The table-topping Hatters suffered a rare blip at Port Vale this afternoon to end 2017 with a defeat - but they remain four points clear in Sky Bet League Two.
The Valiants ran out 4-0 winners, courtesy of a Johnny Mullins own goal, a Tom Pope brace and one from Ben Whitfield, as the Town’s club record 13-game unbeaten away run came to an end with a first defeat in 13 matches in all competitions.
But with second-placed Notts County losing at Swindon, Nathan Jones’ side’s lead at the summit was maintained, although the advantage over fourth place has been cut to nine points with Exeter scoring an injury-time winner against Barnet.
Jones freshened up his starting XI at Vale Park with four changes from the 5-0 Boxing Day win at Swindon, as midfielders Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu and Lawson D’Ath, with forwards Elliot Lee and Harry Cornick – both who scored from the bench at the County Ground – also starting.
The hosts had the first opening in the third minute as Nathan Smith blazed over the bar from a knock-down in the box, but the Hatters were soon looking to profit at the other end, Elliot Lee engineering space for himself on the edge of the box, only to see his shot blocked by Gavin Gunning.
Vale were looking a threat in the air, and from another Pope knock-down from a high ball into the Town penalty area, Cristian Montano took aim at goal – a brave block by captain Alan Sheehan keeping the Vale winger’s effort out.
The Hatters’ defence were well on their guard, and it was from a lightning quick counter-attack – after clearing a Vale free-kick – that Mpanzu burst to the left-byline and cut back a cross that home centre-half Smith blasted against Hylton, with the ball drifting just wide.
Cornick led the next charge down the right, with Elliot Lee slipping a low ball into the box that found its way to Hylton, but neither he nor Mpanzu could get a shot away as Vale scrambled clear.
The hosts were soon in front, when Whitfield reached the left byline and cut a dangerous ball back into the six-yard box, where an attempted clearance by Potts hit Mullins and went into the back of the net.
It was the first goal the Town had conceded in three matches, and the first time they’d not scored first in 13, but they looked to get straight back on terms when Cornick’s cross from the right drifted over Hylton to Mpanzu, whose shot from ten yards was deflected behind for a corner.
Vale called Stech into action on 33 minutes when Montano let fly from the edge of the box, then Pope headed another deep cross onto the roof of the net a minute later.
The hosts were having plenty of joy from pumping balls into Pope, and it was the former Bury striker who went close again in the 42nd minute, meeting a cross from Montano with a header that went inches wide of Stech’s right post.
It was a let-off for the Town, who went in at the break fortunate to be just one goal down without really threatening at the other end.
At the break Jones dropped Rea back into a back three in an attempt to deal with Pope’s aerial threat, with James Justin and Potts pushed forward to make a midfield four with Mpanzu and D’Ath.
The Town responded well to the new shape with Potts venturing up the left in the 50th minute after D’Ath spread the ball wide, then crossing for Hylton to lay it off for Justin to sting Vale keeper Ryan Boot’s palms from 15 yards
Montano fired over for the hosts in the 51st minute, then Jones made a double substitution, replacing D’Ath and Elliot Lee with Luke Berry and James Collins.
It was Vale who were soon on the attack again, however, a 25-yard Whitfield free-kick deflected just wide in the 58th minute before he set up Pope to double the advantage on the hour after a rapid break down the left.
The Town had the ball in the back of the net in the 68th minute, seconds after Andrew Shinnie had come on for Cornick, but an assistant’s flag for offside ruled Hylton’s effort out after Mullins had met a cross from the right.
Within two minutes Vale had added a third, with Pope pinching Rea’s short backpass to Stech and squaring for Whitfield to roll into an empty net.
Rea looked to make amends at the other end in the 75th minute when he fired a low shot from 25 yards that had Boot scrambling across his line to ensure it went wide of his left post.
The afternoon got worse for the Town in the 83rd minute when Pope scrambled in a fourth, despite Rea’s best attempts to get back and block with the linesman signalling the ball had crossed the line.
With five minutes to go, Sheehan curled a free-kick towards the far post that just eluded both Hylton and Potts as they looked to claw a goal back – but after a memorable recent run, it was an afternoon to forget for the Hatters as Vale deservedly took the points.
For Jones and his squad, they get the perfect chance to bounce quickly back into form when third-placed Lincoln visit Kenilworth Road for Monday’s New Year’s Day clash.
TOWN: Stech, Justin, Mullins, Sheehan ©, Potts, Rea, Mpanzu, D’Ath (Berry 54), Cornick (Shinnie 67), Hylton, E Lee (Collins 54). Subs: Cook, Gambin, Famewo, Shea (GK)
PORT VALE: Boot, Davis, Kay, Harness, Pugh, Pope (Barnett 87), Montano, Smith, Whitfield (Worrall 76), Tonge, Gunning (Anderson 57). Subs: Lainton (GK), Denton, Forrester, Turner
Goals: Mullins (OG) 23, Pope 60, 83, Whitfield 70
REFEREE: Tom Nield
ATT: 5,523 (1,175 Hatters)