Fleetwood Town 0, Luton Town 2
THIS is not how the season was supposed to end.
Surely the script called for a rip-roaring victory, joyous celebrations and a day to remember for the Cod Army faithful.
I suppose two out of three isn’t a bad outcome, particularly with 90 minutes of football, for many, filling the role of a support act ahead of the main event.
If you are at all interested, Fleetwood’s season ended with a whimper, rather than a bang – slumping to their second consecutive defeat against a clinical and motivated Luton side.
Luton came into the Highbury clash needing just one point to book their place in the Blue Square Bet Premier play-offs.
And manager Paul Buckle, a man who has obviously done his homework, brought target man Craig McAllister into his side, along with John Paul Kissock, meaning leading scorer Stuart Fleetwood had to settle for a place on the bench.
Fleetwood boss Micky Mellon was forced into one change to his Fleetwood side, midfielder Danny Rose in for Jamie McGuire, who underwent surgery on Friday having sustained a fractured cheekbone in Town’s defeat at Cambridge United.
McGuire was discharged from hospital on Saturday morning and rushed to Highbury to watch his team-mates complete their journey to the Football League.
Town began the brighter, Andy Mangan with an early break into the area, but the striker was unable to control the ball in front of goal.
And Lee Fowler had a good chance to give Town an early lead when Janos Kovacs slipped, gifting the ball to Jamie Vardy. He teed up Fowler on the edge of the area but the midfielder was only able to shoot wide.
A minute later, a slip at the other end changed the game completely.
Nathan Pond couldn’t keep his footing, McAllister the beneficiary.
The striker’s run took him deep into the Fleetwood box, from where he was able to launch a chipped cross intended for Andre Gray.
The ball never made it to the man at the back post as Pond, rushing back to cover, got in the way and deflected the ball past keeper Scott Davies into the Fleetwood net.
The 10th-minute goal was just what nervy Luton needed.
Fleetwood, on the other hand, looked jaded and well below their best.
Jamie Vardy and Shaun Beeley were combining well down the right flank, but the home side seemed to want too much time on the ball, looking all the time for the perfect pass.
Mangan, as full of running as ever, seemed determined to take on one man too many, Fleetwood unable to create clear goalscoring opportunities.
Luton, on the other hand, looked a real danger as Gray, McAllister and Kissock all tested the home side’s defence from every angle, trying to find a crucial second breakthrough.
It could so easily have come on the half-hour mark, as Gray combined with Adam Watkins down the right channel, but Gray’s cross was just beyond the reach of McAllister.
And Fleetwood left-back Alan Goodall had to be alert on the goal-line five minutes later, when keeper Davies attempted to punch clear a Kissock corner. Davies somehow sent the ball fizzing towards his own net, but Goodall made a vital clearance.
Had Vardy connected with Goodall’s deep cross with five minutes of the first half left, it would have been an injustice – Luton were good value for the lead.
What words were imparted during Mellon’s half-time talk may never be known but Fleetwood, very late returning to the pitch, started the second half at a very different tempo.
Vardy had a chance to level the game when Luton struggled to clear an early corner, Howells providing the vital block for the Hatters.
Beeley came close with a rasping shot from the edge of the box, Fleetwood looking a good bet to pull themselves back into the game.
More direct, more willing to shoot, Fleetwood upped the pace but not the commitment.
Luton were still the more likely to come away with a 50-50 ball, perhaps the reason Mellon introduced hungry young talent in the form of Danny Rowe to shake things up.
Rowe had impressed with eight goals in his loan spell at Stockport but he could not prevent Fleetwood appearing to step off the gas – Gareth Seddon’s soft header, as good as a back-pass, symptomatic of the somewhat unfocused performance.
And a moment of sloppiness, 20 minutes from time, made matters worse for Town, cementing Luton’s position as party poopers for the afternoon.
Pond’s pass might well have been intended for Beeley, but the centre-half did not notice lurking Luton sub Robbie Willmott, the midfielder sneaking in and setting up Gray, who couldn’t miss from close range.
Cue another change – Richie Allen, a double champion this season after netting 27 for AFC Fylde three levels further down the non-league pyramid, was given his chance to shine for his parent club, replacing Seddon.
But time was short for the home side to recover, particularly with Luton looking content to play keep-ball.
And when 34-goal ace Vardy was robbed in the box, having beaten the offside trap, there really was a sense it wasn’t Fleetwood’s day.
Not that it really mattered.
There was just enough time for a man potentially playing his last game at Highbury, Vardy, to hand over to another in the same boat, Jamie Milligan.
But Luton were content with two goals and a play-off semi-final date at Wrexham on Wednesday, while Fleetwood were happy to see out the season and get the party started.
Of course, the final whistle brought the inevitable pitch invasion, decidedly odd without the accompanying victory, and a chance to crack open the champagne – even if defeat meant Fleetwood fell two short of the record Conference points total of 105 set by Crawley Town 12 months ago.
It was, however, job done – a trophy lifted and a first season in the Football League ahead.
As anti-climaxes go, it’s not a bad one to end on.
Fleetwood: Davies, Beeley, McNulty (c), Pond, Goodall, Mangan, Seddon (Allen 77), Cavanagh, Fowler, Rose (Rowe 62), Vardy (Milligan 88); not used: Charnock, Stevenson
Luton: Tyler, Keane, Pilkington (c), Lawless (Taylor 52), McAllister (Willmott 62), Howells, Osano, Kissock, Gray (Fleetwood 85), Watkins, Kovacs; not used: Blackwell, Kidd
Referee: S Martin