Braintree deny Luton title with dramatic win
Luton Town’s promotion party was put on hold by an impressive Braintree outfit who stunned an expectant home crowd with a 3-2 victory in a dramatic and incident-packed encounter at Kenilworth Road this afternoon.
Knowing victory would be enough to end a five-year stay in the Conference and secure a long-awaited return to the Football League, the Hatters produced a largely disjointed display in front of the 10,000-strong crowd, plus the BT Sport cameras, and will now have to wait another week before they can clinch the title, unless Cambridge United fail to beat Kidderminster in their game in hand on Tuesday evening.
Although Luton began well, the visitors took a shock lead through Dean Wells before James Mulley doubled their advantage to stun the home fans.
Visiting goalkeeper Nick Hamann was then sent off for a professional foul to hand Luton a much-needed lifeline but Chez Isaac seemingly sealed victory with a third goal after the restart.
Town rallied, however, and Jake Howells’ penalty resurrected hope of a sensational comeback before Alex Wall’s volley was greeted by a deafening roar as the crowd sensed a dramatic turnaround.
It wasn’t to be, though, and Braintree held off the fightback to delay Luton’s title celebrations.
The fixture saw the highest number of Hatters fans inside Kenilworth Road for a competitive game for 20 years, making for an electric atmosphere ahead of kick-off.
Manager John Still made two changes from the win over Tamworth in midweek, with Alex Lawless coming in for the injured Andre Gray, while Mark Cullen started in place of Luke Rooney.
In front of an boisterous Kenilworth Road, Luton came flying out of the traps and put pressure on the visitors from the off but Braintree, who are chasing promotion themselves, saw out the first 10 minutes despite being penned back inside their own half.
As Luton continued to press, the breakthrough arrived but it was Braintree who took a shock lead when slack defending from a Daniel Sparkes corner allowed Dean Wells to power a free header past the helpless Mark Tyler.
That goal seemed to disrupt Luton’s rhythm as they struggled to regain their early momentum, and their troubles deepened on 21 minutes when an uncharacteristic mistake from Steve McNulty allowed Dan Holman to get away down the right before the winger squared across goal for James Mulley to poke beyond Tyler and give Town a mountain to climb.
A stunned Kenilworth Road looked to stir Luton into a comeback but the home side struggled find any fluency against the well-organised visitors.
But they were then given an almighty boost when an error in judgement from Nick Hamann allowed Paul Benson to get through on goal down before he was pulled down by the goalkeeper, who was shown a straight red card.
The resulting free-kick came to little but the red card had transformed the mood around Kneilworth Road as the home fans sensed the chance of a dramatic comeback.
Town’s best chance of the opening period came 10 minutes from half-time when McNulty strode forward, played a one-two with Benson before firing well over.
Luton continued to probe away without much luck, although they did have their first shot on target through Matt Robinson’s well-struck volley on the stroke of half time, but substitute ‘keeper Nathan McDonald saved comfortably and Braintree withstood the pressure to see out their two-goal lead until half-time.
The Hatters came out all guns blazing in the second half, desperately searching for a way back into the game, and they were agonisingly close to halving the deficit when Robinon’s cross was deflected onto the bar by a defender.
As Luton piled on the pressure, they were caught out at the other end as Braintree grabbed a third when Jordan Cox slipped the ball through to Chez Isaac, who coolly slotted past Tyler.
Town never gave up hope, however, and they were handed a lifeline on the hour-mark when Ryan Peters handled in the penalty area and Jake Howells smashed home the resulting penalty.
Within minutes, Luton closed the gap to just one as substitute Alex Wall smashed a superb volley, aided by a deflection, over the flying McDonald to bring the home crowd to life as, out of nowhere, a memorable comeback was on the cards.
A rejuvenated Luton poured forward as the game entered the final 20 minutes, and they were inches away from levelling when Mark Cullen, in space and with time in the penalty area, dragged a shot onto the outside of the post.
Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu and Scott Griffiths also had efforts in frenetic final 10 minutes, but Luton were unable to find another goal despite the six minutes off added time as the visitors held on to clinch a dramatic victory.
Luton: Mark Tyler, Ronnie Henry (c), Fraser Franks, Steve McNulty, Scot Griffiths, Alex Lawless (Luke Rooney 14) (Alex Wall 60), Cameron McGeehan, Matt Robinson (Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu 60), Jake Howells, Mark Cullen, Paul Benson.
Subs not used: Jon Shaw, Elliot Justham.
Braintree: Nick Hamann, Ryan Peters, Sam Habergham, Chez Isaac (Josh Laurent 77), Matt Paine, Dan Holman (Nathan Donald 31), Daniel Sparkes, Alan Massey, Dean Wells, Jordan Cox (Alex Jakubiak 83), James Mulley.
Subs not used: Luke Daley, Newman Carney.
Referee: L Swabey
Assistans: A Howson and N Hopton
Star Hatter: Matt Robinson