Hatters lose 2-1 but still book Wembley final
HARDY Hatters had to withstand a late Wrexham barrage as they clung on at the Racecourse Ground on Monday afternoon to book their place in the play-off final, writes Mark Wood.
Captain George Pilkington’s cool first half penalty had put Luton ahead on the day, but the Red Dragons came roaring back as substitutes Adrian Cieslewicz and Andy Morrell netted in the second half to set up a grandstand finish.
But Town dug deep to hold out and, with a two-goal cushion from the first leg, the 2-1 defeat was enough to book the Hatters a Wembley play-off final against old rivals York
City, who earlier triumphed 1-0 after extra-time at Mansfield Town to seal their spot.
It may have been new manager Paul Buckle’s first defeat in charge of the Hatters, but it counted for nothing as he will lead his side out at Wembley on Sunday, May 20.
Town named an unchanged starting XI from the team that won the first leg 2-0 at Kenilworth Road on Thursday night, the only change came on the bench where full-back Dan Gleeson replaced John Paul Kissock.
Wrexham, meanwhile, made four changes as Danny Alfei, Danny Wright, Jake Speight and Glen Little came into the team with Cieslewicz, Morrell and Jamie Tolley dropping to the bench and Stephen Wright losing his place in the squad altogether.
After a hold-up for the Premier Sports cameras the game was barely 14 seconds old when it was halted for a clash of heads between Nat Knight-Percival and Andre Gray but both men got to their feet fine.
The hosts targeted Jake Howells’ left-back berth from the off with a series of long balls and Luton looked happy to sit back as the Red Dragons roared into life from the off at a packed Racecourse Ground.
A series of misplaced passes put the Hatters under pressure and a poor lunging challenge by Adam Watkins on Alfei rightly earned him a yellow card on 13 minutes.
And Luton needed a great block from Janos Kovacs moments later to block out Danny Wright’s drive from inside the box
Gray won Town a free-kick on the edge of the box on 17 minutes, but Robbie Willmott’s effort was straight into the wall.
Little got away with a blatant handball as Willmott looked to beat him on the left and Town survived another dangerous ball into the box as Wrexham looked to put it in the mixer whenever possible.
Having weathered the early storm Luton came back into the game and won a 23rd-minute penalty when Alex Lawless battled his way into the box and grizzly centre-half Mark Creighton caught him with a terrible lunging challenge and referee Steve Bratt pointed to the spot.
After a long wait captain Pilkington stepped up and calmly sent keeper Joslain Mayebi the wrong way to put Luton into a 25th-minute lead.
Alfei got in behind four minutes later but drove his cross straight at Mark Tyler before a flowing counter almost led to Luton’s second on 32 minutes. The lively Gray led the charge and his crossfield pass found Stuart Fleetwood but Mayebi nicked the ball off the striker’s chest as he tried to round him.
Wrexham looked most dangerous from set-pieces as the Hatters survived a series of dangerous deliveries into the box.
Play had to be stopped as Kovacs went down in the area with ahead injury, but was quickly to his feet.
And Tyler needed to be at his best on 39 minutes when Little let fly from 25 yards and the Luton stopper superbly tipped over the bar.
Gray, Howells and Watkins all threatened on the cusp of half time as they surrounded the area like flies but it came to nothing.
The industrious Keith Keane picked up a knock as three minutes of injury time was added and a small chorus of boos rang out from the home fans as Wrexham trailed 1-0 at the break.
Don’t Stop Believing rang our over the home tannoy at the break as rare sunshine greeted the second half.
Little’s wayward ball to Jay Harris was intercepted by Fleetwood two minutes into the second half as he ate up half the field and, with Gray breaking to his right, he could only drive tamely at Mayebi.
And Luton went close to a second on 52 minutes when Harris and Dean Keates got in each other’s way and Lawless was quickly on to the loose ball to release Gray, but his cheeky chip drifted agonisingly wide.
Gray burst through seconds later but blasted over before Cieslewicz and Morrell were introduced for the hosts and for Luton Greg Taylor came on for Fleetwood.
Wrexham continued to hit the box whenever possible as they moved centre-half Creighton into attack and Morrell got on to one of his knockdowns but could only poke at Tyler.
A clever Little free-kick picked out top scorer Speight but his sharp effort was deflected over the bar by Lawless.
However, from the resulting corner the Red Dragons equalised as Cieslewicz’s near-post header looped in at the far post as the Racecourse erupted
Another Creighton header fell nicely for Little as Tyler saved before he did fantastically well to get a hand to Cieslewicz’s low effort and keep it out on 66 minutes.
Craig McAllister was brought on for the tiring Keane as Town desperately tried to stem the home side’s aerial threat.
Creighton was continually beating Kovacs to high balls into the box as, buoyed by the goal, Wrexham continued to press.
Gray then clashed with Mayebi as he looked to kick the ball away and the keeper reacted angrily throwing the ball at the striker, but in the end there was just a warning for both.
McAllister almost teased Gray through before Wrexham netted a second on 77 minutes to set up a grandstand finish. A ball into the box was headed against the post by player/manager Morrell and he was quickest to slam the ball into the unguarded net.
McAllister and Harris clashed on halfway as the Wrexham man claimed a stamp but nothing was given.
Amari Morgan-Smith replaced the worn out Gray with eight minutes to go as Wrexham continued to pour forward.
An increasingly rare Town break saw Lawless release McAllister on the left as his driven cross was superbly headed away by Harris.
Morgan-Smith tried to trick his way into the box but he was felled on the very edge and the free-kick was wasted
In a half of few stoppages five minutes were bizarrely added and Morgan-Smith and Taylor combined in the first minute but the former Darlington man’s bouncing bomb was easily field by Mayebi
Keates’ rasping drive was blocked by a mass of Luton bodies and was booked as he protested by for a handball.
Knight-Percival caught Morgan-Smith as he tried to latch on to McAllister’s flick deep into stoppage time and the Luton striker went down clutching his face.
The pair then clashed with Morgan-Smith angrily pushing the Wrexham defender and earning himself a yellow card. And Town managed to hold out as eight minutes of injury time were played as Luton booked their place in the play-off final against York City at Wembley on Sunday, May 20.
Sad scenes followed as Wrexham fans baited the Luton supporters with the police desperately trying to maintain control and clear the pitch.
Town’s fans chanted ‘you’re embarrassing’ as Wrexham’s ‘supporters’ refused to leave the pitch and the tannoy announcer had to issue a police warning, announcing ‘please disperse or batons will deployed’.
Riot police eventually entered the field and the final few dregs of the home support departed as Town marched on to Wembley.
Red Dragons (4-3-3): Joslain Mayebi, Danny Alfei, Neil Ashton, Mark Creighton, Jay Harris (Jamie Tolley 88), Danny Wright (Andy Morrell 56), Jake Speight, Dean Keates (C), Glen Little, Nat Knight-Percival, Mathias Pogba (Adrian Cieslewicz 56). Substitutes not used: Chris Maxwell, Chris Westwood.
Hatters (4-5-1): Mark Tyler, Keith Keane (Craig McAllister 67), George Pilkington (C), Alex Lawless, Robbie Willmott, Stuart Fleetwood (Greg Taylor 57), Jake Howells, Curtis Osano, Andre Gray (Amari Morgan-Smith 82), Adam Watkins, Janos Kovacs. Substitutes not used: Dan Gleeson, Shane Blackett.
Bookings: Waktins 13; Harris 87; Keates 90+2; Ashton 90+3; Morgan-Smith 90+6.
Referee: Steve Bratt.
Assistant Referees: Mark Dwyer and Dave Avent.
Fourth Official: Darren Handley.
Attendance: 9,087 (Luton 1,219).
Star Hatter: Alex Lawless. Was the cog that linked the ever-growing gap between Luton’s defence and attack.