Luton Town 1
by Rick Cowdery
AILING Argyle limped to a second successive home defeat, and dropped out of the Sky Bet League 2 play-off standings, as Andy Drury’s first-half goal – his first of the season – proved decisive at Home Park.
With considerably more than a third of the first-team squad unavailable to manager John Sheridan, and all three of the recent loan signings who helped propel the Pilgrims into the top seven before Christmas missing, any result from those remaining might have been regarded as a triumph.
However, the make-do-and-mend task proved beyond those unaffected by illness, injury or suspension.
The Pilgrims’ starting line-up for their first home game of 2015 showed four changes from the one that had rung out 2014 less than three weeks previously.
Olly Lee, borrowed from Birmingham City less than 24 hours earlier, started in central midfield, having met his new team-mates only on the morning of the game. The introduction of Milton Keynes' Tom Flanagan – a home debutant – to the Pilgrims’ squad on the eve of the previous week’s game at Southend seemed positively luxurious by comparison.
The two new faces reduced the current number of participating loan players at Home Park to two, with Anthony O’Connor having returned to Blackburn Rovers after the 0-0 draw at Roots Hall following the expiry of his loan, and Andy Kellett unable to complete his temporary spell as a participant because of injury.
His name was added to a list of unavailable first-team squad members that also included: Jason Banton, Marvin Morgan, Ollie Norburn, Peter Hartley, Deane Smalley, Aaron Bentley, River Allen, and Matt Lecointe. Uncle Tom Cobley would have struggled to pass a fitness test at Home Park this week.
Ben Purrington and Dominic Blizzard were drafted into action from a bench which, even with the inclusion of Jamie Richards – back from a loan spell in Ireland with Linfield – numbered just three outfield players and goalkeeper James Bittner.
Luton – like Argyle, unable to reproduce their pre-Christmas form post the opening of the prezzies – had few such concerns and made just one change to the 11 that started the previous week’s 0-0 home draw with Shrewsbury Town, Shaun Whalley replacing Luke Rooney in midfield. Ex-Pilgrim Paul Connolly, whose season has been affected by injury, was a substitute.
A healthily packed Home Park, maybe prompted by memories of the first couple of years of the current millennium, witnessed Argyle start at a lick. Reuben Reid looked to be in one of those moods that usually bodes well for the Pilgrims and he wriggled free of Hatters ‘attentions to send a shot across the goal and just wide of the post.
The Argyle number nine then had the ball in the net, directing a header past goalkeeper Mark Tyler with more delicacy, than power. Referee Keith Hill ruled out the effort, although for what? If it was offside, it appeared a shockingly bad decision; if it was for a push, it was a marginal one.
Reprieved, Luton went ahead, as is so often the way of these things.
Perhaps the Argyle players’ relative unfamiliarity with each other came into play, but, whatever, some disarray at a corner allowed Nathan Doyle a relatively unhindered pot at goal.
The shot hit his own team-mate, former Pilgrim Scott Griffiths, and – of course – the ball rebounded for Drury, who judged his side-foot finish against a stretched defence perfectly, the ball beating Luke McCormick by way of a nutmeg on team-mate Carl McHugh.
Argyle’s response was led by Lee. One free-kick, from within a perfectly sprayed temporary circle 25 yards out, had Tyler scrabbling low at his right-hand post; another saw him deliver for Curtis Nelson to power a header goalwards, with the ball being clutched by the Luton goalkeeper on his goal-line.
Reid and Lewi Alessandra also played their part in keeping Luton keen, with both threatening from the left wing. The former’s belligerent run off the flank ended with a shot that promised more than it delivered, while the latter’s more floaty approach culminated in a delightful low cross that found no takers.
The Argyle replacements’ bench became an even lonelier place during the interval, with Tyler Harvey coming on in place of Lee Cox. In what might be viewed as a microcosm of the Pilgrims’ week, Harvey emerged from his first tackle limping heavily.
Luton, maybe sensing Argyle’s vulnerability, sought a quick killer second and Drury’s cross from the right needed Nelson’s vital headed intervention, matching a similar piece of brave defiance by Kelvin Mellor in the first half.
Harvey, who had netted twice for in the Development squad in a 3-3 midweek draw against Portsmouth, flashed a shot over before Nathan Thomas joined him from the rapidly clearing bench, in place of Blizzard.
Thomas was soon in the thick of things, sending over a couple of trademark left-wing crosses which begged for a touch, but they were sporadic and less threatening than what was coming at the other end. A shot from Jake Howells was well stopped by McCormick; Griffiths’ burst from deep was policed by Mellor.
Having failed to extend their advantage, Luton tried to shut up shop.
Reid had other ideas and made inroads down the left, before squaring the ball back and causing panic in the Hatters’ defence, and sparking his team-mates into life. Lee followed suit with a similar run and delivery and then Reid, again, and Thomas tried to mine the same vein.
To no avail.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 16 Carl McHugh, 20 Tom Flanagan; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 4 Lee Cox (14 Tyler Harvey half-time), 21 Olly Lee, 11 Dominic Blizzard (19 Nathan Thomas 58), 3 Ben Purrington; 7 Lewis Alessandra, 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 26 Jamie Richards.
Booked: Lee 68.
Luton Town (4-5-1): 1 Mark Tyler; 22 Michael Harriman, 5 Steve McNulty, 30 Luke Wilkinson, 12 Scott Griffiths; 20 Shaun Whalley, 4 Jonathan Smith, 8 Andrew Drury, 26 Nathan Doyle, 11 Jake Howells; 25 Jayden Stockley. Substitutes (not used): 6 Alex Lacey, 10 Alex Wall, 13 Mark Cullen, 16 Elliot Justham (gk), 23 Matt Robinson, 29 Paul Connolly, 35 Charlie Walker.
Booked: Doyle 64, Smith 86.
Referee: Keith Hill.
Attendance: 8,420 (802 away).