The Hatters moved six points clear at the top of Sky Bet League Two with a 1-0 victory over Morecambe at Kenilworth Road this afternoon.
Captain Johnny Mullins’ second goal of the season proved enough to extend the Town’s unbeaten home run to six league matches as a fifth win in that sequence was ground out on a dirty day in Bedfordshire.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, and you can't expect seven and eight-goal home wins every other week. But it is on determined afternoons in freezing conditions like these that promotion campaigns are built, so they say.
And as snow, sleet and rain saturated the playing surface, an 11th home victory of the season – with a 13th league clean sheet for goalkeeper Marek Stech thrown in – made it a good day back at the Kenny for manager Nathan Jones after successive defeats on the road, either side of the New Year’s Day success against Lincoln.
The Town boss made three changes to his starting line-up, with Jack Stacey coming back into the team at right-back, Lawson D’Ath into midfield and striker Danny Hylton returning up front after missing last Saturday’s loss at Chesterfield with a hamstring problem.
James Justin, Akin Famewo and Elliot Lee dropped to the bench, with Glen Rea moving into central defence alongside Mullins as Alan Sheehan sat out the last game of his three-match suspension, and Olly Lee playing in the midfield holding role.
Hylton’s return didn’t last long, the top scorer feeling his other hamstring after trying to dummy and turn Shrimps centre-half Max Muller for the second time in the opening five minutes, and he was eventually replaced by Elliot Lee in the ninth minute after trying to carry on following treatment.
The Hatters regrouped and had the first shot on goal in the 14th minute when Andrew Shinnie won the ball in the middle of the Morecambe half and drove towards the penalty area before unleashing a 25-yard drive that Barry Roche could only beat away.
Two minutes later Luke Berry sent in a cross looking for D’Ath, but the knock-down from Morecambe defender Steven Old landed straight at the feet of Elliot Lee, who let fly first time only for the Kiwi centre-half to recover and block, unwittingly, for a corner.
At the other end Stacey, a constant threat down the Town right, did really well to get a deflected block on Aaron Wildig’s attempt to steer Garry Thompson’s low cross home as the Shrimps proved a threat on the break.
Berry had crack just before the half-hour, creating space for himself on the edge of the box before firing over the Shrimps’ bar, but the Hatters were finding clear-cut opportunities had to come by, despite dominating possession.
Glen Rea had the next attempt in the 33rd minute, shooting wide on the turn as Olly Lee’s right-wing corner was half-cleared in his direction 12 yards out.
But Morecambe reminded the Town they were well in the game when right wing-back Aaron McGowan drew a save out of Stech, moments after Luke Conlan – soon to be booked for a foul from behind on Shinnie – had sliced a left-footed shot horribly wide.
The Town ended the half in the ascendancy, Elliot Lee tricking his way inside from the right touchline a minute into added time, although his shot from a tight angle was deflected behind for a corner when a cut-back for the unmarked D’Ath might have been the better option.
His brother Olly then delivered a wicked outswinging free-kick into the six-yard box after Conlan was penalised for handball when charging down a cross on the right, but no-one took up the invitation and the opening 45 minutes finished frustratingly goalless.
McGowan had the first shot of the second half, though it drifted safely past Stech’s left post, before D’Ath led a 54th-minute charge from inside his own half, slipping Olly Lee in on the right but the midfielder’s shot flew high over the bar into the Kenny end.
Stech did brilliantly in the 55th minute when Adam McGurk’s tame shot on the turn took a wicked deflection off Mullins, and the Czech had to get down low to turn it around his left post.
There was a carbon copy stop three minutes later when Conlan’s cross from the left took a couple of deflections en route to finding McGurk inside the six-yard box, and his scuffed effort once again had the Hatters keeper scrambling to turn it behind.
Morecambe were asking the questions at this stage, McGowan drawing another save from Stech with a 25-yard shot, just before Aaron Wildig’s 62nd-minute header flew inches past the near post.
Two minutes later, however, the Town had the breakthrough. Elliot Lee was fouled out on the left and his brother Olly delivered another beautiful ball into the six-yard box for Mullins to bury his header emphatically past Roche and into the bottom corner.
Harry Cornick came on as a substitute in place of D’Ath before the restart, and the ex-Bournemouth man soon produced a beautiful flick past Conlan on halfway to find Collins, who bided his time before feeding the flying sub into the box, but Roche got a fingertip to his angled shot.
Mullins almost doubled the lead with 20 minutes to go when the captain met Olly Lee’s left-wing corner with a flicked header, but this one drifted wide of the far post.
Then, with 72 minutes on the clock, Cornick again called Roche into action, beating Conlan with ease inside the box before crashing a shot on goal that the visiting keeper punched away once more.
Morecambe had brought Kevin Ellison on as a 70th-minute sub and the 38-year-old was presented with a great chance after Rea was caught out of position, but the former Republic of Ireland U21 international soon got back to make a perfectly timed challenge.
Then Ellison had another, even better chance, as Mullins’ poor headed clearance landed straight at the forward’s feet on the edge of the area, but thankfully he dragged his shot wide.
Along with Cornick on the right, Elliot Lee continued to take the game to Morecambe down the left and Roche was called into action again when Lee’s low cross-shot almost caught him out.
Morecambe missed a sitter to draw level when the unmarked Old headed wide from a corner with five minutes left, and the Town were having to soak up some pressure.
But Shinnie relieved it in the 88th minute when he nicked the ball halfway inside his own half and set Collins clear on the right, although the striker’s shot was too high.
Morecambe had one final chance with 90 minutes up, when Elliot Lee fouled Adam Campbell 25 yards out, but captain Michael Rose’s effort was way off target and the Town could breathe a sigh of relief.
With second-placed Notts County losing at home to Exeter, the Hatters doubled their advantage over the Magpies to six points, although the gap over fourth-placed Wycombe remains at eight points with the Chairboys winning 3-2 at Crewe.
On to Grimsby...
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Rea, Mullins ©, Potts, O Lee, D’Ath (Cornick 65), Berry, Shinnie, Collins, Hylton (E Lee 9). Subs: Justin, Cook, Mpanzu, Famewo, Shea (GK)
Goals: Mullins 64
MORECAMBE: Roche, McGowan (Lund 85), Old, Thompson, Fleming, Conlan, Wildig (Campbell 70), Lavelle, Muller, Rose ©, McGurk (Ellison 70). Subs: Brough, Kenyon, Winnard, Nizic (GK)
Yellows: Conlan, Fleming
REFEREE: Trevor Kettle