The Hatters moved up to seventh – one place outside the play-offs – in Sky Bet League One with a complete display against Walsall at fortress Kenilworth Road this afternoon.
The Saddlers started the day in seventh spot, but Nathan Jones’ side leapfrogged them from tenth after captain Glen Rea and Jorge Grant scored in each half to secure a fifth home win of the season.
The victory stretched Jones’ side’s unbeaten run at Kenilworth Road to 13 matches in all competitions, dating back to last March when Accrington Stanley left Bedfordshire with all three points.
Fourth-placed Stanley are due in town on Tuesday night, but the Hatters will go into the encounter with renewed confidence after bouncing back from last week’s defeat at Barnsley with a top drawer performance in front of just under 9,000 creating another cracking atmosphere at the Kenny.
Top scorer of the past two seasons, Danny Hylton, made his return to the Hatters' starting line-up for the first time in nine weeks as Jones made two changes from last week’s defeat at Barnsley.
Also back in the team from kick-off was Andrew Shinnie, who returned to the Town midfield in place of James Justin. Harry Cornick was the man to make way for Hylton to make his 96th appearance for the club.
That meant James Shea was in goal behind a back four of Jack Stacey, Matty Pearson, Sonny Bradley and Dan Potts.
Rea captained the side from the midfield holding role, with Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Shinnie and Grant making up the engine room, behind a front two of Hylton and James Collins, who is the this term’s joint top scorer with four goals coming in his last four matches.
There was also a welcome return to the bench for the other man on four goals, Elliot Lee, after injury kept him out of last week's game at his former club Barnsley.
Town started brightly, Shinnie having the first attempt on goal in the sixth minute after a good spell of possession, although the Scot’s 20-yard shot after cutting in from the left was deflected wide.
Pearson went close soon after in a goalmouth scramble, and the Hatters dominated possession without really creating any clear-cut opportunities until Rea opened the scoring in the 19th minute.
The skipper probably didn’t know too much about it, but after the latest in a series of penetrative moves down the left, Potts’ cross was deflected behind and Grant delivered the corner that found Hylton’s head on the edge of the six-yard box.
The striker’s header was on target and as a Walsall defender looked to clear from by the post, Rea was on hand to turn the ball into the bottom corner for his first of the season.
The Hatters were orchestrating the play, patiently building moves with man-of-the-match Rea dictating, along with Shinnie and Grant, as they dominated the midfield.
Just after the half-hour, Grant called visiting keeper Liam Roberts into action with a shot on the turn from the edge of the box after another move that had started deep in the Town half, involving at least 15 passes.
Walsall sounded their first warning in the 34th minute, but top scorer Andy Cook’s header drifted just wide of the far post after Luke Leahy picked him out with a cross from the left flank.
Shea had to be alert to tip another dowanward header from Cook over the bar in the 42nd minute, after it had bounced up awkwardly, but it was a move in which the Hatters suffered in a more serious, with Potts pulling up with a groin injury as he went to prevent the Walsall attack from delivering the cross from the right wing.
The ever versatile Justin came on, slotting into Potts’ left-back role, and the Hatters saw out the half without any further alarms.
Ten minutes into the second half, after a lengthy delay for Justin to receive treatment after taking a ball flush in the face from point blank range after Mpanzu won a ferocious tackle right next to him, the Hatters had doubled their advantage.
Grant made it, driving down the left to be felled by Jon Guthrie, who was shown the game’s only yellow card for the foul. Grant picked himself up and bent a perfect 25-yard free-kick into the top corner for a carbon copy of his strike against Shrewsbury a couple of months ago.
Collins fired over from the left angle of the area in the 57th minute, then two minutes later – and the end of another spell of sustained possession – Justin cut in from the left and struck a shot low against the post, with Hylton’s rebound cleared off the line.
A short corner routine on the right led to the next chance on the hour, but Shinnie’s clipped first-time effort was headed clear in a crowded six-yard box and the ball wouldn’t come down for Rea – who was first to every ball in both boxes – to get another shot off.
Walsall made a double substitution in the 62nd minute, and within five minutes one of the replacements, midfielder Connor Ronan, was firing a 25-yarder well over the bar into the away fans in the Oak Road.
Referee Andy Woolmer played a key role in helping set up the Town’s next attack, the official getting in the way of Ronan’s pass in the centre circle, with Mpanzu and Grant pouncing on the loose ball to set Collins away in the inside left channel, but Roberts was equal to the forward’s low shot.
Hylton thought his chance for a third goal of the season had finally come in the 72nd minute when Stacey found him on the edge of the Walsall area, and after twisting his way past Guthrie, his shot prodded past the onrushing Roberts also beat the far post, by inches.
Walsall had another sight of goal a couple when Cook fired over, and Hylton was soon leaving the pitch to a rousing ovation, having completed 78 minutes on his return.
Shinnie, Collins and Cornick were soon combining to great effect on the right, with the latter’s cross headed just over by Collins after he’d made his way into the box.
Then, with five minutes of normal time left, Shinnie took a throw-in from Justin on the left and fired a volley that Roberts did well to push away – just as he did with Bradley’s volley from much closer in moments later.
Kazenga LuaLua came on in the 88th minute and was straight into the action, tricking his way past his man on the left and crossing deep for Cornick, who chested down and shot low towards the bottom corner, with Roberts again doing well to turn away with his foot.
Walsall threatened briefly in injury-time as Morgan Ferrier crossed from the left, but Shea was right behind Cook’s tame effort at the near post, and the Hatters’ unbeaten home run was safely extended ahead of Tuesday night’s visit of Accrington.
TOWN: Shea, Stacey, Pearson, Bradley, Potts (Justin 45), Rea (c), Mpanzu, Shinnie, Grant (LuaLua 88), Hylton (Cornick 78), Collins. Subs: McCormack, Lee, Sheehan, Isted.
Goals: Rea 19, Grant 55
WALSALL: Roberts, Leahy, Dobson (c), Guthrie, Devlin (Wilson 62), Cook, Ismail (Ronan 62), Ginnelly (Gordon 83), Kinsella, Ferrier, Fitzwater. Subs: Morris, Dunn (GK), Johnson, Osbourne.
REFEREE: Andy Woolmer
ATT: 8,953 (504 away)