on at the end of the half came Barnet’s best chance, as Akinde got goal side of Town captain Scott Cuthbert when latching onto Ricardo Santos’ long clearance, but Moore produced a terrific save with his feet to deflect the ball up and over the bar, before confidently gathering another Clough header from the resulting corner.
Town started the second period on the front foot, Justin attempting a curler that was deflected just wide of the far post, before Lee - who was having another impressive game in the centre of midfield - fired just wide with a left-footed half-volley as Barnet struggled to clear his corner and O’Donnell’s long throw.
Sheehan looked to inject some urgency into the attack ten minutes after the break when he stepped up from the left side of defence to fire another 25 yarder that was blocked on the edge of the area.
At the other end, Moore made his best save just after the hour when he clawed away a header from Vilhete that was destined for the top corner, moments before Jones made a double substitution, bringing on former Barnet winger Luke Gambin and Ollie Palmer in place of O’Donnell and Vassell.
Bover, who had delivered the free-kick for Vilhete’s header, was living up to his name again as he sent a shot from range that flew inches over Moore’s crossbar, but within seconds the Town had the breakthrough.
Lee had tried to play a short ball to Palmer inside the area after good work by Danny Hylton, but when Harry Taylor looked to nick it from the Hatters’ sub, the ball rolled invitingly into the midfielder’s path and he side-footed it unerringly past Stephens’ outstretched right arm and into the bottom corner.
It was the ex-Bees man’s first goal of the season, and he was soon buried under a pile of team-mates and fans as he raced to the foot of the North Stand housing the 1,687 travelling Hatters.
On 71 minutes assistant referee Robert Massey-Ellis replaced Darren England, who had pulled up with an injury, in the middle with fourth official Steven Plane winging it onto the touchline with the flag.
The replacement ref had a comfortable opening few minutes as the Hatters took control of possession and looked to kill the game, Hylton eventually breaking free with ten minutes left to unleash a 30-yard shot that was well off target.
The Town needed a sliding goalline clearance from Rea with four minutes left after a ricochet presented substitute Fumnaya Shomotun with a shooting chance, seconds before Moore comfortably clutched an Akinde header.
The Barnet forward then sent another header wide as Jones prepared to make his third and final substitution, bringing Jonathan Smith on at the ground where he suffered a broken leg in the Conference-winning season to try to stiffen up the midfield.
The officials signalled five minutes of time to be added on and two minutes into that period Moore held a volley from Curtis Weston well, but he was having the kind of day when you’d expect nothing less, and the Town saw the game through with little concern.
Two successive wins and two successive clean sheets – the Town are on a roll heading into Easter and the visit of bottom club Leyton Orient on what every Hatter hopes will be a very Good Friday.
TOWN: Moore, O’Donnell (Gambin 62), Rea, Cuthbert ©, Sheehan, Justin, Lee, Mpanzu, D’Ath (Smith 89), Hylton, Vassell (Palmer 62). Subs: Cook, Marriott, Musonda, King (GK)
Yellows: Rea, Hylton
BARNET: Stephens, H Taylor, Santos, Clough, Johnson, Vilhete, Bover (Amaluzor 69), Weston ©, Campbell-Ryce, Shomotun (J Taylor 60), Akinde. Subs: McKenzie-Lyle, Nelson, Akinola, Coulson, Tutonda.
Yellows: H Taylor, Campbell-Ryce
REFEREE: Darren England