Ex-Rovers star Scott Rendell came back to haunt his former club as his injury-time penalty propelled Luton to a 2-1 victory over Forest Green at the New Lawn this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.
A Dean Brill error had handed the home side the lead in the opening moments of the second half as Yan Klukowski put Rovers ahead.
But battling Town fought back as Stuart Fleetwood levelled with a sumptuous curler against his former club for his 10th of the season before Gray won a penalty at the death, resulting in Paul Green’s dismissal, and Rendell kept his cool to net his sixth, and possibly most important, goal of the season.
It was Forest Green’s fourth successive league defeat and, with Newport losing at home to Woking, Town are now just one point off top spot.
The Hatters, backed by almost half of the crowd at the New Lawn, made three changes from the team that triumphed 2-0 at Cambridge United in the FA Cup on Saturday. Keeper Mark Tyler was ruled out with a back problem, Alex Lawless failed to recover in time from a foot injury sustained in that game and the ever-present JJ O’Donnell dropped to the bench.
In came Brill for his first start since rejoining the club, loan man Simon Ainge was available again and partnered Janos Kovacs in defence for the first time, while Rendell recovered from a minor knock to recapture his starting place.
Rovers named former Hatters targets Klukowski and Reece Styche in their starting XI, while ex-Town star Ed Asafu-Adjaye had to make do with a place on the bench.
The home side had a stiff wind at their backs in the first half and it was Klukowski who had a first shy at goal, but his free-kick went miles over on 10 minutes after Jake Howells was somewhat harshly booked.
It was the home side who were coping better with the conditions early on and Brill had to be alert to grasp ex-Watford man Al Bangura’s slick 35-yard effort on 16 minutes.
Too many misplaced passes were stopping the Hatters from building any momentum and Styche looked a constant danger as he proved too dexterous for Town’s two centre-halves, while Bangura curled another good chance well over.
But it was Luton who went closest to opening the scoring on 21 minutes when Gray skinned Eddie Oshodi as he burst into the box from Rendell’s header and his cross-shot was blocked by keeper Sam Russell. The ball seemed to hang in the air for an age and when it did eventually fall Fleetwood could only volley over against his former club with the goal gaping.
Keeper Russell just beat Jon Shaw to Fleetwood’s dangerous cross while Styche again stretched Town’s defence but stroked tamely at Brill.
Ainge’s clearance was blocked by Styche on the halfway line and his opportunistic effort squirted just wide.
A speculative James Norwood shot never threatened the goal and Styche did the same after too easily turning Kovacs in the middle.
On the stroke of half time Bangura lunged in with a terrible tackle from behind on Shaw and lucky that referee Kevin Johnson brandished just a yellow card.
A calamitous error from Brill though handed Rovers the lead with less than a minute of the second half played. Norwood bounced in a speculative cross from the left and the ball snuck under Brill’s grasp and was bundled home at the far post by Klukowski despite the best efforts of Lathaniel Rowe-Turner.
The wind died as Town desperately looked for a way back into the game. The ball refused to fall for Rendell, while Styche’s shot on the turn almost fell for a Rovers team-mate but was this time held by Brill.
Fleetwood’s searching pass found Arnaud Mendy on 67, but his weak effort was too easy for the keeper.
Norwood was booked for time-wasting before Ronnie Henry was rightfully yellow-carded for a check on Chris Stokes.
Styche broke clear on 74 minutes but Ainge blocked well before Town equalised with a clinical break seconds later. Gray won a free-kick on the edge of Luton’s box and quick-thinking Rendell took it instantly to release Gray who powered into the Forest Green half before switching play to Fleetwood on the other side.
The ex-Rovers man controlled before unleashing an unstoppable 25-yard effort that arced into the top right-hand corner to level the scores.
Green was booked for a foul on Henry and more Town pressure resulted in Fleetwood scuffing wide before they grabbed a winner two minutes into stoppage-time.
Gray threatened down the right and, after having one cross blocked he was first to the rebound and as he looked to play it back into the box the prostrate Green handled.
The referee pointed to the spot and Green was dismissed for a second bookable offence as Rendell grabbed the ball. And the former Rovers striker kept his cool in the second minute of injury time to stroke into the bottom right-hand corner despite Russell going the right way as Town claimed three invaluable points to move within a point of the top.
Rovers (4-3-3): Sam Russell, Chris Stokes, Al Bangura, Jamie Turley, Yan Klukowski, Reece Styche (Kieron Forbes 87), Matt Taylor, Eddie Oshodi (C), James Norwood, Aarran Racine, Paul Green. Substitutes not used: Omar Koroma, Magno Vieira Ed Asafu-Adjaye, Steve Brogan.
Hatters (4-3-3): Dean Brill, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Janos Kovacs, Jon Shaw, Scott Rendell, Jake Howells, Simon Ainge, Stuart Fleetwood ( JJ O’Donnell 90+4), Arnaud Mendy, Ronnie Henry (C), Andre Gray. Substitutes not used: Jake Robinson, Matt Robinson, Connor Essam, Dan Walker.
Bookings: Howells 10; Bangura 44; Norwood 68; Henry 72; Green 77; Green 90+1.
Sent Off: Green 90+1.
Referee: Kevin Johnson (Somerset).
Assistant Referees: David Ricketts and Christopher Wade.
Fourth Official: Adam Ricketts.
Attendance: 2,112 (Luton 1,002).
Star Hatter: Simon Ainge. All-action defender was always there in the nick of time.