Pools’ long wait for a win at Kenilworth Road continued on Saturday as Craig Mackail-Smith came off the bench to fire a late winner for Luton Town.
The result was a sickener for Pools who had more than matched their Bedfordshire opponents, recovering from a harsh penalty against them to level through Adam Jackson before the Hatters’ won it with four minutes left.
Craig Hignett was without injured trio Luke James, Dan Jones and Michael Woods so Brad Walker was handed his first start since October, while Lewis Hawkins and Jake Carroll were also back in from the start.
Pools record at Luton over the years hasn’t been good but they started with a confidence and matched their opponents during a very competitive opening half hour.
The first real sniff of an opening came when the dangerous Cameron McGeehan spun skilfully on the right but his low ball skidded beyond all the players in orange and Carl Magnay was able to sweep it behind to safety.
From the resultant corner, big defender Scott Cuthbert looped a header back at goal from the far post which Trevor Carson did well to stretch and palm away where Walker was able to clear. Joe Piggott glanced a header wide when the ball came back in.
At the other end, Pools continued to threaten on the counter; Jake Gray chased Walker’s ball down the right and fed it low across the six-yard box where Billy Paynter just couldn’t stretch enough to convert.
Full-back Stephen O’Donnell was having some joy going forward and found himself with a chance to score when Danny Green’s corner fell loose to him but he lashed it just wide.
Pools ended the first half strongly; Billy Paynter intercepted on the edge of the hosts’ box to feed Gray and he jinked between two challenge to find Hawkins who drove in to the box and laid it wide for Thomas. However, the winger’s low ball was deflected clear and Hawkins couldn’t find space for a shot on the rebound.
There was a better chance just before the break when Adam Jackson strode out of defence and slipped it through to Paynter on the right. With defender O’Donnell caught on his heels, Thomas got to the low ball across first but stabbed it agonisingly wide.
The second half began in similar fashion when the impressive Nicky Featherstone danced through the home defence but his left-footed shot was held by Mark Tyler.
The best chance of the game soon arrived for the dangerous McGeehan though as the midfielder chased a long ball, chopped it on to his left foot and placed a shot just wide of the post with Carson beaten.
It was going end to end at this stage; Thomas burst in energetically from the left to feed it through to Gray but he was closed down and saw his shot blocked by the recovering defender.
A key moment arrived just short of the hour when Bates was adjudged to have fouled Pigott on the edge of the box and when Green’s free-kick struck the wall, referee Andy Davies pointed to the penalty spot after accusing Featherstone of handling. McGeehan stroked home confidently from twelve yards to put Town 1-0 up.
The lead didn’t last long though. Five minutes later Gray hung a left-wing corner up to the far post and Jackson met it with a towering header to level the game up at 1-1 with his second goal in three games.
The goal boosted Pools’ confidence and they began to enjoy the greater share of possession, knocking it around with a swagger while Luton’s approach was more route one.
One such slick move involving Featherstone, Magnay, Gray and Paynter allowed the latter to curl a right-footed shot on goal which just didn’t swerve enough and went wide.
However, with just over four minutes left another long punt forward – this time from Lee – saw substitute Craig Mackail-Smith spin away from Bates and produce a lovely lobbed finish over the advancing Carson to win the game.
Full Time: Luton Town 2 Pools 1
Attendance: 7880 (193 Pools)
Booked: Thomas (45), Featherstone (89)
Luton Town: Tyler, O’Donnell (Ruddock 85), Cuthbert, Sheehan, Howells, Lawless (Hall 72), McGeehan, Lee, Green, Pigott, (Mackail-Smith 80) Marriott.
Subs Not Used: Smith, McCourt, Justham, Okuonghae.
Pools: Carson, Carroll, Bates, Jackson, Magnay, Featherstone, Walker, Hawkins, Thomas (Oates 85), Paynter, Gray.
Subs Not Used: Bartlett, Harrison, Richards, Laurent, Bingham, Fenwick.