An encounter dominated by the officials ended all-square at Kenilworth Road this afternoon as Luton lost ground in the race for promotion following their 1-1 home draw with third-placed Forest Green Rovers, writes Mark Wood.
Both teams finished the game with 10 men as Alex Lawless was dismissed for two bookings in the space of a minute early in the second half, while ex-Watford man Al Bangura was shown a straight red after tangling with Andre Gray.
Six other players were also booked in an ill-tempered second half in which Town seemed to lose their way as the result leaves them 14 points off the top and six points behind the play-offs positions.
It had started so well for the Hatters with Gray heading them ahead in the fifth minute, only for FGR to equalise soon after through Matt Taylor’s header.
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Both teams had their chances in a frenetic encounter, Gray missing the best chance when he ballooned a penalty over the bar, as Town’s supporters were left frustrated at the final whistle.
Town made three changes from the team that slipped to a disappointing 1-0 defeat at lowly Barrow the week before. Lathaniel Rowe-Turner was missing as he served the first of a three-match ban, while Greg Taylor and Arnaud Mendy dropped to the bench.
In came Jake Howells at left-back, Janos Kovacs at centre-half and Scott Neilson on the wing with Lawless moving into the centre.
There were also home debuts for winger David Martin and centre-half Steve McNulty, while international clearance hadn’t come in time for new centre-half Wayne Thomas.
Good natured chants of ‘you fat b***ard’ and cheers greeted McNulty’s early touches, while Martin almost threaded Gray in before the sharp striker was just unable to direct a good cross from the winger.
However, Town did take the lead on five minutes when Martin arrowed the ball into the near post and Gray beat keeper Sam Russell to the ball as his header somehow looped in.
And the pair almost combined again four minutes later when Eddie Oshodi failed to deal with Martin’s superb crossfield ball and Gray managed to elude both the attentions of the defender and keeper before eventually being crowded out.
It was a good start from the Hatters as Jon Shaw headed Howells’ corner over, only for the visitors to level from their first attack. Yan Klukowski whipped in a great free-kick and Taylor’s firm header crept inside Mark Tyler’s near post.
Lawless’ free-kick was headed straight at the keeper by McNulty, while Jamie Turley’s flick header from a corner flashed wide.
The visitors’ pace and movement was causing plenty of problems as Taylor was inches away from getting a toe on Magno Vieira’s dangerous near-post cross.
And the Hatters wasted a glorious chance to retake the lead on 24 minutes when Russell flapped at Howells’ corner and the unmarked Shaw at the far post could only mishit wide.
An end-to-end encounter saw Luton go close again on the half hour when Gray poked Neilson away and he teed up Shaw but his low drive, destined for the bottom, corner was met with a strong paw from Russell as the keeper turned his effort round the post.
Shouts from the home crowd for a foul on Kovacs from a corner met with a blank response from the officials whose decisions were becoming increasingly strange.
A frustrating afternoon took another turn on 36 minutes when Jonathan Smith released Gray and his sleek turn in the box ended with Oshodi whipping his legs away and the linesman signalling for a penalty. Gray picked himself up to pull rank from the spot but could only succeed is lashing miles over the bar.
Rovers continued to threaten on the break as Klukowski speared his header at Tyler, while a swift counter ended in Vieira dragging his daisycutter wide of the near post.
FGR started the second half brightly as Kulkowski saw his effort deflected behind and Turley’s deft header flew just wide as lethargic Luton seemed slightly off the pace.
A swift Luton break saw Martin’s cross pick Neilson out at the far post eight minutes in but he could only volley over.
Town’s hopes were then dealt a hammer blow on 54 minutes as Lawless was dismissed for two bookings the space of a minute. First he stupidly hacked down Norwood close to the halfway line before, trying to hold off Chris Stokes, he could only succeed in pulling down the overlapping full-back as he was somewhat harshly shown a second yellow card as he was left to trudge dejectedly from the field.
In a bid to shore up their midfield and keep up their energy levels up, Neilson and Martin were sacrificed for Mendy and JJ O’Donnell.
And having been a man down for 13 minutes parity was restored on 67 minutes when Gray muscled Bangura off the ball and the ex-Watford man fouled him as trouble flared and both sets of players clashed. Bangura was eventually shown a straight red card, while O’Donnell was booked.
Rejuvenated Town came storming back, Kovacs’ downward header from Howells’ corner clipping the bar on 69 minutes and Gray taking advantage of another Oshodi error to burst clear on to Smith’s ball, but he could only fire wide.
Jared Hodgkiss was booked for a foul on O’Donnell and Klukowski also saw yellow for a foul on substitute Stuart Fleetwood, who had just replaced Gray.
Both teams were still looking for a winner as Shaw’s downward header from Howells’ free-kick was palmed away by the keeper.
Mendy joined the growing list of names in the book with five minutes to go for a tame foul on halfway, Smith followed for a foul and Dale Bennett for his reaction, as an ill-tempered second half was dominated by the referee.
Four minutes of stoppage time were added as Fleetwood dragged well wide and boos from the disappointed home faithful rang out at the end.
Hatters (4-4-2): Mark Tyler, Steve McNulty, Janos Kovacs, Alex Lawless, Jon Shaw, Jake Howells, David Martin (JJ O’Donnell 61), Scott Neilson (Arnaud Mendy 60), Jonathan Smith, Ronnie Henry (C), Andre Gray (Stuart Fleetwood 78). Substitutes not used: Greg Taylor, Scott Rendell.
Rovers (4-3-3): Sam Russell, Jared Hodgkiss, Chris Stokes, Al Bangura, Jamie Turley, Yan Klukowski, Magno Vieira (Yemi Odybade 70), Matt Taylor, Eddie Oshodi (Dale Bennett 75), James Norwood, Paul Green. Substitutes not used: Ed Asafu-Adjaye, James Rowe, Saul Williams.
Booking: Lawless 54, 54; O’Donnell 68; Hodgkiss 73; Klukowski 78; Mendy 85; Smith 87; Bennett 87.
Sent off: Lawless 54; Bangura 67.
Referee: N Kinseley.
Assistant Referees: G Kane and J Pike.
Fourth Official: S Lea.
Attendance: 6,374 (Rovers 110)
Star Hatter: Steve McNulty. Combative showing from the distinctive centre-half on his home debut.