Hatters hit back to seal vital win over Stags
League Two: Luton Town 2 Mansfield Town 1
A marvellous second half turnaround saw Luton gain an absolutely vital victory over Mansfield in their quest to go up this term.
Trailing 1-0 at the break, it had looked like the Hatters would be in for a nervy second half, with results elsewhere finally going against them and their lead over the chasing pack in danger of disintegrating.
But the hosts came out and gave a true declaration of their promotion credentials with a marvellous display, goals from James Collins and Glen Rea's first of the season enough to seal a much-needed three points.
Prior to kick-off, Town boss Nathan Jones made four changes to his side, the most noticeable being Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu in for his first league start since the 4-0 defeat at Port Vale on December 30.
He was well and truly vindicated by the decision as Mpanzu went on to show just what a fine player he can be at this level, keeping things simple as he grew into the game, then taking the bull by the horns after the break with a fearsome display of pace and power.
Alan McCormack, Elliot Lee and Jack Stacey were back as well, with Luke Berry injured, James Justin and Andrew Shinnie paying the price for indifferent displays at Colchester, Rea missing out too.
Neither side could really establish a clear foothold early on, Town's best offerings coming from two Dan Potts crosses that they couldn't make the most of, while Danny Hylton's highly ambitious cross-shot from near enough the corner flag flying wide.
The hosts had their best moment midway through the half, with Potts again the architect. He escaped on the left, and when his cross was blocked, Luton kept the ball alive, Collins shooting over from 20 yards.
Mansfield had a rare chance on the half hour, Zander Diamond heading a good opportunity from a corner into the stands.
Luton showed their class on 32 minutes, Mpanzu doing superbly to start a move, firing into Collins who laid off for Olly Lee, his ball sending brother Elliot through on goal, only to be denied by the hefty frame of Conrad Logan.
Referee Kevin Johnson saw a foul as Town tried to bundle the loose ball in and from the free kick which was pumped downfield by Logan, the Stags led, Scott Cuthbert buffeted off far too easily by Kane Hemmings, who left one-on-one with Shea, finished through the keepers legs.
The visitors should have had a second, Alex MacDonald missing his kick with the goal gaping, his second attempt saved by Shea, who also parried Will Atkinson's rebound, Sheehan throwing himself in the way of the third attempt.
Hemmings was a whisker away from 20 yards as Town started to lose their cool somewhat, Sheehan booked for a rash challenge, while Cuthbert was then replaced by Rea after pulling up with what looked like a recurrence of his groin injury.
The visitors almost capped a fine end to the first period by doubling their advantage, Sheehan's clearance going straight to Jacob Mellis, whose long ranger took a nick, leaving Shea stranded, clipping the bar on its way over.
Hatters came close to levelling on the stroke of half time though, Elliot Lee's ball finding Collins onside and in the clear, Logan sticking out a leg to divert his snapshot away.
Any thoughts that Luton would start the second half in a nervy manner were soon shelved as the hosts began positively, Collins teeing up Olly Lee to curl off target.
Displaying a real sense of adventure, Logan then kept his side in front, with a wonderful flying save from Elliot Lee's instinctive volley, finger-tipping it behind for a corner.
With Luton having plenty of the ball in front of their opposition's defence, they needed someone to make that driving run in behind and boy did it happen on 61 minutes thanks to Mpanzu.
He burst forward bravely, committing his opponents, going on the outside of Stags' back-line and delivering a perfect low cross that was gleefully slammed home by Collins for his 20th of the season.
The striker then went to the dug out and got Berry's shirt, holding it up to all corners of the ground for his injured team-mate in a real show of unity within the squad.
The game opened up immeasurably from there, with Mansfield needing a victory to keep their slim automatic promotion hopes alive, Hemmings' shot cleared away by Rea.
Collins was to have a massive few minutes midway through the half, somehow managing to stand his ground and deflect former Luton striker Lee Angol's effort from eight yards, which looked destined to put the Stags back in front.
Town's leading scorer then led a charge forward from a Stags attack that broke down, and when about to spring Mpanzu clear, was crudely and cynically taken out by Hemmings.
However, Luton got the justice they deserved as Sheehan's free kick was spilled by Logan with Rea of all people the first to react, coolly slotting home for his first goal of the season and first since Yeovil away in March of last year.
Mpanzu was now running the show offensively for the hosts, with Mansfield needing two men on him at all times, the midfielder sending another drive that Logan comfortably stopped.
Town didn't sit back and try to defend either, Jake Jervis replacing Hylton and making sure the ball stuck upfront, winning a number of intelligent and pressure relieving free kicks to boot.
Stags got desperate, Angol volleying wastefully over from 25 yards, as if anything, Luton finished the stronger, almost adding a third when Mpanzu's blast was repelled by Logan's legs, James Justin's follow up deflected behind.
The final whistle was met with scenes of real joy around the ground as Berry's shirt was once again hoisted aloft, Town's players and supporters knowing full well the significance of this result in their aims to be a League One side next term, moving eight points clear of fourth with just five games to go.
Hatters: James Shea, Jack Stacey, Dan Potts, Scott Cuthbert (C Glen Rea 43), Alan Sheehan, Alan McCormack, Olly Lee, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Elliot Lee (James Justin 83), James Collins, Danny Hylton (Jake Jervis 70).
Subs not used: Marek Stech, Harry Cornick, Flynn Downes, Luke Gambin.
Stags: Conrad Logan, Rhys Bennett, Zander Diamond (C), Alex MacDonald, Jacob Mellis, Will Atkinson (Alfie Potter 71), Hayden White (Ricky Miller 89), Johnny Hunt (Paul Anderson 89), CJ Hamilton, Kane Hemmings.
Subs not used: Paul Digby, Krystian Pearce, Robert Olejnik, Joel Byrom.
Referee: Kevin Johnson.
Booked: Angol 37, Sheehan 37, Hemmings 69, Mellis 72, White 86, Shea 90.
Attendance: 9,592 (725 away).
Hatters MOM: Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu - star turn from the recalled midfielder.