The Hatters’ Sky Bet League Two promotion-winning season ended with a goalless draw at Notts County in front of almost 4,500 travelling fans on another memorable afternoon for Luton Town.
Nathan Jones’ men have had their League One slot for next season sorted for a fortnight, but they didn’t take their foot off the gas on a sweltering day in Nottingham and could have sealed a fifth victory in six unbeaten games to close the campaign, despite Danny Hyton’s second-half dismissal for two yellow cards.
As it was, a first nil-nil since the trip to Crawley in mid-October brought the season to a close with the Hatters’ 88 points and 94 goals taking the club back to the status they last played at a decade ago as runners-up to Accrington Stanley.
After the game, Jones and his squad celebrated with the fans – and received a terrific ovation from the home fans who had stayed behind to acknowledge their own side, who now have to face the play-offs with home advantage for the second leg of their semi-final guaranteed by a fifth place finish.
The Town’s first attack of any real intent started with Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu deep inside his own half, killing the ball with a great touch and setting James Collins away down the right, but the striker’s whipped cross just eluded partner Danny Hylton in the six-yard box.
A minute later, with nine gone, it was the hosts’ turn to launch a counter-attack from deep, Jonathan Stead firing in a low cross that similarly just missed his onrushing team-mates after Jonathan Forte had set him away down the left from inside his own half.
The first shot on target came in the 11th minute, when Elliot Lee teed up his brother, Olly, for a 20-yard blast that County keeper Adam Collin did well to beat away.
Captain Alan Sheehan, who received a standing ovation from both sets of fans as he went to take his first corner of the game, had to be alert to prevent Matty Virtue getting on the end of a knock-down from Stead in the 17th minute, with Glen Rea on hand to clear the remaining danger.
The Hatters were making inroads on the home defence, however, and Elliot Lee set Jack Stacey racing past left-back Dan Jones, only for the Town right-back’s cross-shot to fizz across goal with Hylton and Collins both waiting for a tap-in.
The Town’s young players of the year did well in his normal defensive role in the 23rd minute to get a block on Stead’s shot, then Shea did well to hold a Jorge Grant effort from distance in the 25th.
Jones’ side were playing some lovely football, however, and after Stacey once again found himself in the Notts penalty area to get a shot away, this one deflected wide, Elliot Lee took the ball off Mpanzu on the edge of the box and fired in a right-footed shot that was tipped over by Collin.
After a spell of lengthy possession which the Town fans greeted with oles, Hylton got on the end of a 34th-minute cross from Colllins, but his flick ended up hitting the side-netting.
Hylton picked up a yellow card just before half-time and teams went in goalless at the break, but it was the Hatters who started the second half on the front foot, Elliot Lee carrying the ball from halfway and getting it back inadvertently when his attempted pass to Collins was half-intercepted, only to see his left-footed shot hit the side-netting too.
The 12-goal forward went closer still in the 54th minute, Collin getting down low at his near post to keep his stabbed effort out, before he sent a 25-yarder inches over the crossbar.
Town were reduced to ten men just before the hour when Hylton was shown a second yellow card after a coming together on the near touchline with Shaun Brisley, but it didn’t affect the way Jones’ side attacked.
After Olly Lee and Sheehan threw themselves in the way of a couple of County shots at one end, Mpanzu and Collins combined to release Stacey down the right once more, but the full-back’s shot once again went just past the far post.
Mpanzu was always carrying a threat, and with 71 minutes gone the midfielder burst along the right byline, but Collins couldn’t get a shot off from his cut-back and Notts’ defence cleared the danger.
Double player of the year Sheehan was having another inspired game at the heart of the Hatters’ defence, and the Irishman did well to block another effort from his former club when he threw himself in front of Lewis Alessandra’s 20-yarder soon after the County sub had come on.
Jones introduced his first sub, Harry Cornick, with just over ten minutes to go and the forward almost got on the end of another Jack Stacey cross, then another great move saw Collins play Mpanzu in on the left of the box, but the midfielder’s shot was deflected behind for a corner.
Sheehan went over to take again, and Rea met this one with a firm header that whistled just past the far post, before Rea’s long ball cleared the County defence and Collins looked to be in the clear, only for his first touch to let him down as he bore down on Collin in the home goal.
Grant fired a free-kick over the bar with 90 minutes up, after Sheehan was booked for a foul on the edge of the box, then McCormack hit one just wide as the Town finished the game comfortably.
Runners-up, automatic promotion secured. Job done for Jones and his team who now have an open-top bus tour of Luton tomorrow with their journey to League One complete. Come on you Hatters!
TOWN: Shea, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan (c), Potts, McCormack (Downes 90+5), O Lee, Mpanzu, E Lee (Cornick 79), Collins, Hylton. Subs: Justin, Cuthbert, Jervis, Gambin, Stech (GK)
Yellows: Hylton, Sheehan
COUNTY: Collin, Tootle, Hewitt, Virtue (Alessandra 74), O’Connor © (Husin 74), Grant, Forte, Brisley, Jones, Hall, Stead. Subs: Fitzsimons (GK), Duffy, Ameobi, Milsom.
Yellows: Jones, Hall, Hewitt
ATT: 12,184 (4,495)
REFEREE: Darren Handley