Darts at the double to burst Hatters’ bubble
Blue Square Bet Premier: Luton Town 0 (0) Dartford 2 (2)
Lacklustre Luton dropped out of the play-offs this afternoon as they whimpered to a 2-0 home defeat against Dartford who leapfrogged them in the table, writes Mark Wood.
Town failed to take advantage of other results having gone their way earlier in the day as hard-working Dartford shot down their illustrious hosts in the first-ever encounter between the two teams.
And it once again Town’s set-piece susceptibility that came back to haunt them as both the visitors’ goals stemmed from free-kicks.
The Hatters missed a host of chances on the day but were always on the back foot after Lee Noble’s fifth-minute free-kick had been allowed to sneak in at the far post.
Industrious Dartford pressed remorselessly, refusing to give Luton a moment’s peace, and Tom Bonner’s second before the break left the Hatters with a mountain to climb.
Town looked jaded and devoid of zest and when they did eventually create anything they found keeper Marcus Bettinelli in unbeatable form as Luton’s unhappy supporters made their feelings known at the final whistle.
Town made two changes from the team that went down 1-0 at Hereford United on Tuesday night as Janos Kovacs and Lathaniel Rowe-Turner dropped to the bench and Alex Lawless and JJ O’Donnell returned to the starting XI.
Keeper Dean Brill also kept his spot between the posts as Mark Tyler had to make do with a place on the bench, while skipper Ronnie Henry partnered Simon Ainge in the heart of Hatters’ defence.
Ahead of Remembrance Sunday all of Town’s players sported black armbands with poppies on as an impeccably-observed minute’s silence preceded the kick-off.
New loan signing from York City Jonathan Smith, making his home debut, made an immediate impression with some tasty early tackles but gave away a free-kick on the left and Noble’s delivery was allowed to bounce across the area and creep inside the far post as the Darts took surprise a fifth-minute lead.
The visitors were playing with abandon on their first-ever trip to Kenilworth Road and threatened again on 10 minutes when Noble got loose on the edge of the box but Ainge did well to get in a partial block as his shot flew over the bar.
Town were showing plenty of bite in the middle and had great calls for a penalty rejected on 16 minutes when O’Donnell slipped Andre Gray through and Mark Arber dived in. The centre-half may have come away with the ball but undoubtedly went through the player to win it only for the referee to wave play on.
The Hatters then had a great chance to level midway through the half when Scott Rendell dinked the ball over the top for the onrushing Gray, but his blast was well blocked by the flying form of Bettinelli.
Seconds later a cross took a fortuitous nick off a Dartford head but the surprised Stuart Fleetwood was unable to take advantage as it dropped just behind him.
Smith dragged harmlessly wide, while Fleetwood was just unable to pick out Rendell after getting in behind on the half-hour.
Jake Howells whipped in another testing corner three minutes later and after Bettinelli flapped at it it fell to Ainge at the far post whose first touch let him down with the goal gaping and the visitors cleared.
The Darts continued to threaten on the break while Town’s touch kept letting them down at the vital moment as Gray’s deserted him as he bore down on goal.
Howells threaded O’Donnell through but he could only fire tamely at the keeper and, completely against the runs of play, Dartford doubled their lead four minutes before the break – again from a free-kick.
Jacob Erskine’s flick-on from the edge of the box fell perfectly for the unmarked Bonner who could barely believe his luck as he poked past the exposed Brill.
Three minutes of stoppage-time were added and Dartford almost grabbed a third when the impressive Ryan Hayes got the better of Howells and Lawless did superbly to beat Danny Harris to his far post cross.
O’Donnell was lucky to escape with just a yellow card two minutes into the second half when he jumped in two-footed on Noble before Town were inches away from pulling a goal back.
Fleetwood escaped on the left and Smith just couldn’t divert his cross home and from the resulting corner Ainge was just unable to connect as Dartford held on.
Dartford then wasted a glorious chance to make sure of victory when Hayes’ cross flashed across the face of goal and, with Lawless missing his kick, Erskine was caught on his heels as he failed to turn into the empty net.
Town were looking more dangerous as Smith and Gray both had good shots blocked.
Having been booked the ineffective Arnaud Mendy was sacrificed for Dan Walker as Town looked for more attacking options.
Rendell’s header from a corner was turned over by the keeper on 62 minutes, while Smith was also lucky to get just a booking as he flew in with a rash attempted tackle on Richard Rose.
Dartford’s tireless pressing made it difficult for Luton to create chances, who were far too lethargic and slow in their approach play.
Smith had a fierce effort deflected behind before Fleetwood also saw yellow for another reckless challenge as the Town struggled to impose themselves in the encounter.
Neat play from the visitors ended in Noble driving over while Gray was just muscled off the ball as he looked to latch on to Smith’s pass.
Direct Walker saw a low thump repelled before flashing over and Luton then wasted a glorious chance to finally score with 11 minutes to go when Rendell slipped Gray through. The ball seemed to get tangled under his feet but suddenly broke and, with only the keeper to beat, his mishit left-footed shot on the turn clipped the bar on its way.
Seconds later he had another gilt-edged chance when Rendell’s knockdown from Lawless’ cross fell to him in the six-yard box but he could only skew wide under the close attentions of Arber.
Gray and Rendell combined well again with 10 minutes left but the Town target man could only fire wide.
And even in stoppage-time Town were to be denied when Lawless lobbed to the far post for the onrushing Gray but Bettinelli pulled off a brilliant one-handed save to deny the disbelieving Gray.
Rendell sent a header straight into the keepers hands and Gray had a powerful blast thud off his body at the death as Town capitulated.
Town’s players trudged off the pitch at the final whistle as they were booed off by their own fans, before hard-working Dartford, who celebrated in front of their own fans as if they had won the league, were applauded off by some of the home faithful in a bizarre finish to an immensely frustrating afternoon for the Hatters.
Hatters (4-3-3): Dean Brill, Alex Lawless, Scott Rendell, Jake Howells, Simon Ainge, Stuart Fleetwood, Arnaud Mendy (Dan Walker 61), JJ O’Donnell, Jonathan Smith, Ronnie Henry (C), Andre Gray. Substitutes not used: Mark Tyler, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Janos Kovacs, Adam Watkins.
Darts (4-4-2): Marcus Bettinelli, Richard Rose, Tom Champion, Tom Bonner, Ryan Hayes (Nathan Collier 84), Jacob Erskine, Elliot Bradbrook (C), Danny Harris (James Rogers 89), Lee Noble, Mark Arber, Lee Burns. Substitutes not used: Louis Wells, Adam Green, Jon Wallis.
Bookings: Bonner 20; O’Donell 47; Mendy 60; Rose 60; Smith 66; Fleetwood 71; Rogers 90+3.
Referee: K Evans.
Assistant Referees: S Purkiss and A Degnarain.
Fourth Official: A Aylott.
Attendance: 6,567 (Darts 484).
Star Hatter: Jonathan Smith. Battling midfielder showed plenty of bit until booking curtailed his effectiveness.