For Luton, the miracle is still on. This was a frayed, scrappy but thoroughly engrossing tie that ended with Wembley in sight, although Huddersfield will have their own perspective when they host Monday’s second leg. A draw was the correct outcome, meaning Nathan Jones’ players are two games from confounding every expectation and taking the Hatters, buffeted from pillar to post for long periods in their 30 years out of the top flight, back to heights few thought they could scale again.
Few except Jones, perhaps. The Welshman’s infectious optimism and bullishness are duly mirrored by his team, who could have crumbled on their big night after Danel Sinani’s well-taken opener but recovered to equalize through the captain Sonny Bradley. Luton could have been ahead by the interval; by the same token they might have finished the game in arrears and Jones, chipper as usual, saw enough to scent yet another chapter in their fairytale.
“If we weren’t confident, we might as well save on the hotel bill and stay here,” he said. “We haven’t lost the game and that’s really important. It’s a wonderful tie, to go away to Huddersfield now.”
This was a pretty special occasion too. Kenilworth Road is a wonderful, creaking, crumbling anachronism that has not hosted a top-flight game since April 1992. It appears to have frozen in time since then; on the pitch Luton, sinking into non-league via three spells in administration, have done anything but and the sight of their orange-clad fans roaring them on in search of the promised land must have been giddying for those who have been on board throughout .
A raucous, hostile atmosphere felt like another throwback, breeding a tempo that rattled and throbbed from the off. It was sternly tested after 12 minutes when, amid the tumult, Huddersfield’s Sinani kept a cool head. The loanee from Norwich had space to exploit when, in attempting to pursue him, Kai Naismith stumbled. Harry Toffolo found the gap with a slide-rule pass and, with Bradley unable to stop the shooting opportunity despite drawing him wide, Sinani shot crisply inside Matt Ingram’s near post.
Bradley had fretted before the game that, at 30, this may be his first and last chance for a tilt at the highest level. He had not helped matters in affording Sinani too much space but atonement arrived on the half-hour, just as it did for his fellow centre-back Naismith. Luton had put Huddersfield under the pump with a succession of crosses and, when Cameron Jerome was felled by Tom Lees, had a left-sided free-kick. Naismith delivered deliciously and Bradley met it with a close-range volley that Lee Nicholls could not keep out.
“I thought we were electric in the first half,” Jones said, and Luton’s ferocity could certainly have reaped greater rewards before the interval. Jerome, a handful as he has always been, curled just over and teed up a chance for Henri Lansbury that Naby Sarr blocked. The veteran also burst through on goal, only to fall in a tangle of legs with the same defender. Jones thought it was “a stonewall penalty and red card” but Sarr stayed on, a corner was awarded and Huddersfield could point back to their own strong claim when James Bree bundled Toffolo over in the box after only 12 seconds.
Huddersfield had also come close through Danny Ward. The striker turned and shot over, via a deflection, after the restart but the game did not quite rediscover its earlier wildness. Nicholls irritated the crowd by delaying goal kicks, reflecting the visitors’ quest for increased control rather than any particular desire to see out a draw.
Carlos Corberán’s team, relegated from the top tier only three years ago but still firm outsiders for ascent at the start of the season, were able to knock the ball around on something approaching their own terms as Luton’s fire fizzled out but could not create the chance that would put one foot in the national stadium.
“It is probably the fair result,” Corberán said, having reasonably perceived a game of two halves. Jones, who could welcome back his top scorer Elijah Adebayo on Monday, was bouncier about the decider. “It’s a straight shootout, winner takes all,” he said. A mindboggling prize is close to his grasp.