Stags party as Hatters blow their chances

FA Trophy, semi-final first leg

Mansfield Town 1 (0) Luton Town 0 (0)

A STRING of fine saves from Mansfield keeper David Grof frustrated Luton as the Stags stole the advantage in the first leg of this FA Trophy semi-final, writes Mark Wood.

The Hatters were the far more creative side but failed to take their chances and were made to pay when Danny Mitchley squeezed home the winner in this contest 17 minutes into the second half.

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Town huffed and puffed throughout, but couldn’t quite find the net and face an uphill battle in their bid to return Wembley in the return leg at Kenilworth Road on Saturday.

The Hatters made two changes from the side that eased to a 2-0 home win over Tamworth in the league on Tuesday night.

Trophy first choice keeper and former Mansfield favourite Kevin Pilkington took over between the sticks from Mark Tyler, while Dan Gleeson (knee knock) was replaced at right-back by Luke Graham.

Mansfield, meanwhile, were deprived of captain and former Hatter Adam Murray, who missed out as part of the terms that took him to field Mill earlier this season, for this Sunday noon kick off.

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The game started at a frenetic pace and it was no surprise when Kyle Nix was booked for a lunging tackle on Claude Gnakpa after just seven minutes.

Luton finally crafted the first chance of the game with a beautiful flowing move on 12 minutes. Jake Howells and Freddie Murray combined brilliantly on the left and the latter’s cross was teed up by Matthew Barnes-Homer but Lloyd Owusu could only balloon wastefully over.

More good play from Gnakpa and Barnes-Homer saw the ball rolled to Murray on the edge of the box seven minutes later, but he could only blast well wide.

At the other end Louis Briscoe dragged the wildest of free-kicks so far wide it threatened the corner flag.

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But it was Luton who were playing most of the football and they almost snatched the lead midway through the half. Gnakpa produced some magic on the left, nutmegging his man, before sliding Howells through but Kevin Sandwith’s last-ditch challenge and a strong hand from on loan Notts County keeper Grof was just enough to turn the ball past the post.

A combination of Murray and George Pilkington then timed their tackles brilliantly to deny Mitchley on 29 minutes as the Stags enjoyed their best patch of the game.

Nix was then thwarted by the Luton captain before Paul Connor had a goal ruled out for offside.

Mansfield continued to threaten with George Pilkington blocking Connor’s blast on the edge of the box and a cross by former Luton loan man Ashley Cain being well snaffled by Kevin Pilkington.

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Town were hitting too many ineffective long balls but almost grabbed the lead two minutes before the break when Keith Keane whipped in a cross to the far post and Grof could only parry Owusu’s powerful header, but unfortunately for Luton no-one was lurking to take advantage of the rebound as the sides went into the break goalless.

The second half got off to a cagey opening with Howells miskicking a decent half chance on the edge of the box five minutes in.

Howells threaded through a fine ball for Barnes-Homer on 54 minutes and he picked out Alex Lawless on the edge of the box but his first time effort was well beaten away by Grof.

A knock to Owusu forced the Town target man off on seconds later and he was replaced by Danny Crow.

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The creative Lawless then burst through the middle just past the hour but his long-range drive was pushed round the post by Grof as Town started to turn the screw.

Barnes-Homer just could connect with Lawless’ centre with Tom Spence’s defensive header only just clearing the bar.

Another Lawless cross was won at the far post by George Pilkington but his header back across goal clipped the bar on it’s way over.

And true to form Luton were caught with the sucker punch second later as Mansfield took a 62nd-minute lead. Mitchley did well to fend off the attentions of George Pilkington and span well before somehow squeezing home a shot in of the far post.

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Crow was just crowded out on 66 minutes as Luton looked for an equaliser, while the fleet-footed Briscoe whisked a cross-shot across the face of goal four minutes later.

Good defending by Graham then kept Mitchley out before Luton were denied by another good stop from Grof. A fluid move eventually saw Howells dink in a lovely first-time cross but Crow’s header was straight at the Mansfield stopper who was again able to bat the ball away.

Morgan-Smith almost got in behind with three minutes left but was again thwarted by Grof before Crow also stole in but his effort was smuggled behind with appeals for handball waved away.

Substitute Godfrey Poku had an overly ambitious strike whizz over as five minutes of injury time were played.

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Barnes-Homer had a howitzer deflected behind but Town couldn’t find a way through as they handed the initiative to the Stags.

Stags: David Grof, Gary Silk, Kevin Sandwith, Louis Briscoe (Steven Istead 85), Tyrone Thompson (C), Kyle Nix, Tom Naylor, Dan Spence, Paul Connor, Ashley Cain (Adam Smith 75), Danny Mitchley. Substitutes not used: Alan Marriott, Steve Foster, Paul Stonehouse.

Hatters: Kevin Pilkington, Freddie Murray (Godfrey Poku 75), Keith Keane, Luke Graham, George Pilkington, Matthew Barnes-Homer, Zdenek Kroca, Alex Lawless, Jake Howells, Claude Gnakpa (Amari Morgan-Smith 69), Lloyd Owusu (Danny Crow 55). Substitutes not used: Mark Tyler, Ed Asafu-Adjaye.

Bookings: Nix 7.

Referee: Karl Evans.

Assistant referees: Steven Plan and Matthew Pope.

Fourth official: Stephen Ross.

Attendance: 3,208 (Luton 422).

Star Hatter: Alex Lawless. Town’s most creative force in a game they should have won.