The Hatters suffered defeat at Colchester for the second season in a row on a hugely disappointing afternoon, after Luke Berry suffered a serious ankle injury in the opening exchanges at the Weston Homes Community Stadium.
Danny Hylton’s late penalty halved the deficit and set up a grandstand finish, but ultimately Tom Eastman and Luke Prosser’s first-half goals soon after a 12-minute hold-up for Berry’s injury proved enough for Colchester to take the points.
Hatters boss Nathan Jones made one change to his starting line-up with Glen Rea back into the midfield holding role in place of Alan McCormack, while Luke Gambin and Flynn Downes returned from international duty to take their place on the bench.
The Hatters were dealt an horrendous blow with just a minute on the clock when Berry slid in to make a challenge. His trailing left leg appeared to get caught in the ground and his team-mates immediately signalled for a stretcher, the midfielder clearly in distress.
The other players went into the dressing room while Berry received treatment before being stretchered off to a waiting ambulance. Gambin came on in his place, with Colchester also making a substitution when the game resumed after a 12-minute hold-up, Tom Lapslie – the closest to the injury – going off to be replaced by Brandon Comley.
The hosts took the lead in what officially was the fourth minute, as referee Trevor Kettle had asked for the clock to be stopped while play was suspended, when Eastman met a right-wing cross with a thumping header into the roof of the net.
Their Colchester’s second came in the 15th minute, and this time it was the other centre-half, Prosser, who headed in Ben Stevenson’s left-wing corner after Brennan Dickenson’s 25-yard free-kick had deflected off the Hatters’ wall.
It took a while for the Hatters to get started, but after a James Collins shot had been blocked by Eastman and an Alan Sheehan free-kick had been headed clear, Hylton had the ball in the back of the net on 42 minutes – only for a linesman’s flag to rule it out.
The Town finished the first half the stronger of the two sides, with Olly Lee flashing a shot across the face of goal deep into injury-time, and they made all the running after the break too as the incessant rain started to sit on a heavy pitch.
Olly Lee went close in the 51st minute after a neat one-two with Andrew Shinnie, and just before the hour mark, Hylton glanced a header wide from a Sheehan free-kick on the left.
Jones soon introduced Elliot Lee and he livened things up in attack, getting to the left byline within seconds of his arrival to cross for Hylton, but the striker’s shot was deflected over the bar.
On 68 minutes Elliot Lee engineered a move by feeding Gambin on the right wing, and although Hylton once more met the Malta international’s cross, it was easy for Sam Walker to gather.
Colchester’s only real opportunity of the second half came in the 79th minute when Scott Cuthbert got his head in the way of Stevenson’s goalbound shot, and eight minutes later the Hatters were handed a lifeline when Cuthbert found Gambin to the left of the area, and Colchester defender Ryan Jackson brought the winger down.
Hylton stepped up to chip his penalty down the middle for his 19th goal of the season, and with Cuthbert playing as an emergency centre-forward, another opportunity presented itself two minutes into injury-time when Collins raced onto his captain’s flick, but the striker was denied the chance to shoot as a home defender got back to make the challenge.
The Hatters’ chance of mounting another fightback from 2-0 down had gone, and results elsewhere meant that the gap over fourth place is a healthy seven points, despite Accrington opening up a three-point advantage at the top with their win at Mansfield.
Thoughts, however, were with eight-goal midfielder Berry as his dislocated left ankle was being assessed at Ipswich hospital for possible fracture and ligament damage. Everyone at Kenilworth Road is right behind you Luke, wishing you a speedy recovery.
TOWN: Shea, Justin, Cuthbert ©, Sheehan, Potts, Rea (Cornick 70), O Lee, Berry (Gambin 13), Shinnie (E Lee 66), Collins, Hylton. Subs: Stacey, Jervis, Downes, Stech (GK)
Goals: Hylton (pen) 88
Yellows: Potts, Sheehan, Cuthbert
COLCHESTER: Walker; Jackson, Eastman, Prosser, Vincent-Young, Lapslie (Comley 13), Stevenson (Murray 83), Szmodics, Wright, Dickenson (Senior 46), Mandron. Subs: Barnes (GK), Kent, Mandeville, Ogedi-Uzokwe
Goals: Eastman 4, Prosser 15
Yellows: Jackson, Mandron, Wright, Walker
REFEREE: Trevor Kettle
ATT: 5,461 (1,942 Hatters)