The Hatters kicked off 2018 with what manager Nathan Jones described as the biggest win of his two years in charge, twice coming from behind to beat in-form Lincoln 4-2 – despite playing with ten men for 86 minutes on a seismic afternoon at Kenilworth Road.
Captain Alan Sheehan was sent off in the fourth minute, and the Town immediately went a goal down to Michael Bostwick’s free-kick as their bid to bounce back from a 4-0 defeat at Port Vale 48 hours earlier got off to the worst possible start.
But in a show of pure football, allied with dogged determination, the Town Ten completely bossed possession and drew level through James Collins’ 12th goal of the season, before going behind again in a first-half that also saw Lincoln reduced to ten men by the 36th minute.
James Justin netted a superb second equaliser just before half-time, then Danny Hylton – with his 16th goal of the campaign – and game changer Harry Cornick added the third and fourth afterwards to seal a wonderful win over the Imps, who were third at kick-off, and maintain a four-point advantage over Notts County while restoring an 11-point gap over fourth.
Jones has made five changes to his starting line-up, with Jack Stacey returning after serving a three-match suspension and Justin moving to left-back in place of Dan Potts, who was missing through illness, while Olly Lee, Luke Berry, Andrew Shinnie and Collins came back in after sitting out completely, or starting on the bench, at Vale Park on Saturday.
The Hatters were reduced to ten men just four minutes in when Sheehan was shown a straight red by referee Nick Kinseley following a clash with Lincoln striker Matt Rhead on the edge of the Town box.
It was double punishment for the Town when the visitors took the lead from the resulting free-kick, Bostwick smashing his effort in low through the wall and past Marek Stech.
Jones responded by moving Glen Rea back to centre-half alongside Johnny Mullins, who took the armband, with Olly Lee, Berry and Shinnie forming a three-man midfield.
Town took control of possession with their patient passing game, and it almost brought reward in the 12th minute when City keeper Vickers blocked Collins’ header, then Olly Lee fired a 25-yarder inches wide of his left post four minutes later.
Despite being a man down, the Hatters were dominating and after a shot from Shinnie drifted just wide in the 28th minute, a piece of great football down the left between the Scot, Berry and Collins – with a clever flick – almost got Justin in.
The equaliser soon arrived, and it owed much to Hylton’s determination to hold off City right-back Sean Long as he fought to get on the end of Stacey’s through ball. The top scorer did exactly that, then bought time in the box and unselfishly rolled it to Collins to slot home for his third in his last three starts.
Parity in scoreline didn’t last long as Green restored the Imps’ lead in the 34th minute after latching onto a knock-down from Rhead to volley into the corner of the net on the turn, despite Stech getting a hand to it.
Parity in terms of the number of players on the pitch was restored two minutes later, however, when the visitors went a man down too, Anderson picking up a second yellow card for a foul on Shinnie halfway inside the Lincoln half.
And by the 43rd minute the Hatters had deservedly drawn level again, and what a strike it was from Justin, who picked up a loose ball on the edge of the box as Lincoln headed Olly Lee’s left-wing corner clear, and bent a beauty into the bottom corner to send the home crowd into raptures.
Four minutes into time added on, the Town had a great chance to take the lead for the first time when Olly Lee played Collins in with an inch-perfect throughball, but the striker’s left-footed effort from just inside the area flew wide of Vickers’ post.
Lincoln took Rhead off at the break, most likely to prevent another sending off with the ex-Mansfield forward already on a yellow for over-celebrating the first goal, and the Hatters came out as they had spent most of the first half – playing on the front foot.
Shinnie sent a 20-yard shot whistling just past the post after a good 48th-minute move down the left involving Justin and Berry, who were covering every blade of the Kenny pitch, while Hylton dropped back to help Mullins and Rea defend set-pieces as if their lives depended on it.
Lincoln right-back Long stepped forward to fire a 25-yarder high into the Oak Road end on 56 minutes, before Waterfall met a left-wing corner with a powerful header that the Hatters managed to smuggle away after a spell of pinball in the six-yard box.
The Hatters survived a scare on the hour when Rea slipped and allowed Josh Ginnelly, who had come on for Rhead, a clear run into the box. Thankfully Olly Lee and Stacey got back to block the winger’s shot, which launched a lightning Luton counter-attack as Shinnie fed Hylton to run at Raggett, but the striker’s eventual left-foot shot was dragged wide.
Justin led another break down the left in the 62nd minute, playing the ball wide to Hylton who teed up Olly Lee for a 25-yard piledriver that was flying towards goal before it hit a defender ten yards out.
Lincoln came within a lick of paint of retaking the lead in the 70th minute when Green wriggled free just outside the area and sent a right-footed shot thudding against the post.
It was the Town, however, who deservedly went in front just two minutes after Jones had brought Cornick on for Shinnie.
The former Bournemouth forward kept his composure on the ball in the middle of the Lincoln half and spread it wide, via Collin, to Berry, who whipped in a terrific cross that, with the aid of a deflection, found Hylton six yards out to head past Vickers for 3-2.
In the 75th minute the Hatters went close again as Cornick crossed from the right, Hylton controlled and laid off for Berry, overlapping to his left, to crack another effort at goal that Vickers did well to push away.
Cornick was having a real impact on the game and in the 82nd minute his moment came. The 22-year-old received the ball out by the left corner flag, kept hold of it and dribbled into the area before unleashing a rocket from a tight angle that gave Vickers no chance.
Hylton looked to add a fifth in time added on when he cut in from the left and fired a right-footed effort over, just as his name was read out as the sponsors’ man of the match. Then Collins’ did the same, only his effort rattled the crossbar and flew out.
The game that had everything still have something more to give, as Olly Lee produced a couple of outrageous bits of skill to bring more joy to the fans in the Kenilworth Road stand just before ref Kinseley blew his final whistle, and the New Year party could well and truly get started.
Just two defeats in 24 matches in all competitions. Now it’s onto Newcastle with well over 7,000 Hatters in tow!
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Mullins, Sheehan ©, Justin, Rea, O Lee, Berry, Shinnie (Cornick 71), Collins, Hylton. Subs: Cook, Mpanzu, Gambin, E Lee, Famewo, Shea (GK)
Goals: Collins 32, Justin 43, Hylton 73, Cornick 82
LINCOLN: Vickers, Long (Knott 80), Habergham, Whitehouse, Waterfall ©, Rhead (Ginnelly 46), Green (Dickie 85), Bostwick, Raggett, Anderson, Woodyard. Subs: Farman (GK), Palmer, Arnold, Stewart
Yellows: Rhead, Whitehouse, Anderson
Goals: Bostwick 6, Green 34
REFEREE: Nick Kinseley
ATT: 9,659 (1,044 away)