Prior to this frayed, rambling but utterly captivating tie, Luton captain Sonny Bradley feared it might be his last chance to become a Premier League footballer. He’s barely on his last legs at 30 but nights like this don’t come around often.
The Hatters’ presence in the playoffs is an astonishing thing and it was Bradley himself, leveling Danel Sinani’s opening goal, who ensured Wembley would be within easy reach in the return leg to West Yorkshire on Monday. The same goes for Huddersfield, who will be happy enough to have left a noisy and hostile environment with a draw and will now be hoping to make the home advantage do the talking.
Kenilworth Road hasn’t hosted a top-flight game since April 25, 1992, when a win over Aston Villa couldn’t prevent relegation and a sliding-door moment with Premier League riches. The floor, rickety and dilapidated, seems to have been frozen in time since then; Luton’s on-pitch fortunes were far more fluid and, as they were roared by a sea of orange-clad fans, it was hard to believe that a five-year stint in what is now the National League would never ended only in 2014.
Built on a shoestring budget and playing in the most distinct galleries, Luton and Nathan Jones have invented a fairy tale. Five years ago Huddersfield secured their own unlikely promotion and, while they didn’t last too long at the top, third place in the Championship this season under Carlos Corberán set them up for a repeat.
After a frantic dozen minutes, they got closer to making this a reality. They had been denied a fair penalty shout after 12 seconds when Harry Toffolo was bundled up at the far post by James Bree; almost immediately it was Bree, the right-back, who nearly set the chance on fire when a fierce drive was knocked down by Lee Nicholls.
The tempo was relentless but, given his luck, Sinani kept a cool head. The Norwich loanee had space to exploit when, trying to chase him down, Kai Naismith stumbled. Toffolo found the gap with a slide rule pass and, with Bradley unable to stop the shot chance despite the distance, Sinani fired a clean shot inside the near post of Matt Ingram.
Shortly after, Bradley was more sharp blocking Danny Ward. Luton could ill afford a second concession but leveled off, asking questions with a series of crosses either side. Cameron Jerome, 35, was an obvious target, but Huddersfield hadn’t been stretched too thin before Bradley’s leveler.
It happened half an hour after Jerome was fouled by Tom Lees on the left. The free-kick was deliciously whipped by Naismith and Bradley met it with a close-range volley that Nicholls couldn’t prevent. The two Luton defenders had made Sinani’s life too easy before, but now they had made amends.
Jerome, as clumsy an opponent as ever, saw his own strong penalty appeal dismissed when Naby Sarr appeared to awkwardly delay his run towards goal. He gathered to curl up narrowly from 25 yards out; Henri Lansbury and, at the other end, Ward would also come closer towards the end of a rocky half.
Bradley opened the second half by ducking, under heavy pressure, to meet a Naismith corner but finding the side netting. It didn’t take long for Nicholls’ propensity to take his time on goal kicks to catch the attention of the crowd. Rather than a suggestion that Huddersfield had already settled for a draw, it seemed like a ploy to slow down Luton’s more frantic approach and bring a more measured style to wear.
He was close to achieving it when Ward saw a swerving shot just overhead. The visitors started to maneuver the ball with some freedom as the hour of play passed. They received a reminder of the hosts’ threat when Nicholls had to pull off a tricky cross from Bree, but the kind of chance that could tip the balance either way remained elusive.
That remained the case, although Huddersfield remained comfortably ahead and nearly sniffed out a winner when Reece Burke obstructed Lewis O’Brien’s shot. For Luton, the miracle is still there.