James Collins scored twice against former club Crawley tonight Nathan Jones’ side produced another scintillating performance at Kenilworth Road to maintain their position at the top of the Sky Bet League Two table with a 4-1 win.
After Olly Lee had given the Town a 29th-minute lead, Collins netted his 15th goal of the season on the stroke of half-time to double the advantage before adding number 16 from the penalty spot after Luke Berry had netted a third soon after the break.
The four-goal haul took the Town to 72 league goals for the campaign, surpassing the 70 they managed in the whole of last term, on a night when they served up some sumptuous football, knitted together brilliantly once again by on-loan Ipswich teenager Flynn Downes at the base of the midfield diamond.
Crawley – who arrived at Kenilworth Road as the division’s form team with four straight wins and seven in their last eight matches – managed a late consolation through a loanee of their own, Charlton’s Karlan Ahearne-Grant, with three minutes to go.
But in truth, they were lucky to escape without the kind of defeat the likes of Yeovil, Stevenage and Cambridge United have suffered at the Kenny this season, as the Hatters bossed the game from start to finish.
In his team selection Jones made two changes, one enforced with James Justin returning to the starting XI at left-back in place of the suspended Dan Potts, while the other switch from the 1-1 draw at Stevenage came in midfield, where Andrew Shinnie returned as a replacement for Jake Jervis, who dropped to the bench.
The Town had a great chance to open the scoring in the seventh minute when Lee spread the play to the right to Jack Stacey, who slid into a challenge to send the ball down the right flank to Harry Cornick.
The ex-Bournemouth man turned Crawley centre-half Mark Connolly with ease, then raced into the box and unleashed a low right-footed drive that visiting keeper Glenn Morris did well to palm away with a big right hand, the ball just eluding the onrushing Collins inside the six-yard area.
To be fair to them, Crawley had come to play and set up with what looked like a front four at times in the opening exchanges, but that left oceans of space for the likes of Cornick and Collins to exploit.
Collins came within a lick of paint of giving the Town the lead on 17 minutes when he pounced on a loose clearing header by Connolly to hit a peach of a first time volley, which arced back towards the goal, but not enough to avoid hitting the post full on.
Lee was next to have a go, after Shinnie and Collins combined to set him up for a 25-yarder that was curling towards the top corner when Morris flew across his line to turn it behind in the 23rd minute.
There was some intricate play on the edge of the box, having started with Shinnie and Stacey out on the right, between Downes, Lee, Downes again, Berry and Collins to put Justin in on the left, but the England Under-20 international’s cross was turned behind.
The Town were playing some wonderful football and took a deserved lead just before the half-hour mark. Berry started it off, nutmegging Enzio Boldewijn inside his own half, helped by an excellent decision by referee Craig Hicks to play the advantage as Collins gathered possession.
The summer signing from Crawley carried the ball and played Lee in to his right, with the midfielder pulling the trigger from just inside the area, his effort flying in off the underside of the bar with the aid of a deflection as Cedric Evina slid in to challenge him.
It was almost two straightaway as Lee won the ball on halfway and it broke to Cornick who drove at the back-pedalling Connolly once more, before letting fly with another angled drive that Morris did well to repel.
The chances were coming thick and fast, Rea seeing a 34th-minute header cleared off the line by Connolly, then Collins having a downward header – from Stacey’s wonderful right-wing cross – tipped over by Morris two minutes later.
In the 38th minute Cornick latched onto Collins’ flick-on and looked to have gone round Morris but Lelan made a terrific sliding block to keep the score at one, then Lee has another crack from 25 yards that Cornick couldn’t turn in from inside the six-yard box.
Crawley asked their first real question of the Town defence in the 42nd minute when Roberts cut inside from the right, sending a left-footed curling effort thudding against the foot of the post, but the Town weren’t on the back foot for long.
The second goal finally arrived on the stroke of half-time when Collins met Lee’s right-wing corner with a thumping header that nestled in the bottom corner of his former employers’ net for his 15th of the campaign.
Visiting manager Harry Kewell made a double substitution at the break and for a few minutes, the Red Devils managed to stem the tide of the Hatters’ attacks.
Indeed, the Town survived a 54th minute scare when Justin somehow managed to clear a dangerous low cross from the left by Evina from almost on his own goal-line, then Stech reacted well to keep out Boldewijn’s follow-up.
It was three in the 56th minute, and it came at the end of another incisive move that saw Stacey and Shinnie link up brilliantly on the right touchline, the former bursting onto the Scot’s ball inside and shovelling it left to Berry, who bided his time to pick his spot inside Morris’ near post.
Lee went looking for number four in the 59th minute, but shot straight at Morris from 18 yards.
Then, on the hour, the Town managed to emerge unscathed from an almighty goalmouth scramble after a right-wing corner, and before long Lee was teeing up Collins for another shot at goal, only this time his effort flew over the bar and into the Oak Road end.
The flow of goalscoring chances stopped for a while, but the Hatters were completely in control of the game, keeping possession and piecing moves together with unerring authority.
Lee, along with Berry, was revelling in the license given to him to go on the attack by the presence of the immaculate Downes in the midfield holding role, and in the 72nd minute he picked up a loose clearance by Morris to his a first-time effort from 35 yards that went just wide.
The former Birmingham City midfielder played a key role in the winning of the penalty that led to Collins’ second in the 76th minute, Lee tricking his way past a defender and pushing the ball to Collins, who was brought down by Lelan.
Collins picked himself up to net number 16 for the season, before Lee tried his luck again two minutes later, bursting onto Justin’s lay-off but his curling effort was way too high.
Crawley reduced the arrears in the 87th minute when Ahearne-Grant side-stepped his way past a challenge in the box and shot low into the back of the net.
Then the visitors’ half-time sub, Thomas Verheydt, warmed Stech’s palms with 90 minutes almost up, before Jervis went close to his first goal in a Hatters shirt, firing over from the edge of the box.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan ©, Justin, Downes, O Lee, Berry, Shinnie (Jervis 84), Cornick (Gambin 90+3), Collins. Subs: Mullins, Cook, Mpanzu, D’Ath, Shea (GK)
Yellows: Downes, Berry
Goals: O Lee 29, Collins 45, 76 (pen), Berry 56
CRAWLEY: Morris, Young, Grant, Lelan, Roberts (Doherty 46), Randall (Verheydt 46), Connolly, Evina, Payne, Smith ©, Boldewijn. Subs: McNerney, Mersin (GK), Tajbakhsh, Bulman
Goal: Ahearne-Grant 87
REFEREE: Craig Hicks