CHAMPIONS Fleetwood were humbled on their own patch as professional Luton claimed a fine 2-0 victory at Highbury Stadium today to book their place in the Conference play-offs for a third year running, writes Mark Wood.
Defender Nathan Pond put the Hatters on the way with an unfortunate early own goal and it was his mistake that resulted in Andre Gray netting from close range late on to seal a priceless victory for the visitors.
Kidderminster’s 3-0 home defeat to Mansfield meant the Hatters comfortably finished fifth in front of the Premier Sports camera, and the second goal saw them leapfrog into fourth place for a time.
But York’s late winner at home to Forest Green Rovers enabled them to grab a 1-0 victory as they sealed fourth place to leave Luton in fifth, meaning Town face Wrexham in the play-off semi-finals for the second year running with the first leg at Kenilworth Road on Thursday night.
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Victory extended Town’s unbeaten run under new boss Paul Buckle to six games with four wins and two draws as the Hatters look a much more solid outfit under their new manager.
Town sprung a surprise as they made two changes from the side that was held to a goalless draw at Gateshead on Tuesday night. Top scorer Stuart Fleetwood and winger Robbie Willmott dropped to the bench as target man Craig McAllister and creative midfielder John Paul Kissock came into the starting XI for the 1pm kick-off.
Luton’s players provided champions Fleetwood with a guard of honour prior to kick-off as the home side dominated possession in the opening stages.
A slip by Janos Kovacs put Luton in all sorts of trouble on seven minutes, but they survived before taking a hugely fortunate lead on nine minutes.
An errant touch set McAllister free and his cross deflected off the head of the unfortunate Pond and looped over the back-pedalling Scott Davies and into the net.
A bloodied nose forced Kissock off for treatment and a change of shirt before the league’s top scorer Jamie Vardy threatened but skewed wide.
Andrew Mangan dragged a low effort right at Mark Tyler on 19 minutes before Gray brilliantly turned ex-Hatter Alan Goodall but his cross was easily snaffled by Davies.
Adam Watkins won a free-kick in a good position but over-elaboration saw Town waste the chance.
A fine slide-rule pass released Gray on 32 minutes but McAllister was unable to get a telling touch at the far post, while Mangan finally got the better of Curits Osano on 33 minutes but Luton did well to cut it out and clear for a corner.
McAllister almost forced Lee Fowler off the ball on the edge of his own box but was harshly penalised.
Good play from Gray almost created an opening and from the resulting corner Town could have doubled their lead. Kissock’s delivery put the keeper under pressure and Davies’ wayward punch had to be hacked off the line by Peter Cavanagh.
On the stroke of half time Gray skipped into the box and Goodall looked like he could have clipped his heels but nothing was given.
Fleetwood pressed again on the stroke of half time but Town’s defence just about held out as the Hatters led by the narrowest of margins at the break.
McAllister tried his luck from range in the opening moments of the second half but fired straight into Davies’ midriff.
The impressive Vardy came to the fore with George Pilkington cutting out his dangerous cross with Gareth Seddon lurking before Jake Howells did well to block his effort,
Shaun Beeley thudded just wide before Luton crafted a lovely move with Waktins teeing Gray up on the edge of the area but he thundered into the stand.
The Cod Army again looked lively in the opening stages of the second half and Tyler had to be aware to turn Goodall’s driven cross behind just before the hour.
Substitute Greg Taylor strode forward and laid the ball into Kissock’s path on 64 minutes but he could only whizz wide.
And Luton doubled their lead with 20 minutes to go thanks to another mistake from the unfortunate Pond. His lazy pass was intercepted by substitute Willmott and his pinpoint cross was on a plate for Gray to slide home his fifth goal in Luton colours.
For once Luton were able to play like a typical away team, lying deep while looking to attack on the counter whenever the opportunity arose.
A great Luton counter almost resulted in a third with 11 minutes to go when Gray went at his man and fed the overlapping Howells who unselfishly tried to find Willmott at the far post but a defender got across to put in a telling touch.
Vardy almost burst through with nine minutes to go but Pilkington put in a fabulous tackle to thwart the Conference’s most prized asset.
Hatters proceeded to play keep-ball before another flowing Luton counter saw substitute Fleetwood release Willmott on the right but his fierce drive was beaten away by Davies.
In the closing stages, a brilliant fleet-footed run by Osano saw him beat four players as he surged into the box, only for Davies to save well with his legs.
Captain Pilkington put in a superb tackle to deny substitute Richard Allen before an off-the-ball incident between Pond and Fleetwood left the Luton striker on the floor, but nothing was given.
A pitch invasion greeted the final whistle as Fleetwood’s fans looked to congratulate their championship-winning players, while Town’s travelling army of supporters rejoiced as the Hatters booked their place in the play-offs with runners-up Wrexham set to visit Kenilworth Road in the first leg on Thursday night.
Fleetwood lifted the trophy after the final whistle as a packed house stayed behind to congratulate them and Town’s supporters will be hoping it’s their turn at Wembley come May 20.
Cod Army (4-4-2): Scott Davies, Shaun Beeley, Steve McNulty (C), Nathan Pond, Alan Goodall, Andrew Mangan, Gareth Seddon (Richard Allen 77), Peter Cavanagh, Lee Fowler, Danny Rose (Danny Rowe 63), Jamie Vardy (Jamie Milligan 88). Substitutes not used: Keiran Charnock, David Stevenson.
Hatters (4-4-2): Mark Tyler, Keith Keane, George Pilkington (C), Alex Lawless (Greg Taylor 52), Craig McAllister (Robbie Willmott 62), Jake Howells, Curtis Osano, John Paul Kissock, Andre Gray (Stuart Fleetwood 86), Adam Watkins, Janos Kovacs. Substitutes not used: Shane Blackett, Lewis Kidd.
Bookings: Rowe 71; Cavanagh 90.
Referee: S Martin.
Assistant Referees: E Smart and D Kumanovic.
Fourth Official: B Cropp.
Star Hatter: Curtis Osano. The right-back is on fire currently and his mazy dribble deserved a goal.