Hatters’ title hopes gone with the wind?

Hatters midfielder Adam Watkins
Hatters midfielder Adam Watkins

Blue Square Bet Premier: Southport 3 (2) Luton Town 3 (2)

BATTLING Town had to settle for a point as a topsy-turvy clash at a windswept Haig Avenue finished 3-3 this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.

The Sandgrounders coped far better with the conditions as Town handed them a two-goal lead through a pair of defensive errors as 473 minutes of football without conceding a goal came to an end for the Hatters.

But a purple patch either side of half time saw the Hatters roar into a 3-2 lead as Danny Crow and Adam Watkins struck to level the scores before the break and Aaron O’Connor seized on a defensive lapse to put Town ahead.

Luton were subjected to a second half battering as the biting wind made conditions a lottery as the home side equalised through Kevin Pilkington’s unfortunate own goal.

Town had their moments on the break, but they were forced to defend tigerishly as they stretched their unbeaten league run to 10 straight games.

Only John Paul Kissock retained his place in the starting XI from the Town team that were held to a goalless draw at Hinckley United in the FA Trophy on Wednesday night.

The former Sandgrounders star and O’Connor were the only changes from the Luton side that edged to a 1-0 victory over Stockport County in their last league game, with Stuart Fleetwood dropping to the bench and James Dance missing out entirely.

There were also places on the bench for fit-again striker Amari Morgan-Smith, who had been ruled out for some time with a hamstring injury, new signing Craig McAllister and Godfrey Poku, who had excelled for Southport while on loan at Haig Avenue earlier in the season.

The hosts meanwhile, included striker Vinny Mukendi, freshly signed on loan from Macclesfield, in their starting line-up.

Town started brightly and had a glimmer after just four minutes when Kissock’s jinking run and pass was played first-time into Watkins’ path by Jake Howells, but the youngster’s shot was straight at Tony McMillan in the Southport goal.

Howells then thudded wide from a clever short corner routine as strong wind made it difficult for both teams.

And it was against the run of play the Sandgrounders took the lead with a bizarre goal on nine minutes. A massively offside Mukendi was allowed to make a nuisance of himself as Luton were unable to clear their lines and Tony Gray’s fierce long-range strike swirled hugely in the wind as Kevin Pilkington dived past the ball on its way into the net.

The wind was having a massive influence on the game and, although Luton looked to play some neat stuff, they struggled to unlock the Sandgrounders’ defence.

Southport survived shouts of handball just after the half hour mark as George Pilkington and Janos Kovacs tried to maul their way through in the box.

And things got even worse for the Hatters as Southport made it two on 32 minutes. Kovacs lost out and Mukendi then muscled his way past George Pilkington before curling confidently past the exposed Kevin Pilkington.

Howells tried to get Luton going with a good run and cross, but found little on offer in the box, and when Kissock did go tumbling, nothing was doing.

Luton gave themselves a lifeline as they pulled one back six minutes before the break. More good work from Howells saw him tease the ball to the far post and Greg Taylor headed back across goal for Crow to force home at the far post.

Kissock drove tamely at McMillan before the break and Chris Lever was stretchered off after being caught by O’Connor as Southport were forced into a change.

Four minutes of stoppage time were added and Town equalised with a fantastic goal - Watkins’ fifth of the season.

Taylor’s ball forward was brilliantly dummied by Howells into the path of Crow and his neat touch was sweetly struck past the despairing dive of McMillan by Watkins, who was then booked for celebrating with the Luton fans behind the goal.

Having finally come to terms with the conditions Town ended the half by far the stronger of the two teams. The Hatters closed the Sandgrounders on the edge of their box like dervishes, before in the seventh added minute Howells’ free-kick from the halfway line caught in the wind and McMillan pulled off an acrobatic save to superbly turn the ball over the bar as the sides went in level at the break.

Playing into the wind it took the Hatters just two minutes to take the lead as they started the second half how they finished the first. Southport skipper Simon Grand undercooked his backpass and O’Connor was sharply on to it as he rounded McMillan and slid home into the unguarded net.

The home side’s response was almost instantaneous as Mukendi’s deflected effort looped into Kevin Pilkington’s grasp before the Luton keeper then saved well from Karl Ledsham’s low drive.

The Sandgrounders went close again on 51 minutes when Town struggled to clear a throw in, and

Grand’s measured effort ran inches wide.

A Shaun Whalley corner flashed across the Luton goalmouth before some lovely play from Howells and O’Connor saw the Town striker blast wide.

Southport fought back once more and levelled in incredibly fortuitous circumstances on 59 minutes. Taylor was penalised for the softest of fouls on the edge of the box and Gray’s free-kick thumped off the right-hand post and back across goal before deflecting off Kevin Pilkington’s heels and into the net.

Morgan-Smith replaced Kissock on 63 minutes and the former Southport man was clearly unhappy as he and manager Gary Brabin clashed on the bench.

Having been under the cosh for much of the second half, the Hatters finally came back into proceedings.

A Howells thump seemed to hit a Southport arm in the box with Crow firing wide from the follow-up before Crow got in behind but could only chip tamely at McMillan.

The wind made the game a complete lottery, but Luton went close again on 76 minutes when Howells’ effort took a gigantic deflection and looped just wide of the mark with McMillan beaten.

Whalley terrorised Luton down the left in the second half and Kovacs flashed past his own post from his dangerous 79th-minute cross. From the resulting corner Grand and substitute James Ellison somehow combined to head wide from just a couple of yards out as the Hatters still threatened on the break, while Kevin Pilkington did brilliantly to turn Whalley’s firecracker from the edge of the box over with seven minutes left.

Southport’s corners were a constant source of danger as they coped with the conditions far better than the Hatters and they went close to grabbing a winner when Gray whistled over from range in the 90th-minute.

Crow curved a ball across goal but found no takers before Luton should have won it in the 92nd-minute when Morgan-Smith slipped Crow through but, one-on-one with the keeper, McMillan saved as both sides had to settle for a share of the spoils.

Sandgrounders (4-4-2): Tony McMillan, James Smith, Chris Lever (Russell Benjamin 45+2), Steve Akrigg, Simon Grand (C), Shaun Whalley, Andy Parry, Karl Ledsham, Andy Owens, Tony Gray, Vinny Mukendi (James Ellison 75). Substitutes not used: Matt Nemes, Adam Carden, Jonathan Brown.

Hatters (4-3-3): Kevin Pilkington, Dan Gleeson, Greg Taylor, George Pilkington (C), Alex Lawless, Danny Crow, Aaron O’Connor, Jake Howells, John Paul Kissock (Amari Morgan-Smith 63), Adam Watkins, Janos Kovacs. Substitutes not used: Mark Tyler, Stuart Fleetwood, Craig McAllister, Godfrey Poku.

Bookings: Watkins 45+3; Benjamin 54.

Referee: Tony Harrington.

Assistant Referees: S Richardson and L Watson.

Fourth Official: G Hart.

Attendance: 1,665 (Luton 540).

Star Hatter: Jake Howells. Here, there and everywhere.