Hatters virtually assured of play-off spot after Notts win
LUTON TOWN 2
NOTTS COUNTY 1
Att: 7,719 (382 away)
First-half goals from Ollie Palmer and Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu gave Nathan Jones’ Hatters a 2-1 win over Notts County this afternoon – and virtually assured their place in the Sky Bet League Two play-offs.
They had to come from behind after conceding an early opener to Elliott Hewitt, but the Town made it five games unbeaten to stay fourth in the table, six points above Mansfield, Wycombe and Carlisle, who occupy the three positions immediately outside the top seven.
Crucially though, Jones’ boys’ goal difference of plus-22 means the chasing trio would have to win both their remaining games, with the Town losing theirs, while making up a minimum 17-goal swing – 18 for Wycombe and 23 for Carlisle – to take our place in the end-of-season shoot-out.
Jones made one change from the 1-1 Bank Holiday draw at Mansfield, with striker Palmer coming in for his second start in a Luton shirt up front alongside Danny Hylton, after the pair linked up well in the closing stages at Field Mill.
After a fairly even start, it was the visitors who took an early lead when Hewitt latched onto a loose ball on the edge of the penalty area and fired past Hatters keeper Stuart Moore.
The Town were almost on level terms by the ninth minute when Mpanzu surged into the County area, eventually feeding Dan Potts who drilled his left-footed effort into the side-netting by the foot of the near post.
We did have parity by the 16th minute when Palmer was quick to pounce on the bouncing ball after Hylton’s 30-yard curler had come back off the crossbar, the on-loan striker burying his header past grounded County keeper Adam Collin from 12 yards.
The Magpies were looking a threat going forward and Jorge Grant header another Campbell cross over the bar, before Olly Lee tried his luck from fully 25 yards, but his 24th-minute effort was narrowly off target.
Hylton was soon into referee David Webb’s notebook – his 14th yellow card of the campaign – after a mid-air collision with Collin. Within minutes, County winger Jorge Grant would join him for a trip on Potts.
Town were trying to prise the visiting defence open again and Hylton thought he’d done the trick by latching onto James Justin’s chipped pass down the right, but by the time the striker cut the ball back for Mpanzu to volley at goal, an offside flag had been raised.
The latter pair combined again as the Hatters launched a rapid counter-attack in the 39th minute, this time Mpanzu tricking his way to the right byline and standing an inviting cross up to the far post, but Hylton’s header was comfortably claimed by Collin.
Then, two minutes into injury-time at the end of the first half, the Town had the lead.
Lawson D’Ath made his way across the edge of the area and rolled the ball to Mpanzu, whose first-time shot from inside the D made its way past Collin’s outstretched arm and into the bottom corner for his second goal of the season.
It wasn’t the cleanest of strikes, but it ended up in its intended destination and the midfielder performed a celebratory dance in front of G Block as the Hatters went in at the break 2-1 to the good.
They came out after the break in the same mode as they’d finished the first half, Hylton slipping a low effort just past the post within seconds of the restart before Palmer dug out a cross from the right that Potts headed goalwards, Collin saving well.
Then the County stopper presented a clearance straight to Palmer’s feet just to the left of the centre circle, but the big forward’s attempted chip over the stranded keeper flew well wide of its target.
Jake Gray was brought on for the injured D’Ath just after the hour, but it was Town keeper Stuart Moore who was the next to be called into action, the on-loan Reading man pulling off a terrific tip over the bar as Campbell arced a 20-yard shot towards the top corner, before the same County player had another go from range, this time a deflection taking it over.
Hylton could have given the Hatters a two-goal cushion in the 69th minute when Mpanzu set him up once again, but Collin was quickly off his line to half block the striker’s shot, relying on his defence to do the rest as Palmer prepared to pounce in the six-yard box.
Palmer left the pitch to a standing ovation in the 71st minute, Isaac Vassell coming on in his place – and the substitute was part of the next major talking point, County defender Haydn Hollis shown a yellow card for blocking the striker’s run as he looked to burst clear onto another fine pass from Mpanzu.
Alan Sheehan looked to get on the scoresheet against his old club from the free-kick, drilling his 30-yarder low through the wall, but Collin was comfortably behind it with just under a quarter-of-an-hour to go.
Moore was at his best again with six minutes left, flying to his right to push a shot from County sub Mark Yeates around the post, before a Town game changer – Gray – sprinted with the ball from his own penalty area to the opposition’s, but his cross drifted behind.
Then, on 85 minutes, Hylton bundled his way into the box but dragged his left-foot shot just wide of Collin’s far post, and then, a minute into time added on, the top scorer’s afternoon was ended early with a second yellow for a foul on Richard Duffy the signal for an early shower.
The Hatters managed to see the game through without their talisman, the outstanding Scott Cuthbert, Sheehan, Glen Rea and impressive wing-backs Justin and Potts standing strong.
And behind them, young keeper Moore produced several catches, punches – and a crucial save when Tahvon Campbell looked to get on the end of a knock-down in the six-yard box as Sheehan shepherded the ball through – to play a crucial role in relieving any pressure.
Now it’s onto Accrington and Morecambe, safe in the knowledge that, barring a miracle, the Hatters will be competing in the play-offs with their highest league finish for nine years virtually guaranteed.
TOWN: Moore, Justin, Rea, Cuthbert (c), Sheehan, Potts, Lee, Mpanzu, D'Ath (Gray 61), Hylton, Palmer (Vassell 72). Subs: O'Donnell, Smith, Marriott, Gambin, King (GK)
Reds: Hylton (two yellows)
NOTTS: Collin, Dickinson, Duffy (c), Hollis, Ameobi, Milsom (Yeates 81), Grant, Hewitt, Clackstone, A Campbell (T Campbell 90), Stead (Forte 72). Subs: Smith, Thompson, Searson-Smithard (GK), Howes
Yellows: Grant, Dickinson, Hollis, A Campbell