Before this frayed, scrappy but thoroughly engrossing tie the Luton captain, Sonny Bradley, had fretted that it could be his last chance to become a Premier League footballer. He is hardly on his last legs at 30 but nights like this do not come along often.
The Hatters’ presence in the playoffs is a thing of wonder and it was Bradley himself, equalising Danel Sinani’s early goal, who ensured Wembley will be within tantalising reach when they play the second leg in West Yorkshire on Monday. The same is true for Huddersfield, who will be happy enough to have left a raucous, hostile environment with a draw and now hope to make home advantage tell.
Kenilworth Road has not hosted a top-flight fixture since 25 April 1992, when a win over Aston Villa could not stave off relegation and a sliding-doors moment with the riches of the Premier League. The ground, rickety and ramshackle, appears to have been frozen in time since then; Luton’s on-pitch fortunes have been far more fluid and, as they were roared out by a sea of orange-clad fans, it scarcely felt believable that a five-year stint in what is now the National League only concluded in 2014.
Built on a shoestring and playing to the most distinct of galleries, Luton and Nathan Jones have contrived a fairytale. Five years ago Huddersfield achieved their own unlikely promotion and, while they did not last too long at the top, this season’s third-placed finish in the Championship under Carlos Corberán has primed them for a repeat.
After a dozen frantic minutes they came closer to making that a reality. They had been denied a fair penalty shout after 12 seconds when Harry Toffolo was bundled over at the far post by James Bree; almost immediately it was Bree, the right wing-back, who came close to setting the occasion ablaze when a fierce drive was tipped over by Lee Nicholls.
The tempo was relentless but, given his chance, Sinani kept a cool head. The loanee from Norwich had space to exploit when, in attempting to pursue him, Kai Naismith stumbled. Toffolo found the gap with a slide-rule pass and, with Bradley unable stop the shooting chance despite drawing him wide, Sinani shot crisply inside Matt Ingram’s near post.
Shortly afterwards, Bradley was sharper in blocking from Danny Ward. Luton could ill afford a second concession but steadied, asking questions with a series of crosses from either side. The 35-year-old Cameron Jerome was an obvious target but Huddersfield had not been overly stretched before Bradley’s leveller.
It came on the half-hour after Jerome had been fouled by Tom Lees on the left. The free-kick was whipped across deliciously by Naismith and Bradley met it with a close-range volley that Nicholls could not keep out. The two Luton defenders had made Sinani’s life too easy earlier on, but now they had made emphatic amends.
Jerome, as awkward a foe as ever, had his own strong penalty appeal rejected when Naby Sarr appeared to clumsily stall his run towards goal. He gathered himself to curl narrowly over from 25 yards; Henri Lansbury and, at the other end, Ward would also come close towards the end of a half that had rattled by.
Bradley opened the second half by stooping, under heavy pressure, to meet a Naismith corner but finding the side-netting. It did not take long for Nicholls’ propensity for taking his time over goal-kicks to catch the crowd’s attention. Rather than a suggestion Huddersfield had already settled for a draw, it seemed a ploy to slow Luton’s more frantic approach and bring a more measured style to bear.
It was not far off succeeding when Ward saw a shot on the turn deflected just over. The visitors began to manoeuvre the ball around with a degree of freedom as the hour mark passed. They were served a reminder of the hosts’ threat when Nicholls had to paw away a tricky cross from Bree, but the kind of chance that might tilt the balance in either direction remained elusive.
That remained the case, although Huddersfield stayed broadly on top and almost scented a winner when Reece Burke got in the way of Lewis O’Brien’s shot. For Luton, the miracle is still on.