FA Trophy, round three: Luton Town 2 (0) Skelmersdale United 0 (0)
The cavalry rode to Luton’s rescue as they made hard work of overcoming Skelmersdale United 2-0 in the third round of the FA Trophy at Kenilworth Road this afternoon, writes Mark Wood.
Defeated just once in the last calendar year and unbeaten this season in the Evo-Stik League Northern Premier First Division North, the dogged visitors battled hard throughout as Town’s substitutes combined to earn them victory in the closing stages.
First Stuart Fleetwood released Adam Watkins to bury home the opener with six minutes to go, before Fleetwood then found Andre Gray in injury time to dink home their second as Town booked their place in the quarter-finals.
Just three of the Town team that beat Barrow 6-1 on Tuesday night kept their places for this match. Alex Lawless was made captain as he switched to right-back, while among the eight changes 17-year-old Jerome Jibodu was handed his debut at left-back.
For Skem, who sit three division below the Hatters, it was their biggest game since their 1971 Amateur Cup win at Wembley, and they played mind games from the start by jumbling up their positions and numbers, with their strikers wearing numbers two and three.
A lovely burst from James Dance saw him break past two players before poking wide on three minutes, while Mark Jackson fired a speculative effort well over for the visitors.
Skem were enjoying plenty of possession and saw Louis Corrigan’s 22nd-minute corner hit the near post with Dance adjudged to have touched it as it went behind for another corner.
At the other end Jake Howells glanced his header wide from a Lawless cross, while Matt Robinson drove forward through the middle before firing at Sam Ashton on 31 minutes.
Seconds later Mike Phenix was booked for a poor challenge on Dance, but in truth it was a poor half, low on incident and entertainment.
Dan Walker then threatened with a forceful run that came to nothing with Kenny Strickland retrospectively booked for a foul on Scott Rendell.
Lawless followed him into the referee’s notebook before Jackson was just unable to latch on to Phenix’s near-post cross.
Town signalled their intent start at the second half by bringing on hotshot striker Gray for Dance at the interval.
Gray’s introduction had an immediate effect with Luton looking far more effective. Gray had an effort deflected behind and Rendell dragged wastefully wide from a corner.
Robinson then fired wide, although Skem threatened 10 minutes in when Stickland cushioned his header down but Jackson skewed wide from the edge of the box.
Going all out for victory Town introduced Fleetwood and Watkins for Walker and Jibodu.
Gray could only spoon Fleetwood’s cross-cum-shot over the bar on 72 minutes, before Skem should have taken the lead four minutes later.
Phenix’s effort was deflected into Jackson’s path but he failed to connect properly with his swivel and shot from six yards as he stroked tamely at Dean Brill.
Neither Gray or Simon Ainge could force home Lawless’ corner with less than 10 minutes to go, while the game swung one way then the other with six minutes to go.
Town struggled to clear a corner and Warren Bellow’s blast was heading for the roof of the net until Howells intervened to head over.
From the resulting corner Luton broke at pace with Fleetwood’s crossfield pass picking out fell sub Watkins, who cut inside before drilling a low left-footed effort just inside the keeper’s near post from the edge of the area.
And still there was time for one last scare as Town allowed a long ball to drift over their defence with Ainge seemingly getting a shout to leave it from his keeper. Sub Matty Hughes crept in behind and his lob dropped just wide with Brill beaten.
The Hatters though made sure of victory two minutes into stoppage time when Arnaud Mendy’s astute pass released Fleetwood. The ball got stuck under his feet as he ran at his man, but he eventually found Gray at the far post who dinked cleverly over the keeper to finally break Skem’s resistance.
Strickland then saw his audacious effort from the kick-off easily held by Brill as Luton booked their place in the quarter-finals for the third year running.
Hatters (4-4-2): Dean Brill, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Alex Lawless (C), Scott Rendell, Jake Howells, Simon Ainge, Arnaud Mendy, James Dance (Andre Gray 46), Matt Robinson, Dan Walker Stuart Fleetwood 68), Jerome Jibodu (Adam Watkins 69). Substitutes not used: Charlie Smith, Brett Longden.
Skem (4-4-2): Sam Ashton, Mark Jackson (Gary Burnett 83), Mike Phenix (Matty Hughes 78), Warren Bellew, Aaron Turner, Louis Corrigan, Lewis Field, Rob McIntosh, Kenny Strickland, Paul Woocott, Tom Hardwick (C). Substitutes not used: Dale Wright, Adam Morning, Antony Hickey.
Bookings: Phenix 32; Kenny Strickland 41; Lawless 42.
Referee: C Breakspear.
Assistant Referees: I Parsons and O Jackson.
Fourth Official: L Marshallsay.
Star Hatter: Jake Howells. Put in a committed showing on a tough afternoon for the Town.
Attendance: 2,479 (Skem 220).