Skrill Premier: Luton Town 3 (0) Nuneaton Town 0 (0)
Hatters hotshot Andre Gray hit a hat-trick as he helped Luton to make history with a 3-0 victory over Nuneaton Town at Kenilworth Road this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.
Amid thunder and lightning and a 10-minute stoppage for safety reason, Town put in an electrifying second half performance as they netted three times to claim a hard-fought win.
The victory stretched leaders Luton’s unbeaten league run to a club record 20 games and sent Gray soaring to the top of the Skrill Premier goalscoring charts as his treble took him to 17 goals for the season.
And with nearest rivals Cambridge United only managing a 3-3 draw at Dartford, having led 2-0 at one point, Town stretched their lead at the top to three points, although the U’s do still have a game in hand.
Town finally got back into action in the league for the first time in three weeks, their last outing the goalless draw at Lincoln City on January 4.
Midfielder Alex Lawless missed out with an eye infection and, with loan man Joe Davis having returned to Port Vale, in came Crystal Palace loan man Ryan Inniss and Norwich City youngster Cameron McGeehan for his Hatters debut.
Hatters striker Paul Benson and boss John Still received their Skrill Premier player and manager month of the awards for December before kick-off as Town’s chief was afforded a massive round of applause from the home faithful.
After a slow start, which featured an early crunching tackle from McGeehan, it took nine minutes for either side to threaten as Boro’s leading scoring Louis Moult saw his shot from the edge of the area blocked.
Neither side was showing any real intent as the rain started to fall on an already tricky surface.
Boro were looking the busier side against a lacklustre Luton as Andy Brown’s deflected effort was easy for Mark Tyler on 16 minutes.
Jake Howells’ ball finally released Gray midway through the half, but Luke Guttridge couldn’t divert his cross goalwards.
Town gradually started to play some better stuff and finally went close on 25 minutes when Gray got free on the right and his deep cross was headed back across as McGeehan’s half-volley fizzed over the bar.
Strangely pedestrian Town were not playing with their usual verve as the visitors threatened again on 31 minutes, but Dave Hibbert’s flick header flashed wide.
Some good work in the midfield by Guttridge and Matt Robinson put Gray away on 35 minutes, but the striker’s instinct took over as he thrashed wide when he should have looked to cross.
More clever football from Town saw Howells find Scott Griffiths on the overlap five minutes before the break as Danny Sleath got an important foot in to clear behind.
Howells was enjoying more and more success down the left as his cross picked out Benson, but his shot on the turn went harmlessly over.
But in stoppage time it was Boro who threatened and Adam Walker probably should have done better as he lofted over from the edge of the box.
With thunder, lightning and heavy rain engulfing Kenilworth Road for the second half Town took the lead five minutes in. Gray raced on to Benson’s flick as he held off the covering defender before driving home under the body of James Belshaw, who should have done far better.
Moments later the heavens truly opened as torrential rain hammered down and referee A Bromley quickly whistled to temporarily halt the match as the players were whisked back into the changing rooms for their own protection.
After roughly a 10-minutes delay the teams were back out and Luton almost doubled their lead within seconds thanks to an error. Benson flicked on and Belshaw almost fumbled the ball into the path of the onrushing Howells, but just hung on.
Good covering by Steve McNulty saw the big defender muscle Wes York off the ball as the striker looked to make something happen.
Luton were suddenly coping much better with conditions as Guttridge slid Gray through on the hour, but Sleath put in an important block for a corner.
The Hatters looked to have doubled their lead from the subsequent set-piece as Inniss headed goalwards from Howells’ corner only for Boro to somehow smuggle the ball away.
But their reprieve was short-lived as Town went again and Gray was on hand to steer Griffiths’ low cross into the bottom left-hand corner.
Now buoyant the Hatters almost added a third moments later when Ronnie Henry’s cross bounced through to Howells’ and his first-time effort was turned over the bar by Belshaw.
Nuneaton made a double substitution in a bid to get back into the game and could have grabbed a lifeline when Moult jinked his way into the box on 73 minutes, but curled over.
There looked like there could still be goals in the game as the reaching Benson could only steer Robinson’s deep cross over the bar at the far post, before the target man just couldn’t connect with another Robinson centre.
But the Hatters did deservedly make it three with 13 minutes to go when McNulty’s clearing header ran through to Gray and he kept his cool to cleverly lift the ball past Belshaw with the outside of his foot for his hat-trick.
More good defending from McNulty denied Moult a sight of goal with 12 minutes to go, before Benson was withdrawn to a fine ovation as Mark Cullen came on for the last 11 minutes.
Sub James Armson went close for the visitors when he fired just wide from the edge of the area with eight minutes to go, but Town were still looking for more goals.
Cullen was straight into the action as he latched on to a throw-in but his low effort was well saved by Belshaw and, although Howells slid in to net the rebound, he was strangely flagged offside.
Struggling with a knock the former Welsh U21 was replaced by David Martin following his return from his loan spell at Dartford.
Boro threatened to ruin Town’s clean sheet as Gavin Cowan’s header from a corner was straight at Tyler before Martin lofted over the bar as Town eased to a well-deserved victory.
Hatters (4-3-3): Mark Tyler, Steve McNulty, Jake Howells (David Martin 86), Scott Griffiths, Ryan Inniss, Cameron McGeehan, Luke Guttridge, Matt Robinson, Ronnie Henry (C), Paul Benson (Mark Cullen 79), Andre Gray. Substitutes not used: Fraser Franks, Elliot Justham, Kane Ferdinand.
Boro (4-4-2): James Belshaw, Gavin Cowan, Gareth Dean (C), Adam Walker (Phil Trainer 79), Jon Adams (James Armson 65), Louis Malt, Andy Brown, Theo Streets, Danny Sleath, Wes York, Dave Hibbert (Connor Taylor 65). Substitutes not used: Delroy Gordon, Emmitt Delfouneso.
Referee: A Bromley.
Assistant Referees: A Neil and M Eva.
Fourth Official: S Feerick.
Star Hatter: Andre Gray. Simply can’t look past the hat-trick hero.