Town talisman Danny Hylton netted his second goal of the season as the Hatters moved into the automatic promotion places in Sky Bet League Two with a single-goal victory over Chesterfield at Kenilworth Road this afternoon.
In truth, the winning margin could, and should, have been far greater had the Hatters taken just a fraction of the 19 goalscoring opportunities created against the struggling Spireites.
But a third successive win – and fourth in five home matches so far this season – was enough to lift the Hatters up to third spot, and was even more impressive following a straight red card for midfielder Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu with 20 minutes, including injury-time, still to play.
Jones made three changes from last week’s 2-1 win at Wycombe, with captain Scott Cuthbert, who came on as a substitute to net the 90th-minute equaliser at Adams Park, before James Collins grabbed the last-gasp winner, returning to the starting XI.
With midfielders Alan McCormack and Luke Berry missing through injury and suspension respectively, Olly Lee came back into the side, while Luke Gambin was handed his first league start of the season after scoring twice in the development squad win at Brentford in midweek.
With Cuthbert settled back into the back four alongside Jack Stacey, Alan Sheehan and Dan Potts, Mpanzu was in the midfield holding role with Lee and Gambin either side of him and Andrew Shinnie at the tip of the diamond, Collins and Danny Hylton up front.
Gambin started brightly, and after Stacey had got down to the right byline twice in the opening couple of minutes, the Maltese international did the same on the left and whipped in a cross that Collins met on the half-volley, but couldn’t keep his effort on target.
Chesterfield had a couple of early corners, although the danger was averted when the taker was flagged offside on both when receiving the short ball back, and the Town were making most of the running.
Hylton got his head on the end of a flowing tenth-minute move that had involved the striker himself, then Shinnie and Stacey once more haring down the right, but last season’s top scorer couldn’t keep his eventual header down.
A minute later Gambin drove at the Spireites’ defence and let fly with a left-foot shot from the edge of the area that flew just inches over the angle of post and bar.
Some of the Hatters’ early football was outstanding, and they had the ball in the back of the net on the quarter-of-an-hour mark, but a linesman’s flag ruled that Lee’s cross had gone out of play before Potts headed the ball back for Collins to bundle it over the line.
The Hatters were forced into a switch in the 21st minute when Shinnie, who had been caught heavily in two challenges, went off injured and Jordan Cook came on.
Then visitors were the next to have a crack at goal, both captain Sam Hird and left-back Matthew Briggs firing towards the Kenilworth Road end from distance, but Gambin was soon proving a threat at the other end again, another inviting centre from the left just eluding Hylton’s head.
Cuthbert saw a header, and Collins a thunderous shot blocked, before Hylton chipped a cross in from inside the area on the right, but no-one gambled to get on the end of it and Chesterfield cleared for another corner on the half-hour mark.
Cuthbert got his head on this one too, but Collins got in the way of his goalbound effort, then Stacey once more picked out Hylton who, despite stumbling as he looked to get away from his marker, managed to get another header on target, although keeper Joe Anyon saved comfortably.
Chesterfield’s clearest sight of goal came on 35 minutes when Andy Kellett latched on to Chris O’Grady’s knock-down, but goalkeeper Marek Stech got down low to save at his near post.
Gambin, however, was a constant menace to the visitors and his crossing from the left was sublime – a 43rd-minute delivery dug out from by the corner flag went begging, then he found Mpanzu six-yards out with his next a minute before half-time, but the midfielder’s glancing header drifted wide.
Mpanzu was quickest out of the blocks in the second half, too, but Anyon was equal to his 20-yard blast as the Hatters started brightly.
The breakthrough came in the 53rd minute, and after what by his standards has been a drought as he finds his fitness after missing pre-season, it was Hylton who kept his cool after being found by Jordan Cook with a superb searching through ball from inside his own half.
Hylton stood his man up in the area, checked back onto his right foot and shot low past Anyon for his first goal since the late leveller at Mansfield at the end of August, after drawing four blanks.
The visitors should have been level within a minute, Louis Reed sending a diving header inches wide of the near post from Kellett’s cross, then – in the 55th minute – O’Grady fired across the face of goal.
Town were coming under pressure, and when Stacey was penalised for a foul on O’Grady on the left edge of the penalty area, the defender had to react quickest to clear the dangerous free-kick behind for a corner, then Kellett saw a shot deflected wide and Briggs sent in a left-wing cross that just evaded O’Grady.
The Hatters were on the attack again by the 65th minutes, Hylton finding the side-netting from almost the same position as he scored, and then – after Gambin had been replaced by Glen Rea – Hylton’s cross from the left found Collins unmarked, but the striker’s header was straight at Anyon.
Cook struck a 72nd-minute half-volley over the Chesterfield bar after Lee’s free-kick had only been half-cleared to the edge of the box.
Then, four minutes later, the Hatters were reduced to ten men when ref Charles Breakspear ruled that Mpanzu’s late challenge on Kellett 15 yards inside the Chesterfield half was worthy of a straight red.
The Town should have given themselves breathing space in the 79th minute when Stech came out to claim a deep free-kick and immediately set Harry Cornick, who had been introduced in place of Lee moments before the sending off, racing through the middle.
Unfortunately the former Bournemouth man’s shot, as he came under pressure from a defender and keeper Anyon, clipped the outside of the upright, and the Spireites had a let-off.
The Hatters defended resolutely, and when the chance came to break again, Collins got in on the right and fizzed a cross along the six-yard line that Cornick couldn’t quite reach, then the ex-Crawley man did the same from the left, but again his cross-shot went begging.
Rea blazed over the bar as the Hatters resumed control, despite being a man down.
Then – four minutes into time added on – Stech picked out Collins with a huge clearance, but once again the striker’s finishing was unusually off target, as it was seconds later when Hylton played him into the area.
One goal was enough, however, to see the Hatters record a third straight win – something they didn’t’ manage until the final game of last season – and continue their rise towards the top of the table ahead of the midweek trip to Morecambe.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Cuthbert ©, Sheehan, Potts, Mpanzu, O Lee (Cornick 73), Gambin (Rea 66), Shinnie (Cook 21), Collins, Hylton. Subs: Justin, Senior, Jarvis, Shea (GK)
Goal: Hylton 53
CHESTERFIELD: Anyon, Hird ©, Wiseman, O’Grady (Ugwu 74), De Girolamo (Mitchell 69), Flores (McCourt 64), Kellett, Reed, Weir, Briggs, Jules. Subs: Lee (GK), Dennis, Dimaio, Brewster
REFEREE: Charles Breakspear
ATT: 7,575 (310 away)