Skrill Premier: Luton Town 2 (2) Barnet 1 (0)
Battling Hatters made the perfect start to the new year as they held on to beat Barnet 2-1 in appalling conditions in front of the BT Sports cameras at Kenilworth Road this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.
But for the television coverage this game would probably have never gone ahead and it was amazing that it even finished with the ball barely running or bouncing towards the end.
But tenacious Town dug in and ground out a fantastic victory thanks to first half strikes from Andre Gray and Paul Benson.
The Hatters outfought their opponents in Somme-like conditions that deteriorated throughout the game due to the constant rain. At 2-0 the Bees constantly questioned whether the game could finish as referee Kevin Johnson consulted with both captains around the hour mark before deciding to press on.
Striker Jake Hyde gave the visitors hope with his 71st-minute strike to focus attentions on the game, but determined Luton dug deep to overcome the near impossible conditions and stretch their lead at the top of the Skrill Premier to four points, with nearest rivals Cambridge United seeing their game at Braintree later today postponed.
It was another awesome effort from the Hatters who stretched their unbeaten league run to 18 games as they were passionately roared on throughout at another packed Kenilworth Road.
With rain constantly falling and plenty of work from the groundsmen, the pitch was subject to an official pre-match pitch inspection which it looked to have passed by the skin of its teeth.
Town’s players warmed up in ‘Smudger 4’ T-shirts in honour of their stricken team-mate Jonathan Smith who was stretchered off in the reverse fixture with a double leg break in the 2-1 win at the Hive on Boxing Day.
Luton made just the one change from Saturday’s 6-0 demolition of Kidderminster Harriers, Jake Howells as expected coming back into the midfield after Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu had returned to West Ham United from his loan spell.
The Bees, meanwhile, made two changes to the team that had lost to Town on Boxing Day, Jon Nurse missing out through suspension and Kieron Cadogan dropping to the bench as in came top scorer Keanu Marsh-Brown and Stevenage loan man Dani Lopez.
The conditions had an impact inside 30 seconds as Ronnie Henry’s pass held up on the soaked pitch and Luisma Villa intercepted and found Lopez whose shot was easily saved by Mark Tyler.
Passing looked difficult from the start, but Town took the lead with little more than a minute gone when Luke Guttridge threaded Gray through and he burst clear before confidently finishing past the exposed Graham Stack.
The Hatters were coping far better with the conditions as Matt Robinson’s through ball almost released Gray on 12 minutes. But the pair continued the move with Robinson’s curler just being turned round the post by Stack.
Guttridge’s terrific delivery from the subsequent corner was cleared as far as Alex Lawless, but Steve McNulty got in the way of the midfielder’s effort.
A mistake by Stack almost let Benson in on 16 minutes as he recovered to clear as the keeper received a spell of treatment.
And Luton should have doubled their lead on 21 minutes when Scott Griffiths sent in a pinpoint cross, but Gray could only send his header just wide when he should have found the net.
Keeper Stack, whose goal-kicks were being taken by a team-mate, was eventually replaced by Nick Jupp as the Bees should have equalised seconds later when Joe Davis missed his header as Hyde got in behind but lashed his effort wide.
Town’s pressing game was forcing the Bees into errors and they deservedly doubled their lead on 31 minutes when Howells whipped in a telling cross which flicked off a mass of heads in the six-yard box and ran to Benson at the far post to poke home.
Barnet created their best chance on 35 minutes when they worked the ball well across the pitch to the unmarked Marsh-Brown and he dragged his low effort just past the far post.
Marsh-Brown then fired in a cross on 39 minutes which seemed to hit Griffiths’ arm as he subsequently clutched midriff.
And it was almost 3-0 just before the interval when Henry arced in a great cross and Benson’s header flashed just wide.
Conditions deteriorated during the break with standing water formed on the pitch in some areas.
But Town were still able to put a fine move together five minutes in when Gray drilled in a cross and Guttridge pivoted in the box and his low shot had the sting taken out of it by the sodden pitch as Jupp made a good save.
Marsh-Brown got clear in the box on 56 minutes, only to comically air-kick the ball as he tumbled on to his rear.
Another Gray cross caused real problems as Benson was unable to net at the far post, before ex-Town trialist Harry Crawford replaced Lopez just before the hour.
A long debate between the captains and referee Johnson followed over whether the game was actually capable of going on and, after much discussion, the match continued with Henry geeing up the home support.
Conditions were proving a complete lottery with Town’s fans really getting behind their team as they battled on.
Having continually questioned the ability of the game to finish Barnet hit back on 71 minutes when the previously innocuous Marsh-Brown burst down the right and squared superbly for Hyde to turn home from close range.
The goal seemed to have a weird effect on the game with everyone focusing more on the action than the weather.
Robinson’s pass released Gray on 74 minutes but, having wriggled free, he saw his shot deflected behind.
The second half was much more even than the first with the Bees competing much more earnestly.
Howells’ dangerous cross threatened with Benson lurking at the far post with Jupp reacting to punch clear.
Both teams dug in as Barnet strived for an equaliser, while Town looked to hit them on the break.
A terrible defensive error put Benson clean through on 84 minutes but Jupp got down to save well.
Jupp’s skewed clearance soon after was headed goalwards by Howells with two minutes to go, but the keeper recovered as the Hatters battled out the remaining minutes to claim an invaluable victory.
Hatters (4-3-3): Mark Tyler, Steve McNulty, Alex Lawless, Jake Howells, Scott Griffiths, Joe Davis, Luke Guttridge, Matt Robinson, Ronnie Henry (C), Paul Benson, Andre Gray. Substitutes not used: Alex Wall, Mark Cullen, Elliot Justham, Shaun Whalley, Alfie Mawson.
Bees (4-5-1): Graham Stack (C, Nick Jupp 24), Andy Yiadom, Elliot Johnson, Curtis Weston, Jack Saville, Keanu Marsh-Brown, Mark Byrne, Jake Hyde, Luisma Villa (Kieron Cadogan 75), David Stephens, Dani Lopez (Harry Crawford 59). Substitutes not used: Anthony Acheampong, Ahmed Abdulla.
Referee: Kevin Johnson.
Assistant Referees: C Taylor and L Wood.
Fourth Official: G Jerden.
Attendance: 7,543 (Barnet 292).
Star Hatter: Andre Gray. Showed the same tenacity as his committed team-mates and was a real thorn in Barnet’s side.