Captain Sonny Bradley’s equaliser set up a winner-takes-all showdown on Monday as he earned Luton a 1-1 draw with Huddersfield in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg.
Having started the better on home soil, the Hatters were dealt a 12th-minute blow when Daniel Sinani’s smart finish beat Matt Ingram at his near post.
But in a game with two sides so potent from set-pieces it was no surprise when Luton levelled from a free-kick, curled into the area by Harry Cornick and dispatched emphatically from close range by the skipper.
Both sides could have had first-half penalties and Rob Jones’ decision to overlook a clear trip on Cameron Jerome, a shout Luton boss Nathan Jones later called “stonewall”, highlighted their improvement since their equaliser.
After half-time they failed to retain that momentum as Huddersfield began to wrestle back control. The Terriers continued to look the more potent throughout the half but could not find a way to trouble Ingram, setting up an all-or-nothing second leg in Monday night’s return fixture in West Yorkshire, live on Sky Sports.
Spoils shared in Kenilworth sell-out
Referee Jones was given a baptism of fire within the first 15 seconds when Toffolo got the wrong side of Bree in the penalty area and appeared to be tripped, but he was quick to raise his arm for a goal kick instead of pointing to the spot.
Luton would thank him for that decision and took advantage of that early let-off when Bree forced Lee Nicholls to tip over soon after, but a bright start was punctured as Huddersfield netted from their first shot on target.
Toffolo and Danny Ward exchanged passes before looking into the area for Sinani, who looked like he had taken the ball too wide around Reece Burke before arrowing it past Ingram with a sharp finish.
The visitors decided to dig in and sit deep with a lead in their grasp and Luton lacked the quality to break them down in open play, but found a way through from one of their trusted set pieces. Cornick’s delivery from deep on the left was pinpoint to meet Bradley at the near post, and he fired past a stranded Nicholls for their to add an 18th goal from dead balls this season.
The turnaround could have been complete had Luton been given the penalty replays suggested they deserved when Sarr tangled with Jerome in the box and appeared to pull him down as he lost his own balance.
Huddersfield were happier to hear the half-time whistle but were just as relieved that Luton never regained their momentum in the second period, and instead Sarr was denied a penalty of his own when he was brought to ground from a free-kick.
There was little in the way of goalmouth action from either side as Luton rallied but struggled to in a foothold in the second half, while Huddersfield remained in second gear knowing a draw would favour them going into the second leg at the John Smith’s on Monday night.
Jones: Ref missed a penalty – and a red card
Luton manager Jones felt the scoreline reflected the pattern of the game but felt the result may have been different had Jerome been given a penalty, and Sarr a red card, when the two clashed shortly before the break.
He told Sky Sports: “It’s a tight game. The margins are really tight between the sides. First half we were outstanding, we should have had a penalty and a possible red card because [Jerome] has been denied a goal-scoring opportunity. I know they had half of one too, but obviously I see it through orange eyes. Ours was stonewall. He’s taken him out. But it’s one of those things and they’ll be saying the same.
“They’re a good side and it will be difficult, but it’s all to play for. We have to go to Huddersfield and win the game, but we probably would have taken that at the start of the season.
“We would have liked to have taken a lead there, but it was very important not to lose this game, because then they can shut up shop. Their goalkeeper takes an age doing everything, we know this and there’s been an article written about it, but they get away with it, slowing it down to ridiculous levels. We know they can do that.”
These two sides meet again at the John Smith’s Stadium on Monday night, live on Sky Sports Football from 7pm; kick-off 7.45pm. The winner will go on to meet one of Sheffield United or Nottingham Forest at Wembley in the play-off final on May 29.