Hatters fans were set up for a Berry merry Christmas as Nathan Jones’ men moved four points clear at the top of Sky Bet League Two with a 2-0 win over Grimsby – with Luke Berry netting a first-half beauty to send them on their way.
The 25-year-old’s sixth goal of the season put the Town 1-0 up before half-time, a wonderful curling effort from 25 yards reminiscent of his hat-trick clinching strike in the 7-0 October win over Stevenage.
James Collins, making his first start since suffering a hamstring injury in the 2-2 draw at Cheltenham six weeks ago, then made sure of the win on the hour with a bullet header as the Town opened up a ten-point gap over fourth place, keeping an 11th league clean sheet of the season in the process.
Jones made two changes to his line-up, one enforced at right-back, where James Justin came in for Jack Stacey, who was serving the first match of a three-game suspension for his straight red card at Forest Green last Saturday.
The other change from last week’s 2-0 win was up front, where James Collins – who appeared as a substitute at the New Lawn – came in for Elliot Lee, making his first start since suffering a hamstring injury in the 2-2 draw at Cheltenham six weeks ago.
The Town came quickly out of the blocks, Olly Lee dancing his way into the box with just a minute on the clock and sending a right-footed shot on goal, but visiting centre-half Danny Collins got back to block in the six-yard box.
Jones’ men were moving the ball with pace and precision, especially Dan Potts and Luke Berry as they linked up to great effect down the left, but didn’t create any other clear-cut chances early on, with Glen Rea and Danny Hylton both failing to get a shot away after Johnny Mullins headed an Alan Sheehan corner back across goal.
Grimsby threatened in the 21st minute when Luke Summerfield drove inches wide of Marek Stech’s right post from range, then Sheehan threw himself in the way of Zak Mills’ 20-yard shot.
Town were still keeping possession well and a great spell of football in the 27th minute, with Shinnie and Potts trading passes on the left, saw the ball moved between Mullins, Sheehan and Rea and ended with Olly Lee firing a 20-yard rocket at goal that Grimsby left-back Ben Davies did well to get his head in the way.
From the resulting corner, Mullins headed Sheehan’s delivery back across goal once more, but Collins’ left-foot volley was blocked by Mitch Rose.
Just before the half-hour Potts met another deep Sheehan delivery with a looping header that was set for the top corner, only for McKeown to get there and punch it over.
Justin sent in a 34th-minute cross from the right that Collins volleyed high over the bar, but the striker would play a creator’s role as the breakthrough came in the 40th minute, following a wonderful bit of football that started with Marek Stech at the back, with Rea and Olly Lee playing through the thirds to Collins.
Berry was the executor, picking up a terrific pass from the former Crawley man 35 yards from goal and driving forward, before bending a beauty into the far corner as Grimsby keeper McKeown stood rooted to the spot.
The Town were intent on getting a second, Hylton bursting down the right within a minute and cutting the ball back for Olly Lee, but the midfielder’s right-footed shot was always on the rise.
Fully deserving of their half-time lead, the Hatters came out for the second half looking to double it, Hylton snaking his way across the edge of the box after cutting in from the left, but seeing his low shot flash just past the post.
Grimsby reminded the Town defence they had to be on their guard in the 52nd minute as striker Jamille Matt, the former Blackpool man, received a low ball into his feet and shot on the turn from an acute angle, hitting the outside of Stech’s post.
Mullins and Sheehan put their bodies on the line three minutes later to block a Sam Jones effort and a powerful cross-shot from Diallang Jaiyesimi, and by the hour mark, the Town had a two-goal advantage.
Shinnie pressed the Grimsby defence as they tried to get out of their left-back area and drew a foul. Sheehan made his way forward and arced a beautiful inswinging delivery towards the centre of goal where Collins met it with a bullet header into the bottom corner from six yards.
The Town were enjoying themselves now, and Rea – dominant in midfield – sprayed a superb 40-yard ball out to Potts on the left, with the full-back playing a one-two with Collins before racing into the area and putting an inviting cross that went begging in the six-yard box.
Jones made his first substitution on 73 minutes, replacing Shinnie – who had been booked in the first half for a foul on Dembele – with Harry Cornick, as he looked to stretch the Grimsby defence further.
Olly Lee was enjoying more and more of the ball and the midfielder’s quick feet helped create a chance for Justin on 82 minutes, but the right-back couldn’t get a shot off and gave a foul away.
Jones brought the younger Lee brother, Elliot, on for Collins in the 83rd minute, but it was Olly who had the Hatters’ next shot, turned away by McKeown’s legs at his near post, before Cornick turned sharply on the edge of the area and fired a low drive narrowly wide.
Elliot Lee might have increased the lead in injury-time, but McKeown got down to his right to palm it away and deny the Hatters sub a seventh goal of the season.
It mattered not. The Town had made it seven league games unbeaten, 11 in all competitions with nine wins among them, to strengthen their lead at the top before heading to Swindon on Boxing Day. Berry Christmas to all Hatters!
TOWN: Stech, Justin, Mullins, Sheehan ©, Potts, Rea, O Lee, Berry, Shinnie (Cornick 73), Collins (E Lee 83), Hylton (D’Ath 90+2). Subs: Mpanzu, Gambin, Famewo, Shea (GK)
Goals: Berry 40, Collins 61
GRIMSBY: McKeown, Davies, Clarke ©, Collins, Rose, Jones, Mills, Summerfield, Jaiyesimi (Hooper 66), Dembele (Woolford 83), Matt (Vernon 75). Subs: Killip (GK), Osborne, Berrett, Dixon
Yellows: Clarke, McKeown
REFEREE: Chris Sarginson
ATTENDANCE: 9,102 (446 away)