Review of the Town's season from Thursday's programme
This piece was written by programme editor, Stuart Hammonds, for the play-off semi-final edition of Talk Of The Town looking back over the Hatters' 2016-17 campaign...
The campaign kicked off with one of the longest trips in the bright August sunshine and produced one its best results, Danny Hylton – one of four new signings making his debut – Jack Marriott and Jonathan Smith netting in a 3-0 win over the previous season’s beaten play-off finalists.
The Sky cameras were in for the first home game of the season, with Championship big guns Aston Villa the visitors for an EFL Cup first round tie. Teenager James Justin was thrown in for an impressive full debut at left-back and Cameron McGeehan bagged his first of the campaign, along with summer recruit Jake Gray, before a Jonas Okore own goal sealed a famous 3-1 win.
Nathan Jones’ side were the early pace-setters, Stephen O’Donnell’s stunning strike in a 1-1 home draw with Yeovil – the eventual goal of the season winner – and McGeehan’s two penalties in a 2-1 win over Newport, keeping the Town top of League Two.
Last-gasp defeat at Stevenage followed, then an impressive performance but solitary-goal loss to a second Championship giant, Leeds United, in the EFL Cup second round, before another 3-0 success on the road at Cambridge – the Hatters Hotel front two Hylton and Marriott on the mark again – saw Town back up to second by the month’s end.
Oh, and the Checkatrade Trophy kicked off at Gillingham and it was a landmark night in Luton Town history. Seven academy graduates started the game, with another seven on the bench, as 18-year-old Frankie Musonda scored his first senior goal in a 2-1 win over a strong League One side, and Connor Tomlinson became the youngest ever Luton player, appearing as a substitute aged 15 years and 199 days old.
Was summer signing Hylton going to prove a rubbish recruit?
Certainly not with his tendency to put the ball in the back of the net, a hat-trick in a 4-1 home win over Wycombe – with Jordan Cook registering his first in an orange shirt – got September off to a flyer as a feel-good factor with the launch of a campaign to get the local residents onside with planning applications for Newlands Park and Power Court during the public consultation period.
Successive defeats followed at home to Grimsby, in which the striker suffered a fractured cheekbone, and at Crawley, when he appeared as a second-half substitute after only receiving his soon-to-become famous protective mask on the morning of the game. Then, in a resounding 3-1 win over Doncaster – with McGeehan scoring twice and Marriott the other – Hylton received a red card in the closing stages for hurling a litter picking stick he’d slid into at the side of the pitch!
The decision was garbage, and it meant Hylton would miss the midweek trip to Hartlepool on which more history was made as the youngest side Luton have ever fielded in the Football League, averaging just over 22 years, took to the Victoria Park pitch.
Seventeen-year-old Akin Famewo made his first senior start at centre half alongside Alan Sheehan, who would net the first of a series of stunning free-kicks as Town finished the month in second spot courtesy of a 1-1 draw.
The month kicked off with a return for Hylton, and another goal – this time with a couple of nutmegs and a stroll around the keeper – in a 1-1 draw at Cheltenham, where Smith clocked up his 150th appearance for the club.
Another scalp arrived in the Checkatrade with West Brom’s Academy (plus four star names) beaten 2-0 at Kenilworth Road, Newcastle loanee Alex Gilliead netting his first Town goal.
A 2-1 win at Leyton Orient on 15th October pierced four draws in the month – the 1-1 stalemate at Cheltenham followed by the same score at home to Crewe and Mansfield, then a goalless draw at Notts County, the point – and first clean sheet in nine league games – preserved by a brilliant late penalty save by goalkeeper Christian Walton.
The on-loan Brighton stopper had become the first Luton Town player in 20 years to be capped by England Under-21s earlier in the month when he played in the 5-0 win over Bosnia & Herzegovina at Walsall.
With strikes against Orient and Mansfield, McGeehan was in fine form and on eight goals already for the season as the Town ended the month in fourth spot.
Two more Hylton goals, both penalties, and a far-post finish from Glen Rea set the Hatters off and running in the FA Cup, beating Exeter 3-1 at St James Park in the first round.
A 2-1 home defeat in the Checkatrade against Millwall soon followed, but with both clubs having already qualified for the knockout stages, it mattered little – and paled into insignificance when the EFL announced the Town were being fined the maximum £15,000 for fielding supposedly under-strength teams in the three group games.
McGeehan bagged the winner at home to Accrington on Remembrance weekend, then Isaac Vassell opened his account following his summer switch from Non-League Truro in the 2-0 win at Morecambe – when many Town fans missed Hylton’s first-half opener after being held up by M6 traffic.
There was disappointment in a terrific advert for League Two under the Kenilworth Road lights when Portsmouth came from a Hylton goal behind to win 3-1, before a goalless draw back at Exeter in the league.
McGeehan made his 100th appearance for the club on the second trip of the month to Devon, but couldn’t come up with the trademark goal that would lift the Town above fifth.
An FA Cup giantkilling looked on the cards as National League Solihull Moors took a 2-0 first-half lead in the second round tie at Kenilworth Road, only for a pair apiece for Marriott and O’Donnell, a standard Hylton strike and a rare blast from Johnny Mullins to turn the tie around to the tune of 6-2.
Another Checkatrade upset did follow in the midweek, however, as Josh McQuoid – with two – and Vassell, with his second Town goal, helped see off League One side Swindon 3-2 in the first knockout stage.
A 1-1 draw at home to high-flying Carlisle was built upon with a superb performance in the 2-0 victory at Blackpool on the Saturday before Christmas, with captain Scott Cuthbert and discoveries of the season Justin and Vassell penning new contracts, before Boxing Day disappointment arrived with Colchester winning by the only goal in front of the first 9,000-plus crowd of the season.
The year ended on a high, though, with Gilliead on target, Sheehan posting a second entry into the goal of the season competition with another free-kick into the top corner, and McGeehan registering his 11th of the campaign, as Barnet were beaten 3-1 on New Year’s Eve and the Town ended 2016 in fifth.
The New Year couldn’t have started in any more disappointing fashion as arguably the month that dealt the biggest blow to the Town’s automatic promotion hopes kicked off not only with defeat at Pompey, but a broken leg for McGeehan – just days after his manager described him as a “phenomenon” and the “best attacking midfield player in the division”.
A third defeat in four matches came a week later as Accrington ended the Hatters’ FA Cup run at the third round stage, but Checkatrade progress was made with another demolition job, this time on League One strugglers Chesterfield.
Midfield reinforcements started to arrive in the form of Lawson D’Ath from Northampton and Luke Gambin, bought for an undisclosed fee from Barnet, but Gray was filling the goal void with the winner at Crewe after his strike in the loss at Stanley.
As well as D’Ath, left-back Jack Senior made his EFL debut in the 2-1 victory at Gresty Road, coming on after Sheehan had been sent off – and the same fate befell Mullins a week later as Wycombe fought back after falling behind to Scott Cuthbert’s first goal in his 65th game for the Hatters to claim a 1-1 draw.
Cook and Vassell were on target as Town completed a first league double of the season, beating Cambridge 2-0 to move up to fourth on January 28th.
Then, a turbulent transfer deadline day – in which Brighton recalled Walton and Town had to bring in two keepers, Reading’s Stuart Moore and Arsenal’s Matt Macey, as well as Orient striker Ollie Palmer – ended with a 3-2 home defeat to struggling Cheltenham, and the Hatters still fifth.
After a dry January, Hylton – who had signed a new contract to 2019 – had the perfect chance to break his seven-game drought in the 95th-minute at Grimsby. Unfortunately, home keeper James McKeown saved his penalty and Vassell’s second-half equaliser remained just that in a 1-1 draw.
A semi-final spot in was secured in the Checkatrade, however, with a 5-2 win over the manager’s former club Yeovil – Vassell netting twice, Cook one, Sheehan’s third brilliant free-kick of the campaign and Hylton back on the scoresheet to book a home tie with his old club Oxford.
Hylton, who had stopped his by-now superstitious wearing of the mask, netted twice in a 2-1 home win over Crawley and again, along with Gambin and Palmer netting their first goals for the club, in a 3-0 stroll over Hartlepool, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu the latest to reach a century of Town appearances on Valentine’s night.
February finished with a trip to leaders Doncaster and a home date with second-placed Plymouth, both matches finishing 1-1 and the Town’s tendency to turn up against the top teams coming to the fore with Cook and Hylton on target. Unbeaten in the month, the Hatters remained fifth.
A mad March set off at a hare-like pace with an end-to-end Checkatrade Trophy semi-final at home to League One Oxford, the Hatters fighting back from two down to level through Vassell and Hylton – only for the League One side to grab a late winner to reach Wembley.
An automatic promotion spot was back in the Hatters’ hands after a Hylton double and goals from Rea and Mpanzu – the midfielder’s first of the season – saw Yeovil suffer once more in a 4-0 formality at Huish Park.
Unfortunately, just as Jones – who had signed a new contract to boss the Hatters until 2020 – talked of the need to go on the kind of winning run the other teams at the top had and take up the opportunity that had presented itself, Town embarked on their worst sequence of the season.
Three draws with Carlisle, Exeter and Newport were book-ended by a 2-0 home defeat to Stevenage and a 2-1 reversal at Colchester – five games without a win that ultimately cost the chance of hunting down Pompey, Donny and Plymouth, as the Hatters sat in sixth.
Now there was a danger the Hatters could drop out of the play-off places altogether, as the chasing pack closed the gap on the top teams.
Palmer popped up with a 90th-minute winner against Blackpool that set Kenilworth Road rocking, however, and the Town were on the march to an unbeaten end to the season.
Injuries to Petr Cech and David Ospina meant Macey was recalled by Arsenal after that win, but Moore was recalled and put his disappointing debut against Cheltenham behind him to pull off a string of super saves to keep a clean sheet at Barnet, as Olly Lee produced one of the moments of the season to net the winner against his old club.
Town were back up to fourth, but a poor second half show against crisis club Leyton Orient – who should have been put to bed by half-time but fought back from a Hylton goal behind to lead 2-1, before Vassell rescued a point – made Good Friday a bad day.
Three days later a 13th 1-1 scoreline of the season at play-off chasing Mansfield – and 17th draw overall – meant Jones and his squad knew it was to be play-offs at best.
A Panenka penalty took Hylton to 26 goals in the most prolific campaign of his career, which resulted in him being on the shortlist of three for EFL League Two player of the year and selected in the PFA Team of the Season.
He received his second red card of the campaign in the 2-1 home win over Notts County that virtually guaranteed play-off qualification, Palmer and Mpanzu on target, before Justin’s first senior goal, a comedy OG from Omar Beckles, another for Vassell and Marriott becoming the fourth Town player into double figures secured it with a 4-1 win at Accrington.
With fourth place almost guaranteed by the Stanley win, Town made light work of Morecambe on the final day to cement it – Vassell’s 13th goal of the season and a Marriott brace from the bench, taking him to 12, earning a 3-1 victory.
It meant Jones’ squad finished fourth on 77 points – eight below third-placed Doncaster but eight above Colchester just outside the play-offs. Most importantly, however, they completed the regular campaign with the momentum of a sevengame unbeaten run and three successive league wins for the first time behind them.
At the end of the marathon, seventh-placed Blackpool would be the semi-final opponents with a Sunday night trip to the Golden Mile followed by tonight’s climax…COYH!