Cruel last-minute defeat is a hammer blow to Hatters’ play-off hopes

Blue Square Bet Premier: Luton Town 2 (1) Mansfield Town 3 (2)

A last-minute 3-2 defeat to play-off rivals Mansfield Town all but killed off Luton’s promotion hopes at Kenilworth Road this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.

Twice the Hatters came from behind to level the scores with goals from Scott Rendell and Andre Gray, but they always looked fragile at the back as late substitute Lindon Meikle seized on a rebound to net the winner in front of the travelling supporters.

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That means it is now eight games since Luton have won in the league and they remain 11 points off the play-offs with their chances of promotion ever-dwindling.

Luton made three changes to the team that surrendered a 1-0 lead to draw 1-1 at Macclesfield Town on Tuesday night.

Jon Shaw and Greg Taylor were left out and Jake Howells dropped to the bench as in came David Martin, Scott Neilson and Wayne Thomas for his Hatters debut.

After a slow start by both teams Thomas had the ball in the net on nine minutes but his header was ruled out for a push on his marker.

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A scrappy opening then saw Gray drag wide, before almost getting free on 20 minutes and seeing his cross deflected behind for Luton’s first corner.

The Stags though looked dangerous on the break as Louis Briscoe broke the offside trap seconds later but could only fire straight at Mark Tyler.

And the visitors were denied a penalty on 28 minutes when Colin Daniel nipped as Thomas went to clear and was sent tumbling in the box. But referee K Johnson and his linesman just looked at each other with no decision forthcoming.

However, the visitors did get a spot-kick moments later when lacklustre Luton played themselves into trouble and Daniel stole in as Steve McNulty could only foul him just inside the box as the referee pointed to the spot.

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Matt Green then stepped up to drive confidently home into the bottom left-hand corner and give the visitors a 31st minute lead.

Right-back Lee Beevers received a prolonged spell of treatment much to the disdain of the Luton faithful and, just when it looked like he would be substituted, Mansfield changed their mind.

But with the Stags still down to 10 men Town levelled on 37 minutes. Jonathan Smith charged on to a loose ball on the edge of the box and his low drive deflected into the path of Rendell to net his 12th of the season at the far post.

The Hatters started to play with renewed vigour and the Stags were given a big let-off on 41 minutes when former Hatter Adam Murray was caught in possession on the edge of his own box only to be given a dubious free-kick for a foul by Smith.

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Having already been caught earlier by the Luton midfielder Murray reacted petulantly and was lucky to receive just a warning from the referee.

But Town’s hopes were dealt another blow just before the break when Lee Stevenson did well on the edge of the box and Mansfield’s square ball was perfect for Daniel to calmly finish at the far post.

A paltry four minutes of injury time were signalled and Town offered little as they trailed 2-1 at the break after a terrible first half performance.

Briscoe’s early second half drive ran harmlessly wide before Luton levelled again two minutes in. Rendell slid Gray through and he kept his cool to finish confidently one-on-one against Alan Marriott.

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A series of bizarre calls proceeded to go against the Hatters, although Ronnie Henry was justifiably booked for a late challenge.

Stuart Fleetwood was introduced for Martin on 55 minutes before Thomas could only head a Alex Lawless corner over the bar.

The second half was being played at a frenetic pace as Rendell was fouled on the edge of the box midway through the half but substitute Howells, on for the ineffective Neilson, could only curl well over, while Gray blasted wastefully wide with Howells overlapping.

With Luton playing a much narrower 4-3-3 half-chances were coming at both ends with Chris Clements thumping wide with 11 minutes to go, while Green’s cross was just out of the reach of the onrushing Daniel moments later.

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Town twice went close with seven minutes to. Fleetwood was just unable to hook home Rendell’s effort before he diverted Henry’s low drive goalwards but straight at the keeper.

Rendell was then just unable to get on the end of Gray’s cross as Luton finished the stronger.

Smith’s curler was right at Marriott before he raced out in the nick of time to beat Gray to Fleetwood’s fabulous crossfield pass.

And in the very last minute Luton were again caught with a sucker punch. McNulty couldn’t clear his lines as the Stags broke in numbers. Clements was played through on the overlap and, although Tyler pulled off a brilliant save to deny him, it fell perfectly for substitute Meikle to stroke into the unguarded net.

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Four minutes were again added but Luton couldn’t summon a third equaliser to a salvage a point.

Hatters (4-4-2): Mark Tyler, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Steve McNulty, Alex Lawless, Scott Rendell, David Martin (Stuart Fleetwood 55), Scott Neilson (Jake Howells 63), Wayne Thomas, Jonathan Smith, Ronnie Henry (C), Andre Gray. Substitutes not used: Simon Ainge, Arnaud Mendy, Dean Brill.

Stags (4-5-1): Alan Marriott, John Dempster, Luke Jones, Matt Green (Nick Wright 90+4), Louis Briscoe (Lindon Meikle 87), Chris Clements, Lee Beevers, Adam Murray (C), Lee Stevenson (Ben Hutchinson 75), James Jennings, Colin Daniel. Substitutes not used: Ritchie Sutton, Matt Rhead.

Booked: Henry 51.

Referee: K Johnson.

Assistant Referees: M McIntyre and A Serrano.

Fourth Official: J Richardson.

Attendance: 5,968 (Mansfield 410).

Star Hatter: Alex Lawless. Luton’s driving force and the glue that binds Town together.