The Hatters moved to within one win of being certain of automatic promotion with a third straight win this afternoon with goals from Danny Hylton, Elliot Lee and a first of the season from Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu sealing a 3-1 win over Crewe Alexandra.
As has become the norm at Kenilworth Road in recent weeks, Nathan Jones’ side had to come from behind, with Jordan Bowery putting the 17th-placed visitors in front against the run of play on 35 minutes.
But Hylton equalised with his 22nd of the season – and fifth in as many games – within four minutes, before Lee bent in his 12th of the campaign two minutes into first-half stoppage time.
Then, six minutes after the interval, Mpanzu hit an absolute corker into the top corner from 25 yards to effectively seal a win that could bring about promotion as early as Tuesday night, should Exeter lose at home to Chesterfield.
In reality, a draw down at St James Park would be enough for the Hatters to start planning for League One football bearing in mind the goal difference that is 25 better than the Grecians’.
Regardless of what goes on elsewhere, Jones and his Town squad have been going about their business in a thoroughly professional manner and, after a fourth win in five matches here, the same return at Carlisle next Saturday will seal promotion anyway.
Delighted by recent form, Jones named an unchanged side – including bench – from the one that won 3-0 at Yeovil last week, meaning James Shea was in goal behind a back four of Jack Stacey, Glen Rea, captain Alan Sheehan and Dan Potts.
Alan McCormack, Olly Lee and Mpanzu made up the midfield with Elliot Lee at the tip of the diamond behind Hylton and James Collins.
The Hatters started brightly, and after Olly Lee had fired an effort at goal after a one-two with Collins, the 20-goal striker cut back a ninth-minute cross for Stacey to get his head on, but it was straight at visiting keeper Ben Garratt.
A minute later it was Hylton’s chance to have a go, Collins knocking Sheehan’s clip down for his strike partner to hit one from 20 yards, but this one went wide.
With quarter-of-an-hour gone, the Hatters striker was penalised for a foul on Eddie Nolan as Crewe took a corner, but Shea was equal to Harry Pickering’s free-kick from 20 yards out.
Hylton then led a 17th minute charge down the left, carrying the ball from deep inside his own half before slipping a pass inside to Elliot Lee to attempt a curler from 25 yards, that went just the wrong side of the post with Garratt at full stretch.
Crewe were enjoying plenty of possession in the Hatters’ half, however, and they almost grabbed a fortuitous lead when, after a goalmouth scramble, Rea’s attempted clearance hit Sheehan on the ground and rebounded just wide of the post.
The Town were asking plenty of questions of their own though, and Elliot Lee saw a powerful cross-shot tipped away by Garratt before directing a far post header from Collins’ cross straight at the Alex stopper.
Big brother Olly was next to have a go, meeting a Sheehan corner full on the volley from 25 yards – think Paul Scholes – and it was heading towards goal before being deflected wide for another corner.
But it was the visitors who took the lead in the 35th minute when Shaun Miller flicked a ball on from halfway, and Bowery burst past Sheehan to finish coolly past Shea from 15 yards.
Sheehan almost made amends immediately, curling a 37th-minute free-kick around the wall to force Garratt into another good save, and the Town were level by the 39th minute.
It had to be that man Hylton, controlling a header down by McCormack from another Sheehan corner and volleying past Garratt on the turn from three yards out for his 22nd goal of the season.
The leading scorer soon lured Paul Green into a foul on the edge of the box that earned the visitors their first yellow card, and gave Sheehan another chance to step up and call Garratt into action, this one straight at the keeper.
The Hatters were playing well, and Elliot Lee was denied by Garratt again three minutes before half-time after digging the ball out from a thicket of legs ten yards out.
He didn’t have to wait long for his 12th goal of the campaign, however, Mpanzu winning the ball on the edge of the Hatters’ area and triggering a counter-attack that saw Collins feed it to Lee wide on the left.
The Town forward used Potts’ overlap as a decoy and drove inside, pivoting to beat two men and then bending an absolute beauty around Garratt and inside the far post from 20 yards out to give the Hatters a deserved lead, taking his, Hylton and Collins’ combined tally to 54 for the season.
Within six minutes of the restart it was three, and what a strike it was as Mpanzu unleashed a piledriver from 25 yards – after another Sheehan corner had been headed half clear – that left Garratt helpless as it flew into top corner, still on the rise.
It was Pelly’s first goal of the season, meaning that every outfield player in the Hatters’ team had netted during the campaign – and he was keen to double it moments later, although this one from slightly closer was high and handsome.
Crewe tried to muster a reply, and sub Chris Porter hooked a low shot straight at Shea after Paul Green’s free-kick from halfway was flicked into his path.
The Hatters almost had a fourth in the 63rd minute when Stacey, Collins and Mpanzu linked up down the right for the full-back to race into the box and flash a shot in that flew across Garratt – and just past the far post.
Jones introduced Harry Cornick for Elliot Lee with 64 minutes gone, and the ex-Bournemouth forward immediately set pulses racing with a couple of lung-busting runs from deep to stretch the
Olly Lee thought he’d try his luck on the volley again with 72 minutes on the clock
With quarter-of-an-hour to go Cornick did well down the right to pick Green’s pocket and cross low for Collins, but the striker’s scuffed effort was deflected wide.
Stacey went close again in the 79th minute when Olly Lee and Cornick did well down the left to pick out Collins, whose cross-field ball to Hylton allowed Stacey the time to race past the striker and receive a pass that he struck first time, Garratt getting down low to his right to keep out.
Sheehan saw the woodwork deny him a goal two minutes later when another 20-yard free-kick struck the outside of the post, then – at the other end – a cross from the right just cleared his head and allowed Bowery another sight of goal, but Shea was equal to the former Aston Villa forward’s side-foot volley.
Jones brought Johnny Mullins on for Hylton with five minutes left to help weather the storm of Crewe throwing balls into the box aiming for Bowery, Porter and his fellow sub Chris Dagnall.
But within seconds of his arrival, Mpanzu was leading another surge through the middle to bring another chance about for Cornick, whose show was dragged wide of Garratt’s right post.
It mattered not. Another job well done as the Hatters inch closer to the finishing line!
TOWN: Shea, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan ©, Potts, McCormack, Mpanzu, O Lee, E Lee (Cornick 64), Collins, Hylton (Mullins 85). Subs: Justin, Jervis, Downes, Gambin, Stech (GK)
Yellows: McCormack, Hylton
Goals: Hylton 39, E Lee 45+2, Mpanzu 51
CREWE: Garratt, Ng, Ray ©, Jones, Bowery, Nolan, Wintle, Pickering, Kirk (Ainley 57), Green (Dagnall 77), Miller (Porter 57). Subs: Walker, Richards (GK), Lowery, Sterry
Yellows: Green, Dagnall
Goals: Bowery 35
REFEREE: Ben Toner
ATT: 9,202 (189 away)