Blue Square Bet Premier: Southport 1 (1) Luton Town 3 (2)
Gelling Hatters came from behind to end their season on a high with a 3-1 victory over Southport at Haig Avenue this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.
Sean Clancy had powered the hosts into the lead with a fine early header before Matt Robinson levelled with his first goal for the club and then set up Andre Gray to net with a close-range volley on the turn as Town led 2-1 at the break.
Luton struggled to play with the same fluidity until late in the second half and sealed victory late on with Gray’s second goal of the day which took him to a milestone 20 for the season as they completed the double over the Sandgrounders.
The result means Town end the season on a five-game unbeaten streak and finish the campaign just outside of the play-off places in seventh, but 13 points behind fifth-placed Wrexham.
Town made six changes from the team that beat Ebbsfleet 2-0 on Thursday. Alex Lawless, Jon Shaw, David Martin, Gray, Solomon Taiwo and Scott Griffiths came into the starting 11, as the transfer-listed Scott Rendell, Jake Howells and Alex Wall dropped to the bench, while JJ O’Donnell, Dan Walker and Steve McNulty missed out entirely.
The Sandgrounders, meanwhile, named ex-Hatter Godfrey Poku in their team as longest-serving Southport manager Liam Watson, who announced he is leaving at the end of the season, was given a guard of honour as he walked out.
And the Sandgrounders made the best possible start as they took the lead after just 75 seconds when Chris Almond fired a brilliant cross to the far post and Clancy powered home a fine header.
Luton looked to respond as the Southport goal led a charmed life. Lawless’ cross found Gray on eight minutes and he turned superbly in the box before being denied by the feet of keeper Zac Hibbert.
Moments later Alan Moogan handballed in the box from Martin’s cross in the box, but nothing was given, before Gray found space in the box and Poku cleared off the line at the far post.
Great work by Gray saw him turn his man inside out before fluffing his lines as he sliced behind, while the Sandgrounders needed some fine last-ditch defending to keep the Hatters out.
Hibbert was again to the fore on 24 minutes as lovely interchange play between Solomon Taiwo and Gray ended in the keeper doing superbly to parry the striker’s cross-shot with Shaw lurking.
But Luton did deservedly level on the half-hour mark when great work by Lawless saw him pick out the onrushing Robinson who scuffed his effort past the keeper as it crept in at the far corner for his first senior goal.
And Town took the lead four minutes later when a clearance was headed back into the box by Robinson for Gray to volley home on the turn from close range.
Aaron Chalmers sent a free-kick miles over the bar on 36 minutes before Southport should have levelled four minutes before the break when Almond picked out the unmarked Steven Tames in the box but he somehow headed wide from six yards out.
A flurry of action at the other end saw Martin and Lawless threaten, while more good football from Luton ended in Robinson dragging disappointingly wide.
An outrageous 40-yard effort from Griffiths was fumbled wide by the edgy Hibbert before a short corner saw Martin pick out Robinson and his looping header was helped over the bar by the keeper as Luton deservedly led at the break.
Southport made a bright start to the second half and should have levelled three minutes in but Andy Owens skied his effort from close range.
Gray was a constant menace as he raced away from Chalmers but was denied by James Smith’s tackle before seeing a dangerous cross cleared off the line.
Tames thrashed miles over for the hosts before Goodman showed good pace and put in a well-timed tackle to deny Owens a chance.
The Sandgrounders were playing with more intent and should have equalised on 57 minutes when Lathaniel Rowe-Turner missed Sean Clancy’s cross and the unmarked Owens spooned over from just a few yards out.
Simon Ainge and Howells were introduced for Rowe-Turner and Martin as Luton lacked the zest they showed for much of the first half until they should have added a third on 69 minutes
Griffiths and Gray combined well on the left and the striker’s cross with the outside of his boot ran all the way to Lawless at the back posted. With the goal begging he dragged his shot across the face of goal with Shaw unable to turn home from a yard out as a gilt-edged chance went begging.
More good work from Lawless and Shaw saw Gray overrun a chance as Hibbert saved well at his feet, while Taiwo’s daisycutter was easy for the keeper.
Wall replaced Taiwo with 13 minutes to go and Owens had calls for a penalty turned down when he clashed with Ainge.
And the Hatters sealed victory with their third eight minutes from time as he nipped in ahead of Hibbert to flick Lawless’ crowss past the keeper.
Howells and Griffiths combined well on the left with three minute to go but Shaw’s first-time volley went well wide when he had time to control it and hit it.
Poku was given a warm round of applause from both sets of supporters as he was withdrawn late on before Gray was denied a hat-trick in the third minute of stoppage time when he again skinned the defence and Hibbert came rushing out to save well with his legs as Town finished the season in style.
Sandgrounders: Zac Hibbert, James Smith (C), Chris Lever, Liam Willis, Aron Chalmers, Chris Almond (Chris Lynch 51), Alan Moogan (Karl Ledsham 89), Godfrey Poku (Shaun Whalley 90+2), Sean Clancy, Steven Tames, Andy Owens. Substitutes not used: Jonathan Hedge, Andy Parry.
Hatters (4-3-3): Mark Tyler, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner (Simon Ainge 60), Alex Lawless (C), Jon Shaw, David Martin (Jake Howells 60), Matt Robinson, Jonathan Smith, Andre Gray, Jake Goodman, Solomon Taiwo (Alex Wall 77), Scott Griffiths. Substitutes not used: Scott Rendell, Dean Brill.
Referee: Wayne Barratt.
Assistant Referees: Ian Johnston and Matthew Walsh.
Fourth Official: Matthew Jones.
Attendance: 1,406 (Luton 297).
Star Hatter: Andre Gray. Took his goal well and will be key to any promotion push next season.