The Hatters made it three successive home wins and four unbeaten at Kenilworth Road in Sky Bet League One this season with a 1-0 victory over Bristol Rovers this afternoon.
Andrew Shinnie was boss Nathan Jones’ only change from the side that lost at Doncaster last week, and it was the Scot who delivered the knockout blow with his first goal in ten months, as the Town turned in an impressive performance that merited more than the narrow winning margin.
Shinnie’s last goal came against Carlisle last November, and the goalkeeper that night was Jack Bonham – the man in between the Pirates’ posts on this occasion, and the main reason why the Hatters didn’t rack up a more impressive scoreline.
Results elsewhere meant that the Town stay 11th in the table, but the afternoon ended on a sad note, with on-loan midfielder Eunan O’Kane suffering a broken leg with just over ten minutes of normal time to go.
Matty Pearson had the Hatters’ first sight of goal in the fifth minute, heading Jorge Grant’s corner well over, before the centre-half played a part – along with Glen Rea, Shinnie, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Elliot Lee and Jack Stacey – in a patient build-up that led to an attempt for Grant, which went wide of Bonham’s near post a minute later.
The Town were playing some delightful football, and Grant was to go closer still in the 15th minute when Shinnie dug out a delightful cross from the right touchline that the midfielder met with a thumping header, but Bonham was in the right place to beat it away.
Grant was revelling in his role at the tip of the midfield diamond, sending two Rovers players the wrong way with a clever drag-back when receiving a pass infield from Potts, who had been found on the left touchline by a raking pass from Rea.
Second later the Nottingham Forest loanee was delivering another pinpoint corner, this one met by the head of Sonny Bradley, who couldn’t direct it at goal when Potts steaming in behind him might have been better placed to get an effort on target.
Another fine passing move ended with the ball in the back of the Rovers net on 22 minutes, but referee Robert Lewis had adjudged James Collins to have pushed his man before Stacey volleyed Potts’ left-wing cross into the bottom corner.
Lee was soon flashing a cross-shot across the six-yard box, the ball eventually finding its way to Rea, whose shot from the edge from the box was deflected wide.
Rovers made an early switch, taking off right-sided midfielder Sam Matthews before half-an-hour was up and putting a second striker on, with Tom Nichols joining Stefan Payne in attack.
But it was the Hatters who continued to play with all the attacking intent, however, Potts and Collins combing down the left to set Shinnie up to deliver another terrific cross that Collins headed straight at Bonham.
Collins was at the heart of the next positive Town move, in the 34th minute, blocking Bennet’s effort from a short free-kick on the edge of the Hatters’ area, then breaking quickly as Lee flicked it to him on halfway, making ground and feeding his strike partner to draw another good save from Bonham.
Two minutes later it was a Lee cross from the right that found Mpanzu at the far post, but the midfielder’s half-volley was somehow kept out by Bonham at point blank range before Collins’ glancing header from Potts’ follow-up cross went well wide.
With half-time approaching, Shinnie fed Mpanzu into the box, but Bonham was quickly off his line to make another fine save, before Rea’s 20-yard shot had the goalkeeper flying across his goalmouth, but the ball was inches too high as the Hatters’ last chance of taking a lead into the break disappeared.
The second half started in much the same vein, the Hatters asking all of the questions and a clever free-kick from Grant played Mpanzu in down the left side of the wall, only for the Pirates’ defence to head clear as Potts lurked, looking to take advantage.
Then Shinnie and Grant combined brilliantly to get the Hatters up the left in the 59th minute, the latter eventually sending in a cross that found Mpanzu 15 yards out, but by the time the midfielder had chested the ball down, three Rovers defenders threw themselves in the way of his half-volley.
Rovers sounded a warning on the hour when Nichols rose at the far post to meet James Clarke’s right-wing cross, but the substitute’s header was thankfully too high.
The breakthrough finally came in the 62nd minute, and inevitably it was Grant and Shinnie at its heart, the former delivering the free-kick from the left side of the area after Shinnie had been fouled by James Clarke, who was already on a booking.
The Rovers defence managed to get the ball half-clear, but only as far as Shinnie, who was lurking in exactly the same position Mpanzu had found himself in moments earlier, and this time the Scotsman crashed his right-footed volley in between Bonham and his near post for a terrific goal.
Four minutes later Lee, in his trademark position cutting into the left-side of the area and looking to bend one with his right foot, almost doubled the lead, but Bonham managed to push his effort away once again.
After Tom Lockyer had headed just over at the other end, the ex-Barnsley striker tested the visiting keeper again in the 71st minute, latching onto a flick-on from Collins, but the keeper tipped this one past the far post.
The Hatters were battling to protect their clean sheet at the other end, and moments after O’Kane had come on for Grant, Pearson threw himself in the way of an Ollie Clarke shot, allowing James Shea – a virtual spectator all afternoon – to gather comfortably in his six-yard box.
Shinnie was another putting his body on the line, winning a crunching challenge on the edge of his own box in the 80th minute, O’Kane picking up the loose ball but then over-running it and having to go in for a tackle with Clarke that resulted in an injury to the on-loan Leeds midfielder.
After an eight-minute hold-up as the Irishman had his leg put in a brace and was carried off on a stretcher, James Justin came on in his place.
Referee Lewis announced 11 minutes of injury-time would be played, and Pearson was on his mettle again deep into that period to head a Nichols cross over his own bar, before Jones replaced man-of-the-match Shinnie with captain Alan Sheehan to help see out a second clean sheet of the season.
A second goal would have put the icing on the cake, and Bonham again denied Collins with virtually the last kick of the game after Justin had done brilliantly to wriggle free of his man on the left byline.
The points were secure and Fortress Kenilworth remains unbreached this season, but thoughts of all Hatters were at the L&D with O’Kane and hopes for a speedy recovery.
TOWN: Shea, Stacey, Pearson, Bradley, Potts, Rea ©, Mpanzu, Shinnie (Sheehan 90+8), Grant (O’Kane 75, Justin 88), Lee, Collins. Subs: McCormack, Cornick, Jarvis, Isted.
Goals: Shinnie 62
ROVERS: Bonham, Lockyer ©, Craig, Upson, O Clarke, Payne (Reilly 54), Lines, J Clarke, Bennett, Matthews (Nichols 28), Martin. Subs: Leadbitter, Broadbent, Smith (GK), Sinclair, Jakubiak.
Yellows: J Clarke
REFEREE: Robert Lewis
ATT: 8,912 (519 visitors)