Fleet goalkeeper Tom McNeil (pictured) made his full debut in front of the biggest crowd his side have faced this season but couldn’t prevent an injury- and suspension-hit side from defeat at play-off chasers Luton Town.
Robbed of Paul Lorraine’s services due to the skipper’s red card, Liam Daish was also missing the services of the injured Tom Phipp, Nathaniel Pinney and Lance Cronin. Having been denied permission to sign an emergency replacement, McNeil got the nod in goal, Johnny Herd in defence while Ricky Shakes and Ram Marwa lined up in a midfield five that saw Calum Willock dropped to the bench. And given his personnel problems, the Fleet boss could name only four substitutes, three of them including retired assistant manager Paul McCarthy, trialist Ben Adams and rookie youngster Lanre Azeez.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ram Marwa was stretchered off after only 14 minutes of the game, giving Azeez a rare opportunity. Up to that moment Fleet had fired a couple of set pieces wide while Luton had carved open the visiting defence on 10 minutes when Jake Howells burst down the flanks and crossed for Andre Gray to flash a header goalwards but McNeil did very well to divert it over the bar.
The Hatters grew in confidence and kept coming forward, and had a goal chalked off for offside on 17 minutes when Alex Lawless was first to a loose ball after McNeil had parried Gray’s shot. It was certainly a baptism of fire for McNeil and he was in action again straight away as Stuart Fleetwood supplied the irrepressible Gray and he saw his shot once more tipped over by the Fleet goalkeeper.
Gray’s pace kept Joe Howe busy down the flanks and he was the architect for Curtis Osano’s effort that McNeil blocked. But Fleet gradually weathered the worst of the storm and Liam Enver-Marum flashed an effort across goal that goalkeeper Mark Tyler managed to push away while Shakes did the same on 29 minutes but with less accuracy. Seconds after that, Enver-Marum was troubling Tyler and the Luton defence again, this time with a fine run and effort that was pushed into the side netting.
Luton grew visibly frustrated though had a great chance on 40 minutes when Fleetwood lifted the ball over McNeil but Ross Smith raced back to clear, though saw yellow for an earlier tug on the Hatters striker. Howells fired over the bar after good work from McNeil in saving an initial shot and Fleetwood again couldn’t find the back of the net when well-placed. But the former Forest Green hotshot was not to be denied deep into first-half injury time as Luton poured forward with chance after chance in a breathtaking four-minute spell. Unfortunately for the Fleet the home side made their last one count, when Lawless’ ball into Gray fell kindly for Fleetwood and he lashed it past McNeil.
That was sucker punch enough, but Luton delivered another straight after the break – that period of play being a familiar Achilles’ heel for the Fleet this season. Gray again tormented the Fleet defence and his shot was well kept out by McNeil but Fleetwood was on hand to snatch his second goal of the evening.
Demoralised Fleet struggled to gain much momentum as Luton played a controlled game while still feeding Gray and Robbie Willmott with chances. Willock came on for Azeez just after the hour mark which added some steel to the Fleet game but the visitors still had their backs to the wall, with McNeil saving well from Janos Kovacs and Herd headed Fleetwood’s effort from distance off the line. Gray then missed a golden chance for 3-0 as he fired over from the six-yard line.
Shakes had the Fleet’s one effort of note five minutes from time but was thwarted after good work by George Pilkington and Luton had the last laugh with virtually the last kick of the game when substitute Craig McAllister pounced on a mix-up between Smith and McNeil to end his former club’s misery.
It was unfortunate on the Fleet and McNeil in particular, though Luton clearly made the most of their opponents’ selection woes and never really doubted their ability to fashion a convincing three points from this one.
TEAM: McNeil, Howe, Herd, Stone, Smith, Marwa (Azeez 14, Willock 63), Barrett, Bellamy, Shakes, West, Enver-Marum. Subs not used: Adams, McCarthy.
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