The Hatters turned in a thoroughly professional performance against bottom club Port Vale to return to winning ways at Kenilworth Road tonight.
A goal in each half and a third clean sheet of the season ensured that Nathan Jones’ men bounced back from Saturday’s 3-0 home defeat by Swindon in perfect fashion, an own goal from the visitors’ Ben Whitfield and a terrific first Hatters strike for right-back Jack Stacey securing victory.
Jones made two changes to the side from Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Swindon as his side went in search of a first win since Colchester were beaten here three weeks ago, with excellent draws on the road at Mansfield and Lincoln preceding Saturday’s reversal against the Robins.
One was enforced, with Glen Rea coming into the starting line-up as a replacement for captain Scott Cuthbert, who was serving a one-match suspension following his red card against his former club. The other change saw Luke Berry return to the midfield in place of Olly Lee, who was among the substitutes.
The Town bossed most of the early possession, but it took until the 13th minute to engineer an attempt on goal, Berry - who seemed to be constantly on the ball in the opening exchanges - picking out Andrew Shinnie in oceans of space in the Valiants’ penalty area with a pinpoint cross, but the Scottish midfielder’s header was way off target.
Shinnie was next to have a crack at goal too, Stacey making good progress down the right to reach Rea’s pass and tee the attacking midfielder up, but his 25-yard drive was straight at Sam Hornby in the Vale goal.
There was a two-minute break in play while Dan Potts received treatment midway through the half after taking a blow to the head while clearing a dangerous looking cross from David Worrall on the Vale left.
Berry was the architect of the Town’s next opening just after the half-hour, whipping in a cross from the left that found Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu breaking into the visitors’ box, but the midfielder couldn’t get a clean connection on his attempt.
The breakthrough came in the 36th minute and it started with Shinnie being dumped on his backside as he flicked the ball around the corner to Mpanzu, but referee David Webb played a great advantage.
He allowed play to go on, with Hylton popping the ball off to Berry as Vale midfielder Whitfield arrived at exactly the same time to inadvertently steer it past his own stranded keeper from the edge of the area.
Marek Stech had been a virtual spectator at the other end, but in the 42nd minute he had to fly across his goalline to not only keep out an Anthony de Freitas free-kick that looked bound for the top corner, but hold on to the ball as well.
The Czech keeper, already a firm favourite with the Kenilworth Road faithful, then drew further applause as he came to claim a high cross almost on the edge of his penalty area as the Hatters saw the half out maintaining the upper hand – but more plaudits would come his way in the second half.
The Town’s lead was doubled five minutes after the break – and what a goal on the break it was!
After having to deal with some early Vale pressure, Potts again heading one cross clear at the far post, McCormack – who was dictating the midfield – broke free from his own area as the Town managed to repel a Vale corner.
The Irish midfielder initially lost the ball to Whitfield as he tried to outpace him 35 yards from his own goal, but his determination won it back instantly and he set Stacey haring off down the right flank from inside his own half.
As he reached the right edge of the Vale penalty area, the former Reading and Exeter man unleashed a right-footed rocket into the roof of the net at Hornby’s near post, the keeper straying off his line in the belief Stacey would cross to the unmarked Mpanzu in the box.
Within seconds, Worrall fired a warning shot from 30 yards, but the Hatters were soon up at the other end again, looking to put the game beyond doubt, Collins playing Mpanzu in on the right side of the Vale area, although Hornby managed to repel the midfielder’s blast on this occasion.
Vale boss Michael Brown made his first substitution in the 62nd minute, taking striker Tyrone Barnett off and replacing him with Dan Turner – but it was captain Nathan Smith who had their next half-effort on goal, a looping header that sailed safely over Stech’s crossbar.
As the Town went in search of that killer third goal, Mpanzu pounced on a loose ball just outside the area and played Shinnie into the box, but the Birmingham loanee’s shot on the stretch went into the side-netting.
Vale reminded Town they still carried a threat, Worrall seeing another powerful shot from range deflected wide in the 68th minute, before Stech had to make two first-class saves in three minutes – first tipping de Freitas’ header over, then getting down low to turn another Worrall shot around the post.
There were no more scares as the Hatters saw the game out professionally, with the excellent Berry coming closest to adding to the scoreline in the 88th minutes as a Potts cross was only headed clear as far as the edge of the penalty area, but the midfielder’s volley was always rising.
Mpanzu and Stacey then combined down the right with 90 minutes almost up, but the right-back’s pull-back towards Hylton was cut out as the intended target waited frustrated as he went in search of his second goal of the season.
The Town had done enough, though, and the three points took them back up to ninth place ahead of Saturday’s trip to face Wycombe, who sit one place and one point above them.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan ©, Potts, McCormack, Mpanzu, Berry, Shinnie (Cornick 84), Hylton, Collins (E Lee 90+1). Subs: Justin, Mullins, O Lee, Gambin, Shea (GK)
Goals: Whitfield OG 36, Stacey 50
PORT VALE: Hornby, Anderson, Davis (Pyke 85), Pope, Worrall, Barnett (Turner 62), Smith ©, de Freitas, Whitfield, Gunning, Middleton (Stobbs 73). Subs: Wilson, Denton, Kay, Boot (GK)
REFEREE: David Webb
ATT: 7,046 (136 away)