The Hatters produced a backs-to-the-wall performance to win 1-0 at Grimsby this afternoon after having to play the last hour with ten men following the first-half dismissal of Jordan Cook.
James Collins’ 13th goal of the season proved enough to take the Hatters nine points clear at the top of Sky Bet League Two, as Nathan Jones’ squad rolled their sleeves up to take full advantage of second-placed Notts County being in FA Cup action.
With third-placed Accrington losing at Crawley and neither Wycombe and Exeter in action, the victory increases the gap over fourth place to 11 points as the Town reached the 60-mark in their 29th game of the campaign.
Jones made three changes to his starting line-up, with Alan Sheehan back at the heart of defence after completing his three-match suspension, while Cook and Harry Cornick – who had an explosive last half-an-hour as a substitute against Morecambe last week – returned to the attack.
Danny Hylton missed out with the hamstring injury he sustained in the early stages of the 1-0 win over the Shrimps, while Olly Lee and Lawson D’Ath dropped to the bench.
Town had started brightly, Cornick putting a dangerous cross into the six-yard box from the right that James Collins was close to getting on the end of, but it was the hosts who had the first effort on goal – midfielder Luke Summerfield rattling the crossbar with a rasping drive from 25 yards.
The Hatters’ first opportunity came with a double chance in the 18th minute, when there were claims that Luke Berry’s header from Sheehan’s right-wing corner had crossed the line.
Referee Michael Salisbury waved play on as Cornick latched onto the loose ball and smashed a half-volley that looked destined for the top corner before Cook inadvertently got in the way and deflected it over the bar.
Cook soon went into the ref’s notepad for a foul on Mitch Rose midway inside the Grimsby half, then – on 23 minutes – Summerfield had another go from 25 yards, this one fizzing just wide of Stech’s right post.
Grimsby were growing in confidence and after the Town had failed to capitalise on another promising position for Stacey down the right after good play from Sheehan – carrying the ball out of defence – and Cornick, Jamille Matt spun Johnny Mullins and fired a 25-yarder narrowly wide on the half-hour.
With 33 minutes on the clock, Cook was dismissed after collecting his second yellow in 12 minutes for a foul on Grimsby defender Danny Collins right on the touchline as the ball was heading out of play, and the Town were forced to regroup with ten men, as they had against Lincoln on New Year’s Day.
Charles Vernam was the next Mariner to have a go, but his effort flew high and wide, before their right-back Ben Davies was booked for a foul on Dan Potts.
The Town were having to be on their guard at the back as Collins slid in at the near post to clear Summerfield’s low free-kick from the left, before Mullins smashed away another ball into the box as Grimsby looked to pile on the pressure before half-time.
Grimsby made a change at the break, taking Davies off and replacing him with Zak Mills, but it was the Hatters who started on the front foot and got their noses in front three minutes after the restart.
Cornick had already burst down the right and slid a lovely ball across the six-yard box that Collins couldn’t quite convert when Shinnie was fouled 20 yards out and Berry curled a beauty over the wall that Grimsby keeper Ben Killip, a Town trialist last season, tipped onto the bar.
Collins was alert to the opportunity, however, and headed the rebound over the line, with Potts on hand to lash it into the roof of the net just to make sure!
Grimsby inevitably tried to respond and make the extra man count, and after Collins had seen a far post header easily saved by Stech, Mullins and Sheehan both did well to repel 59th-minute crosses from Paul Dixon, before Rea got a block on Summerfield’s shot that gave Stech a routine save to make.
The Czech keeper was in the right place to gather a 67th-minute header from Nathan Clarke, who had been lucky a minute earlier to avoid a card for a late challenge on Collins in front of the dugouts, but the Town were defending resolutely.
Jones made his first change with 15 minutes to go, bringing D’Ath on for Shinnie, but – after Potts had won a towering header at the far post to turn a Dixon cross behind for a corner – Matt saw his lopping header bounce off the top of the bar and out to safety.
Mullins produced a great piece of defending when he had Mallik Wilks and Mills bearing down on him with ten minutes to go, the Town centre-half biding his time before getting a crucial deflection on Wilks’ attempted pass to his fellow sub to enable Sheehan to hook clear.
Jones then took Collins off for James Justin, pushing Cornick up as the lone frontman. The ex-Bournemouth forward almost created a chance for himself out of nothing when he charged down Killip’s clearance 25 yards from goal, but the ball wouldn’t come down soon enough for him to get a shot on the empty net.
Cornick’s persistence did, however, win the Town a corner and ate up crucial seconds as the Hatters again got men behind the ball before the likes of Sheehan, Mullins, Potts and the excellent Glen Rea put their tin helmets back on.
Cornick picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Elliot Lee with 90 minutes up, but the Town ten had enough to hold on for a massive three points.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Mullins, Sheehan ©, Potts, Rea, Berry, Cook, Shinnie (D’Ath 75), Cornick (E Lee 90), Collins (Justin 82). Subs: O Lee, Mpanzu, Famewo, Shea (GK)
Goals: Collins 48
GRIMSBY: Killip, Davies (Mills 46), Clarke © Osborne, Collins, Dixon (Wilks 77), Berrett, Rose (Dembele 61), Summerfield, Vernam, Matt. Subs: Warrington (GK), Jaiyesimi, Woolford, Vernon
Yellows: Davies, Dembele
REFEREE: Michael Salisbury
ATT: 4,159 (522 Hatters)