League Two: Northampton Town 2 Luton Town 1
Luton Town slipped out of the League Two play-off places after suffering their sixth consecutive defeat at Northampton Town this afternoon.
The loss, Luton’s eighth in nine games was made even more galling by the fact they had led through Alex Lawless’ strike moments after half time, but couldn’t hold on as Ricky Holmes’ penalty and then James Gray’s effort won it for the hosts.
Both of the Cobblers’ goals through were shrouded in controversy with Michael Harriman penalised for a handball in the area, and then for Gray’s winner, Paul Benson charging down keeper Matt Duke’s clearance for a throw, only for the officials to bafflingly award a goal kick.
However, there was no questioning the Cobblers were worthy winners though, as had it not been for the reflexes of Luton keeper Elliot Justham, they could have been staring down the barrel of a heavier defeat.
Town boss John Still had made five chance from the 3-2 defeat against Wycombe as midfielder Nathan Doyle made his first start since a knee injury suffered against York City on February 10, while Jonathan Smith was back in after missing the last three games.
Aston Villa loanee Lewis Kinsella was handed his debut at left back, with Mark Cullen and Alex Lawless included, as Elliot Lee, Jake Howells and Fraser Franks were all injured, while Luke Guttridge and Cameron McGeehan dropped to the bench.
Striker Ricky Miller also was back on the bench too after recovering from injury, where he was joined by fit-again winger Ryan Hall.
The hosts had the first shot in anger with some neat passing opening up an opportunity for Joel Byrom as he fired straight at Elliot Justham from 20 yards.
Northampton had easily the better of the early exchanges as a long spell of pressure saw Kinsella harshly booked and from the free kick an unmarked John-Joe O’Toole prodded wide at the far post.
It took Hatters 14 minutes to test home keeper Matt Duke and that was an easy low stop as Cullen opted to go alone from range after picking up Luke Wilkinson’s clearing header.
From there, barely anything happened in either side’s goal area, in what was a desperately poor spectacle for the near 6,000 in attendance, Cullen sending another tame effort straight at Duke.
With five minutes of the half remaining, Northampton fashioned their best opportunity as Smith’s sliced clearance fell invitingly for O’Toole but Justham stood firm to clutch his powerful close range volley.
The hosts then looked like finishing with an advantage as Ricky Holmes flicked straight at Justham, while Byrom again had an opening, but once more, could only pick out the Town stopper.
The second half had barely got underway when Luton were in front though and it came in superb fashion as Lawless picked up possession outside the box and curled a delightful effort past Duke for his third of the season.
Finally, proceedings were enlivened as the goal injected some urgency into both sides, but Town were dealt a telling blow as skipper Steve McNulty had to go off injured, replaced by Alex Lacey, making his 50th appearance for the club.
Without their influential captain, Town’s lead didn’t last long though as from a cross, Michael Harriman was adjudged to have handled the ball by referee Graham Scott and received a yellow for his troubles.
The game’s stand out player Holmes stepped up and confidently gave Justham no chance from the spot.
Town’s keeper then made a wonderful point blank save from Gray though as a marvellous pre-planned free kick routine saw Justham display brilliant reactions to keep his side in it.
The Luton stopper made another decent block from Byrom’s blast, ungainly parrying it away as the hosts were now clearly in the ascendancy.
Hatters boss John Still made two further changes, as Miller and McGeehan replaced Cullen and Lawless, but Northampton looked by more likely as after more trickery on the wing from Holmes, Ivan Tony headed badly wide from inside the six yard box.
The Cobblers then had the killer blow with just four minutes left as Justham saved superbly from a deflected long range attempt, and then blocked the rebound with his legs, but Hatters couldn’t clear and Gray tapped home.
There was huge controversy though as the move emanated from a goal kick after Benson charged down Duke’s clearance for what looked like a throw as the striker remonstrated with the officials afterwards.
Boss Still continued the protests after the final whistle as his side are now looking worryingly like missing out on the play-offs, leapfrogged by Plymouth Argyle who triumphed 3-0 at Accrington Stanley.
Hatters: Elliot Justham, Michael Harriman, Lewis Kinsella, Steve McNulty (C, Alex Lacey 57), Luke Wilkinson, Nathan Doyle, Jonathan Smith, Andy Drury, Alex Lawless (Cameron McGeehan 82), Mark Cullen (Ricky Miller 65) , Paul Benson.
Subs not used: Jayden Stockley, Luke Guttridge, Ryan Hall, Liam Gooch.
Cobblers: Matt Duke, Brendon Moloney, Lee Collins (C), John-Joe O’Toole (Ivan Toney 55), James Gray (Zander Diamond 90), Lawson D’Ath, Jason Taylor, Joel Byrom, Ricky Holmes, Tom Newey, Ryan Creswell (Darren Carter 55).
Subs not used: Chris Hackett, Sam Warburton, Danny Clifton, Shwan Jalal.
Referee: Graham Scott.
Booked: Kinsella 11, Moloney 41, Benson 50, Harriman 53, Doyle 89.
Attendance: 5,668 (Luton 913)
Hatters MOM: Elliot Justham. Keeper made a host of important saves to keep his side in the contest.