The Hatters’ nine-match unbeaten run came to a halt in Nathan Jones’ 100th game in charge this afternoon as Coventry City won 3-0 at Kenilworth Road.
Town went into the match top of the Sky Bet League Two table after a superb month in which they'd taken 16 points from a possible 18.
But their eighth-placed opponents hung onto an early lead given to them by Marc McNulty, and then added two more in injury-time after Glen Rea had been sent off.
The Town had pushed captain Scott Cuthbert forward in search of an equaliser, and after seeing several good chances go begging, Coventry broke away against the run of play and last-man Rea made a sliding last-ditch challenge that brought McNulty down on the edge of the box.
Referee Robert Jones showed the Town man a straight red card, and Coventry substitute Jordan Shipley curled the resulting free-kick into the top corner before fellow sub Duckens Nazon added a third in the 96th minute to put an unfair gloss on the scoreline.
Bringing up his century of games at the Hatters’ helm, Jones made one change to the starting line-up, an enforced one with Alan Sheehan picking up his fifth yellow card of the season in the goalless draw at Crawley last week.
Johnny Mullins came into the back four to replace the Irishman, as he did a fortnight ago for the 7-1 win over Stevenage.
The first half-chance arrived in the fourth minute when Olly Lee floated a clever free-kick to the far post where James Collins had spun, but the striker couldn’t make a clean connection with his attempted volley and it flew over.
Coventry came closest to opening the scoring in the 13th minute, when Marek Stech dwelt on a clearance that only went as far as midfielder Liam Kelly 40 yards from goal. The Sky Blues midfielder sent the ball immediately back over Stech’s head, but thankfully it came back off the angle of post and bar.
The Town had started quite positively, however, and a low cross from Collins flashed across the six-yard box just before McNulty put the visitors in front, meeting Jodi Jones’ left-wing cross with a thumping header in the 17th minute.
The Hatters went in search of an immediate equaliser and Potts got his head on two crosses from the left, first rising to meet another Lee free-kick, but he couldn’t keep his header down.
Then, in the 23rd minute, the left-back met a left-wing corner with another header that was blocked by a defender, before Collins was thwarted in his attempts to steer in the rebound and Hylton headed another Lee centre over from inside the six-yard box.
Coventry scorer McNulty was soon trying his luck from inside the centre-circle, after robbing Lee, and the Hatters’ attempts at putting their usual intricate moves were too often coming unstuck with passes going astray.
The visitors – with the best defensive record in the division – were well drilled and carried a threat on the break and with a goal to hang onto, they had plenty of opportunity to slow the game down, referee Jones warning goalkeeper Lee Burge for taking his time over goal-kicks.
With time almost up in the first half, Stacey and Lee combined to get Cornick in on the right side of the penalty area, but the Town forward’s low cross was turned behind by City defender Rod McDonald and the resulting corner came to nothing as the visitors went in a goal to the good.
Two minutes into the second half the Sky Blues fashioned another opening, Jones’ low cross from the left turned behind his own goal by a sliding Rea, who put in a couple of crunching challenges either side of half-time to try to get his side going.
Jones fired another effort from distance, this one straight at Stech, before Lee floated another dangerous 52nd-minute free-kick that passed right through the Coventry six-yard box to Cuthbert, whose volley was deflected behind.
Cornick hammered a half-volley over the bar from the resulting corner, and Jones was quick to make a change, bringing Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu on for Mullins, to play in midfield with Rea dropping into the heart of defence.
The former Republic of Ireland Under-21 international was soon making a crucial block as Haynes cut the ball back for Jordan Ponticelli, just seconds before the Hatters’ best chance of the game arrived.
The Town broke at lightning speed with Mpanzu slipping Hylton into the box, and the striker took his time before attempting to slip the ball past Burge, who saved well before Mpanzu’s follow-up was blocked by some last-ditch defending.
The Town had upped the ante and Cornick’s 64th-minute blast was deflected over the bar, then – on 67 minutes – a sweeping Hatters’ move involving the front three ended with Hylton controlling Cornick’s cross from the right on his chest, only for his left-foot shot from the edge of the area to fly just over.
Jones brought Andrew Shinnie on for Cornick in the 74th minute and the Scottish midfielder almost had an immediate impact, whipping in a dangerous cross from the right that Coventry could only clear as far as Mpanzu, who rifled in a left-footed effort that just whistled past the post.
Then came the clearest opportunities yet – the first falling to Shinnie after a lengthy delay as visiting centre-half Jordan Willis had his head bandaged on the pitch. Lee clipped the free-kick into the box, Potts won the header again and Shinnie volleyed goalwards, only to see Burge save with his feet.
The danger wasn’t over however, as Stacey sent another ball into the Coventry area from halfway and Hylton found himself with the freedom of the Coventry penalty area, but couldn’t steer the ball past Burge as he turned to face goal.
Jones made his third and final substitution in throwing Elliot Lee into the attack, replacing Collins, and he was soon joined in the forward line by captain Cuthbert, as the Hatters looked for an alternative way back into things.
Shinnie was looking to make things happen, and he had another crack at goal in the 89th minute afer cutting in from the right onto his left foot, but Burge got his body behind the effort to save well.
The Town were reduced to ten men just as eight added minutes were announced as Rea, the last man, slid in and brought down McNulty on the edge of area as Coventry broke.
Sub Shipley curled home the resulting free-kick, then Nazon added the third five minutes later after an Olly Lee shot from Shinnie’s set up was inadvertently blocked by Jack Stacey.
It summed up the Hatters’ day – one they finish in third place, with Notts County and Accrington both winning, as we head into a break from league action with the Checkatrade Trophy trip to AFC Wimbledon on Tuesday followed an FA Cup first round tie at home to Portsmouth next week.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Cuthbert ©, Mullins (Mpanzu 58), Potts, Rea, O Lee, Berry, Cornick (Shinnie 74), Collins (E Lee 80), Hylton. Subs: Justin, Gambin, D’Ath, Shea (GK)
Yellows: Hylton, O Lee, Cuthbert
COVENTRY: Burge, Grimmer, Willis, McDonald, Kelly, Vincenti (Biamou 81), Doyle (c), McNulty, Jones (Shipley 90), Haynes, Ponticelli (Nazon 81). Subs: Stokes, Davies, O'Brien (GK), Maycock
GOALS: McNulty 17, Shipley 90+2, Nazon 90+6
REFEREE: Robert Jones
ATTENDANCE: 9,670 (1,067 away)