Old boy returns in a Boro shirt to help sink Town
LUTON TOWN 0
The Hatters slipped to a disappointing home defeat to promotion rivals Stevenage this afternoon as an old face returned to Kenilworth Road to deliver a crucial blow.
Stevenage moved above the Town in the play-off positions with a 2-0 victory that looked on from the second minute when Luke Wilkinson, who left to join Boro just over a year ago, powered in a header from the Hertfordshire side’s first corner.
Despite creating several opportunities that were saved by the visitors’ evergreen goalkeeper Chris Day, and seeing efforts from Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu and top scorer Danny Hylton – twice – cleared off the line, Nathan Jones’ men couldn’t find an equaliser.
Then, with five minutes to go, Boro forward Ben Kennedy settled the game with a stunning strike into the top corner to leave the Hatters in sixth position on 57 points, a point behind fourth-placed Stevenage – who have now won eight of their last nine unbeaten matches – and five points off Portsmouth in third.
Jones made one change from the side that won 4-0 at Yeovil last week with left-back Dan Potts, who made his return from injury as a second-half substitute at Huish Park, coming into the starting line-up for the first time since New Year’s Eve, with Jake Gray dropping to the bench.
The visitors made a dream start, however, when – from their first attack – Wilkinson climbed highest to meet Steven Schumacher’s left-wing corner and headed powerfully into the Town net.
Town attempted to make an immediate response, Isaac Vassell nodding Mpanzu’s cross down into the six-yard box, but Stevenage cleared the danger and were soon posing a threat again with Alan Sheehan blocking Jobi McAnuff’s shot from just inside the box.
The Town’s first clear opening came on ten minutes and it came from a deep Stephen O’Donnell cross, as Mpanzu headed back across goal and Jack King managed to clear from under his own crossbar.
Then, from the resulting corner, Rea retrieved possession by the right touchline and O’Donnell whopped in another great cross that just eluded the Town forwards.
Danny Hylton was next to have a go, O’Donnell and Mpanzu again linking well to tee the top scorer up, but his curling effort from the left angle of the penalty area was too high and wide.
It was an open game, and Boro left-back Connor Ogilvie flashed a left-foot volley just over in the 15th minute, shortly before the Town threw men forward once more, although ultimately Glen Rea’s volley from outside the box was dragged off target.
On 19 minutes Kennedy cut in from the visitors’ right and cracked a left-footer that was always rising, then – four minutes later – the Boro forward latched onto a miskicked clearance from Matt Macey and attempted to chip the on-loan Arsenal keeper, but again, his effort was too high.
Just before the half-hour the Town started to enjoy a good spell of possession and O’Donnell and Cook combined to set Rea up for another 20-yard shot, this time Wilkinson blocking well.
Then, after breaking from halfway Vassell found himself in the clear, but veteran Boro goalkeeper Day had read the danger and raced off his line to slide tackle to Town striker, his defenders getting back to complete the job as Cook looked to chip the stranded stopper.
Day had to be at his acrobatic best once more as Potts’ deflected 39th-minute shot had him back-pedalling to tip over, before Boro launched a lightning quick counter-attack that ended with Charlie Lee firing well wide after Rea had done brilliantly to track back and break up the initial move.
The game was getting more intriguing by the minute and the Hatters were presented with another chance as King tripped Hylton right on the right edge of the box – bang in Sheehan territory. Unfortunately for the Irishman, his trademark curling effort was inches wide of the near post on this occasion.
With three minutes of added time announced at the end of the first half, Macey had to get down low to his right to turn away a volley from McAnuff – and soon after the interval the big keeper was down sharply again to keep out another shot from Kennedy.
Jones had taken Potts off at half-time, bringing on Luke Gambin in midfield. Sheehan moved to left-back with Rea dropping into the heart of defence and Mpanzu into the holding role.
It took until the 57th minute for the Town to click into an attacking force again and it was from two set pieces that Hylton went close; first, a twice dummied free-kick along the ground from Cook found the striker, but Lee deflected his shot wide for a corner, which Hylton met with a firm header, only for Schumacher to head off the line.
In the 59th-minute it was déjà vu, only from the left-wing this time as Sheehan’s corner found the ex-Oxford man, whose header was going in until Schumacher stepped off the post to clear again.
Gambin was next to have a crack with the hour-mark passed, but was off target, then Vassell took a long ball forward on his chest and turned to run at the Boro defence, firing an angled drive that whistled narrowly past the far post.
Soon after Stevenage lost their captain, and former Hatters skipper, Ronnie Henry to injury, the same fate befell current Town leader Cuthbert, with James Justin brought on to replace Scot in the 70th minute.
Sheehan moved back to centre-half with the 19-year-old at left-back, and it was the teenager who was at the heart of the Town’s next opportunity, playing Hylton into the left-byline but the visiting defence managed to smuggle his low cross clear.
It was down the left that the next opportunity presented itself, with Smith and Justin combining well to give Vassell possession in a good area, but Schumacher once again proved a thorn in the Hatters’ side, taking the sting out of the Cornishman’s shot to allow Day to collect comfortably.
Soon after, on 78 minutes, Vassell dug out a great cross from by the left corner flag to pick out Ollie Palmer – who had come on for Cook – but Day made a terrific save to push the on-loan Leyton Orient man’s close range header away.
Vassell was causing mayhem, but Boro’s defence stood firm and when Justin miscontrolled a pass back to him on the halfway line by Smith, Godden was in the clear.
Credit to the substitute’s fellow full-back O’Donnell, however, who got back to halt the ex-Ebbsfleet striker’s run and the Scottish defender was effective at the other end of the pitch again moments later when his cross from the right found Hylton, whose volley flew just past the post.
Then, in the 85th minute, Stevenage struck the killer blow when the impressive Kennedy picked the ball up 25 yards from goal and cracked a terrific shot into the top corner past a flying Macey.
Town tried to respond when Gambin fired a low cross-shot that flew past Day, then in the first of five added minutes, Day made another great save to push Vassell’s header away before a double save denied Gambin and the ex-Truro striker again and, finally, Palmer as the clock ticked down.
Now it’s on to Carlisle on Tuesday night with another massive game against the side one place and one point above the Town in the table.
TOWN: Macey, O’Donnell, Cuthbert © (Justin 70), Sheehan, Potts (Gambin 46), Rea, Smith, Mpanzu, Cook (Palmer 75), Hylton, Vassell. Subs: Gray, Marriott, D’Ath, Moore (GK)
BORO: Day, King, Wilkinson, McAnuff (Cowans 90+3), Schumacher (Tonge 87), Pett, Kennedy, Ogilvie, Lee, Godden, Henry (c) (Gorman 65). Subs: Preston, Hinds, Ntlhe, Loft
Yellows: Pett, King, Kennedy, McAnuff
REFEREE: Brendan Malone