The Hatters bowed out of the Emirates FA Cup at the third round stage this afternoon – but not without giving Premier League Newcastle United a second-half fright after going three down in a nine-minute spell before half-time.
With 7,500 travelling supporters filling the upper tier of the Leazes Stand and forming the biggest-ever away crowd at the modern St James’ Park, the League Two leaders put up a real fight to leave manager Nathan Jones bursting with pride, despite a tinge of disappointment at the result.
Leading scorer Danny Hylton’s 49th-minute goal – his 17th of the season – gave the Hatters hope after a brace from Ayoze Perez and a third from Jonjo Shelvey between the 30th and 39th minutes had put the Magpies in control by half-time.
It might have been so different had another Hylton effort, wrongly ruled out for offside, counted eight minutes later before substitute Elliot Lee hit the crossbar with a free-kick with just under 20 minutes to go.
But after a gallant effort in front of a crowd of more than 47,000, the Town are left to concentrate on reaching Wembley in the Chekatrade Trophy, and the ultimate goal of securing promotion to League One, after giving Rafa Benitez’s side a cracking game.
Jones, on his second anniversary as Town boss and fresh from signing a new four-year contract in midweek, made two changes to his starting line-up, bringing Dan Potts back in after the left-back missed Monday’s 4-2 victory over Lincoln City through illness.
Also returning to the starting XI was midfielder Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, who played at Port Vale last Saturday before sitting out the New Year’s Day encounter with the Imps.
Wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of both Scott Cuthbert and Alan Sheehan, who was serving the first of a three-match suspension following his red card against Lincoln, was their fellow centre-half Johnny Mullins.
Newcastle had a sight of goal in the opening minute when Jacob Murphy shot from just inside the area, but thankfully for the Hatters, Glen Rea deflected it wide.
As you’d expect the hosts enjoyed the majority of the early possession, but without creating any clear-cut opportunities.
The Hatters grew into the game and their first attack came in the eighth minute when Shinnie dispossessed Matt Ritchie, then sprinted up the right to take a perfectly timed pass from James Justin. The Scot drove towards the hosts’ penalty area, but his cross proved just too high for James Collins at the back post.
Hylton and Collins twice came close to charging down keeper Freddie Woodman’s clearances, as Newcastle played the ball around in their own area, but it was Marek Stech who was the first keeper called into real action on 15 minutes when he pushed Murphy’s 20-yard left-footed effort away.
Hylton used his trademark nutmeg and dummying skills in quick succession to trick his way past Jamaal Lascelles on the right byline, winning a free-kick, and then Ciaran Clark, only to see his low cross cleared by the home defence.
The Hatters were giving as good as they were taking, but in the 22nd minute it was Stech who again had to be alert, this time diving low to his left to beat a Perez shot away from 18 yards.
Hylton was proving a real menace to the Newcastle defence, using all of his experience to out-muscle Jonjo Shelvey and latch onto a long clearance from Stech, but Luke Berry – picked out by the striker lurking on the far edge of the box – saw his 20-yard shot blocked.
Just before the half-hour Hylton picked up a yellow card for pulling Murphy back as he tracked back to help the defence, and from Dwight Gayle’s inswinging free-kick, Perez pounced to poke the Premier League side in front after Stech had spilled the initial effort.
Rafa Benitez’s side looked to increase their lead with Shelvey shooting over in the 33rd minute and Gayle sending a left-foot shot just wide of Stech’s left post a minute later.
By the 36th minute it was 2-0, but there was an element of luck about it as Ritchie’s right-wing cross was defected just over Rea’s head for Gayle, whose header was saved by Stech, but only into the path of Perez, who once again tucked home from inside the six-yard box.
Three minutes later it was three, when an incisive passing move between Perez and Gayle through the centre of the Hatters’ half carved open the Town defence for Shelvey to run onto the ball and pick his spot from 15 yards.
The Town regrouped and managed to put together a sustained period of possession as the half drew to a close, with Collins’ persistence on the right resulting in a corner, taken by Olly Lee, that Berry headed over at the far post, but the half ended without the Hatters having tested Woodman.
That changed soon into the second half as the Town, with Harry Cornick on for Mpanzu, starting on the front foot.
Hylton cut the ball back for Berry to send a volley goalwards within a minute of the restart, then the top scorer made it 17 for the season in the 49th minute.
Hylton initially caused concern for Woodman by pressing the keeper as he cleared outside his area, and when Rea sent the young Toon stopper’s clearance straight back to Hylton, he side-stepped Woodman and placed the ball past centre-half Clark, who had played him onside, and into the empty net.
Newcastle immediately went up the other end and called Stech into action again, Murphy cutting back for Perez, who found Stech blocking his path, before Gayle volleyed a left-wing corner inches over the bar.
Hylton had the ball in the back of the net again in the 57th minute when Shinnie played him in on the left side of the area, only for an offside flag to rule his effort out as he curled past Woodman and raced away in celebration in front of the 7,500 travelling Town fans. TV replays proved that Hylton was comfortably onside and the goal should have stood.
The Hatters were having a real go and after a lightning break down the right by Cornick, the forward switched the ball left to Shinnie, who was fouled on the edge of the box. Olly Lee lined the free-kick up from 20 yards, but his curling effort was deflected just wide.
Town were bossing possession now and Shelvey and Isaac Hayden, on as an early sub for Lascelles, both went into referee Neil Swarbrick’s notepad for cynical fouls on Justin and Collins as the Hatters broke at pace.
Jones threw Elliot Lee into the attack, in place of Collins, with just over 20 minutes to go but it was from his brother Olly’s right-wing corner that the next opportunity arrived, Mullins climbing highest in the box but heading a foot wide of Woodman’s post.
Perez had another chance to complete his hat-trick in the 73rd minute, but the Spaniard dragged his left-foot shot wide.
Then, within seconds, the Hatters came as close as possible to narrowing the deficit once more, when Elliot Lee rattled the crossbar, with Woodman rooted to the spot, after Hylton had been fouled right on the left edge of the penalty area.
Woodman was called into action in the 78th minute by Shinnie, who sent a curling shot destined for the top corner before the Newcastle stopper got a hand to it, diverting it just out of Hylton’s reach as the Town looked more like the top-flight side than the Magpies.
Olly Lee was soon picking out Cornick as the ex-Bournemouth man looked to get in behind, but the ball ran away from him as he took it on his chest with just Woodman between him and the goal.
Newcastle went close again with Murphy and Ritchie whistling low shots just past the post, but Jones made another attacking move in the 82nd minute by bringing on Luke Gambin for Shinnie, who’d had an excellent second half.
Ritchie chipped onto the roof of the net with four minutes to go, but the Hatters were still prepared to have a go – Potts rising highest to meet Olly Lee’s left-wing corner, only for his header to drift wide, before Gayle sent a curling effort high over the Town bar with 90 minutes up. Then, deep into injury-time, he forced Stech into a good save with his feet.
Gambin had a great chance to reduce the arrears four minutes into time added on when Elliot Lee slipped him into the right side of area, but the Malta international’s effort went into the side netting after a long run from deep inside his own half.
The Hatters’ run was over, but as the travelling masses high in the stands applauded Jones and his players off, everyone associated with Luton Town Football club could be proud of what they had seen. On to Peterborough…then Chesterfield!
TOWN: Stech, Justin, Rea, Mullins ©, Potts, Mpanzu (Cornick 46), O Lee, Berry, Shinnie (Gambin 82), Collins (E Lee 68), Hylton. Subs: Stacey, Cook, Cornick, Famewo, Shea (GK)
Goals: Hylton 49
NEWCASTLE: Woodman, Clark, Dummett, Lascelles © (Hayden 31), Murphy, Shelvey (Diame 71), Gayle, Ritchie, Perez, Manquillo, Merino (Saivet 80). Subs: Aarons, Joselu, Haidara, Darlow (GK)
Goals: Perez 30, 36, Shelvey 39
Yellows: Shelvey, Hayden, Dummett
REFEREE: Neil Swarbrick
ATT: 47,069 (7,500 Hatters)