Cullen bags Town opening day win at Carlisle

Mark Cullen celebrates Luton's opener
Mark Cullen celebrates Luton's opener

Carlisle 0 Luton Town 1

Luton Town enjoyed a superb return to life in League Two with a battling 1-0 win at Carlisle United this afternoon.

Hatters took the lead through Mark Cullen’s first half tap-in, before producing a determined rearguard performance in the second half as they shut out a Cumbrians side who were relegated from League One last season.

The visitors handed debuts to summer signings Paul Connolly and Luke Wilkinson, while midfielder Andy Drury also started on his second spell at the club.

Alex Lacey was handed a role in midfield as was Matt Robinson, while Mark Cullen partnered Paul Benson upfront.

Hosts Carlisle gave starts to new signings Danny Grainger, Billy Paynter and Gary Dicker, while last season’s top scorer David Amoo was fit after shaking off an ankle injury.

Any nerves Hatters might have had in stepping up a division weren’t on display early on as they more than held their own, Matt Robinson almost fashioning a shooting chance, snuffed out by Courtney Meppen-Walter’s crunching challenge.

Town should have been in front on 11 minutes when a defensive error was pounced upon by Paul Benson, who nodded Mark Cullen into the clear.

He raced away, but with just Mark Gillespie to beat, screwed wide of the target, leaving the unmarked Jake Howells yelling in frustration.

The hosts first real chance saw Alex Marrow expose a lack of real pace in Town’s midfield, charging away to set up a crossing position, but Hatters’ defence did enough.

Another Cumbrians’ midfielder Brad Potts then set off on a surging run into the box as Luton’s defence stood off, only to shoot straight at Mark Tyler, while debutant Wilkinson almost got caught out by Amoo’s drop of the shoulder, the striker firing well over.

Town had the lead on the half hour mark though as striker Paul Benson and Jake Howells linked superbly on the right hand side and the forward’s cross was tapped in from a mere yard by Cullen.

Hatters almost had a second instantly after another incisive break, but Robinson’s cross was just behind the awaiting Benson.

The Cumbrians, who jeered off by a small section of support at the break, made a change for the second period as new signing Stephen Elliott replaced Grainger.

It was Carlisle who came out full of fire too, Tyler clawing a corner away and then Paytner demanding a penalty for handball against McNulty, but nothing was given.

McNulty had to get his timings just right to produce a sliding intervention and stop the pacy Amoo in the box, while Tyler flipped Meppen-Walker’s header over the top.

With the Cumbrians’ tails well and truly up, Town couldn’t get their foot on the ball though for the early parts of the second period, weathering attack after attack.

First Potts beat Connolly near the by-line and his cross trickled across the box with Paynter denied well by a sprawling Tyler.

Paynter did then beat the keeper on the hour mark with a glancing header from Amoo’s delivery, but his effort fell just the wrong side of the post.

After being under the pump for long periods, Town then came within inches of a second as Drury unleashed a lovely angled volley from outside the box that flew just off target.

An uncharacteristic error from Tyler almost led to a leveller as he misjudged and then had his pocket picked by Dicker, but luckily for Town’s keeper, the midfielder could only send his shot behind the goal.

Benson had started to look increasingly isolated upfront and forced to live off scraps, but to their credit, Hatters’ backline, marshalled excellently by skipper McNulty, stuck to their task commendably and gained in confidence with every clearance made.

With 20 minutes to go, Luton came back to life once more as Howells failed to make the most of Drury’s through ball.

Hatters created an even better opportunity when Cullen escaped on the flank as his cross was about to be volleyed home by Drury, only for Benson to get in his way and the chance went betting.

Jim Stevenson then came on for Drury for his first Hatters action since November 2013 and also his Football League debut, while Still replaced Howells with Luke Rooney.

Town could have sealed victory in the closing stages, as Rooney’s shot was blocked, with Benson quickest to the rebound, although he was denied by the body of Gillespie.

It mattered little though as Hatters’ defence held out for a richly deserved clean sheet to ensure their 1,088 travelling fans could celebrate a perfect start to life back in the league.

Carlisle: Mark Gillespie, Danny Grainger (Stephen Elliott 46), Matty Robson, Alex Marrow, David Amoo (Danny Kearns 76), Billy Paynter, Gary Dicker, Courtney Meppen-Walter, Brad Potts, David Symington, Sean O’Hanlon (C).

Subs not used: Anthony Sweeney, Paul Thirwell, Patrick Brough, Dan Hanford (GK), Kyle Dempsey.

Hatters: Mark Tyler, Paul Connolly, Scott Griffiths, Steve McNulty (C), Luke Wilkinson, Alex Lacey, Andy Drury (Jim Stevenson 79), Matt Robinson, Jake Howells (Luke Rooney 83), Paul Benson, Mark Cullen.

Subs not used: Elliot Justham, Fraser Franks, Alex Wall, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, Luke Guttridge.

Booked: Connolly 64.

Referee: Nigel Miller.

Attendance: 6,760 (1,088 Hatters).