Gutsy Luton Town dug deep to hold on for an invaluable 2-1 Boxing Day victory over 10-man Barnet at the Hive this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.
It was an enthralling and controversial encounter marred by a serious injury to Jonathan Smith that saw him stretchered from the field late in the second half as Jon Nurse was rightly dismissed for his irresponsible and late challenge.
The Hatters had played some brilliant stuff in the first half, leading through strikes from Paul Benson and Alex Lawless before Nurse went flying in with his ludicrous challenge.
Referee Robert Whitton instantly brandished a yellow card to Nurse in front of the dugout, which was met with an angry reaction from players and management alike, before he finally consulted his nearside assistant and the fourth official and controversially overturned his earlier decision and brandished a straight red.
Evidently affected by the incident Town struggled in the second half as 10-man Barnet played with renewed vigour and belief as Jake Hyde halved the deficit midway through the second half.
It made for a nervous finish for the Hatters who dug deep to hold on for their injured team-mate as they claimed an important win to stretch their unbeaten run in the league to 16.
The victory was Town’s fifth in a row in the league and was even more important as they kept the gap on leaders Cambridge United to just one point, who earlier had scraped to a 1-0 home victory over Braintree Town.
However, it could have and should have been much more straightforward as the Hatters wasted numerous opportunities in both halves to put the game beyond doubt.
Town named an unchanged team to the side that had romped to a 4-2 home win over Gateshead on Saturday, while Barnet head coach and former Holland international Edgar Davis was missing from the Bees squad along with suspended top scorer Keanu Marsh-Brown.
Luton made a bright start, but it was the Bees who had the first effort as Mark Tyler had to turn Luisma Villa’s effort past the post.
In an open start Andre Gray threatened at the other end, but was well marshalled as his effort flew behind.
The ball ran nicely for strike partner Benson on 10 minutes as his powerful effort stung the hands of Graham Stack.
And Town then missed a glorious chance to take the lead on 17 minutes when Ronnie Henry arced a great cross to the far post to where Benson had peeled away from his mark and his header to the back post found the unmarked Joe Davis, who could only somehow head wide of an open goal from a couple of yards out.
However, the Bees too looked dangerous going forward as Hyde tried to sneak in-between Steve McNulty and Davis to latch on to a cross from the left, but the ran loose and Tyler was quickly on to it.
The deadlock was finally broken on 22 minutes when Luton deservedly took the lead. Smith’s through-ball was missed as Gray broke clear on the right and squared for Benson to sweep from the edge of the six-yard box.
After a brief lull Town doubled their lead with a classic breakaway goal on 34 minutes as the ball ran to Lawless on the left and he cut inside and to the edge of the box before confidently curling home into the far corner.
It was all Luton with the Hatters in complete control and they were desperately unlucky not to make it three seconds later. A terrible mistake by David Stephens left Benson with a clear run on goal and, although his shot beat Stack, centre-half Jack Saville somehow got back and slid in to clear off the line.
Another flowing Luton move saw them go close again on 38 minutes when Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu burst forward and Benson and Gray were both involved as Lawless pivoted on to the ball in the box and dragged his shot just wide.
At the other end Villa played a lovely ball for Hyde who was denied by a superb one-on-one save by Tyler as he was flagged offside.
However, the half ended in massively controversial fashion as the outstanding Smith looked to play the ball forward and Nurse came flying in out of nowhere to completely take out the midfielder with a horrible ‘crack’ sounding out.
Referee Whitton raced over to instantly show a yellow card as Smith was left writhing in agony on the ground with his decision drawing an angry reaction from Town’s players and management alike.
In agony, Smith’s leg was quickly placed into a splint as he was replaced by Matt Robinson, and, with Whitton harangued by Town’s player, he finally consulted with the linesman on the near side and his fourth official before rescinding the yellow and showing a subsequent red as the incident reached farcical proportions.
Barnet made light work of their man disadvantage at the start of the second half with Villa threatening and Mark Byrne’s cross going right across the face of goal.
Gradually Town came back into the game with Benson almost sliding in Lawless, but Stack was quick of his line to save, while Guttridge whizzed over.
Bees introduced Dani Lopez for Villa, before McNulty picked up a soft booking for kicking the ball away after a free-kick had been given.
Town looked to play on the counter as Robinson curled wide on the hour before Guttridge’s fine ball released Gray clean through seconds later, but he could only prod wide.
And Luton then wasted a glorious chance to make sure of victory on 63 minutes when Gray’s flick broke kindly for Guttridge who raced clear but, with Gray and Benson either side, he hesitated too long and Stack saved as a great chance vanished.
Kieron Cadogan’s powerful drive seemed to rebound off Robinson’s arm and Town were made to pay for their earlier misses as the Bees hit back 68 minutes.
Andy Yiadom made the most of a Scott Griffiths slip as he raced down the right and his cross was expertly glanced home by Hyde.
Suddenly the Hive was buzzing again with renewed belief. Gray’s canny chip drifted just over, before the mercurial Lopez proceeded to come to the fore, firing a low effort at Tyler before jinking his way through the middle and whistling just over.
Saville was booked as he took down Robinson as he looked to maraud through the middle, while the ball fell for Gray in the box, but he couldn’t get it out of his feet as it was cleared behind.
Cadogan was replaced by Mauro Vilhete with seven minutes to go as a nervous finished ensued for the Hatters.
Lopez sent a header at Tyler before getting booked as he reacted angrily to being flagged offside as the Bees finished strongly.
A Griffiths blast flashed just wide with two minutes to go, while some fine defending by Davis thwarted Hyde as he looked to break free in the box.
Town had chances to make sure of victory as Gray fired over with just 20 seconds left and Lawless curled into Stack’s midriff.
Curtis Weston sent a late effort wide for the Bees, while Mark Cullen replaced Gray as Town proceeded to successfully ran the clock down to keep in touch at the top.
Bees (4-5-1): Graham Stack (C), Andy Yiadom (Anthony Acheampong 90+2), Elliot Johnson, Curtis Weston, Jack Saville, Mark Byrne, Jake Hyde, Kieron Cadogan (Mauro Vilhete 83), Luismas Villa (Dani Lopez 55), Jon Nurse, David Stephens. Substitutes not used: Nick Jupp, Ahmed Abdulla.
Hatters (4-4-2): Mark Tyler, Jonathan Smith, Steve McNulty, Alex Lawless, Scott Griffiths, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, Joe Davis, Luke Guttridge, Ronnie Henry (C), Paul Benson, Andre Gray (Mark Cullen 90+2). Substitutes not used: Jake Howells, Elliot Justham, Matt Robinson 45+3), Alfie Mawson.
Referee: Robert Whitton.
Assistant Referees: Anthony Moore and Neil West.
Fourth Official: Nic Evans.
Booked: McNulty 59; Saville 81; Lopez 88.
Booked: Nurse 44.
Sent off: 45+3.
Attendance: 3,608 (Hatters 1,700).
Star Hatters: Jonathan Smith: Industrious midfielder gave his all and drove Town forward before Nurse’s terrible tackle potentially ended his season.