A ding-dong battle saw Luton surrender a 2-0 lead as hosts Cambridge United ferociously fought back to earn a draw and force an FA Trophy third round replay at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday, writes Mark Wood.
It was an enthralling end-to-end encounter between the two sides battling it out for for the Skrill Premier title.
And for a while it looked like Town would inflict only a second home defeat on the U’s all season, with their only loss being a 2-0 defeat to League One Sheffield United in the third round of FA Cup in December, but the hosts battled back to level as Town became the only other side not to lose at the Abbey Stadium all season.
The Hatters made the perfect start to both halves as debutant Ryan Inniss headed them into the lead in the opening seconds of the first half, while Alex Wall doubled their lead at the start of the second.
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But Cambridge always looked dangerous going forward as two goals in the space of a minute from striker Tom Elliott and substitute Ashley Chambers denied the Hatters victory.
Town were also indebted to a fine keeping display from Elliot Justham, while the U’s hit the woodwork three times, including a penalty from former Hatter Greg Taylor, as the Hatters were forced to hold on at the death.
It was virtually all change for Luton as they made 10 alterations to the side that drew 0-0 at Lincoln City the week before, with only Jake Howells retaining his place.
New Crystal Palace loan signing Inniss made his debut in the heart of the Hatters’ defence, while Peterborough loan man Kane Ferdinand made his first start in Town’s midfield.
The U’s, meanwhile, made five changes from their goalless draw at Nuneaton last time out as ex-Town boss Richard Money named a surprisingly strong side.
And Town made the perfect start as they took the lead after just four minutes. Wall won the free-kick on the left and debutant Inniss rose highest to glance home Shaun Whalley’s delivery.
A lively opening then saw Harrison Dunk trick and weave his way into the box two minutes later as his near-post drive forced a good save from Justham.
Former Portuguese U19 international David Viana threatened at the other end as his clever cross was cleared by a stretching defender.
The U’s though were looking dangerous too as Luke Berry headed over from a corner, before Luton should have doubled their lead on 12 minutes.
Patient build-up play from the Hatters saw Whalley make a real nuisance of himself and Solomon’s Taiwo’s tantalising cross was powered over the bar by Anthony Charles when he should have hit the target.
A controversial moment arrived moments later when the pacy Nathan Arnold got in behind and the wrong side of Inniss and went down under the defender’s physical presence, but referee Simon Bennett waved away the home side’s strong appeals for a penalty that would have likely ended in a red card too.
Charles was again in action on 20 minutes when Dunk got free on the left and put in a great cross, with the experienced Town defender just beating Elliott to the ball to clear.
The lively Arnold then went close again eight minutes later as a fine swivel and volley forced Justham into action.
A number decisions seemed to be going against the Hatters as Brett Longden was booked retrospectively for a foul, before a big 50-50 challenge between Wall and Tom Bonner left the former Dartford player in a heap on the floor.
Play went on for a few moments with Bonner down in agony before he received a lengthy spell of injury and was stretchered off with what looked like a serious leg injury.
He was eventually replaced by Town nemesis Chambers on 37 minutes, making his United debut after his midweek switch from York City.
The U’s continued to look good going forward as Elliott saw his dangerous cross run across the six-yard box before being cleared.
However, the Hatters too were dangerous going forward as Longden put Mark Cullen away on 41 minutes and his sharp effort from just inside box was turned over the bar by John Sullivan.
A cross by ex-Hatter Michael Spillane inadvertently hit Inniss’ arm before the break as U’s appeals for a penalty were waved away, before they were finally awarded a questionable spot-kick in the third minute of stoppage time.
Arnold skirted the edge of the box and Howells did brilliantly to fling himself in front of his effort only for Bennett to harshly point to the spot for a handball.
Ex-Hatter Taylor stepped up, but could only fire his effort against the base of the right-hand upright, as Charles put in another excellent challenge to clear behind.
Tom Champion replaced Kevin Roberts at the break for the hosts, while the fit-again Jon Shaw came on for the impressive Viana for the Hatters.
And Town repeated their superb start in the second half as they doubled their lead three minutes in. Ferdinand robbed Spillane and floated in the perfect cross to the far post for the unmarked Wall to head home.
However, the hosts continued to press as Charles did well to block Berry’s drive from the edge of the area before Chambers fizzed in a drive which Justham fielded well.
Wall made a wonderful run to open up the Cambridge defence on 62 minutes before finding Shaw unmarked on the edge of the box, but his powerful drive was turned behind by Sullivan.
Cambridge though proceeded to boss proceedings as they showed they weren’t done yet.
Howells was booked for a cynical foul on Dunk before a lovely touch by Arnold put Chambers away, but he could only fire a difficult chance over.
At the other end Cullen fired an effort well over, before Cambridge continued to turn the screw.
Arnold found Dunk in space as Justham did well to hold on to the winger’s effort with Chambers then dragging an effort across the face of goal.
Richard Tait replaced Spillane on 69 minutes and the U’s should have pulled a goal back two minutes later when Arnold drove in a cross across the face of goal and Chambers somehow diverted it wide from just a year out.
However, the U’s turned the game on its head with two goals in the space of a minute.
The first came on 73 minutes when Dunk floated in a cross and Elliott headed home from inside a crowded six-yard box.
And a crazy spell of action saw the game turned completely on its head as Ferdinand appeared to be fouled by Champion in midfield, but nothing was given, as Chambers raced clean through and kept his cool to dink past the exposed Justham.
With Ferdinand remonstrating with Champion the pair were booked by Bennett as United chased a winner.
A powerful Dunk blast forced Justham into another notable save, before Wall was booked for a poor challenge on 78 minutes as he was almost immediately replaced by young midfielder Ian Rees.
Town finally began to respond as Whalley’s direct run saw him power into the box but he poked just out of the reach of Cullen, before the winger won a free-kick in a great position but Howells curled his free-kick inches wide.
Captain for the day Howells whizzed another effort over with four minutes to go, but it was the U’s that came closest to grabbing victory in the closing stages.
Elliott danced his way into the box but saw his effort deflected just behind with three minutes to go before Berry headed over from another United corne.
Cambridge almost won it four times in stoppage time. Liam Hughes thundered a free-kick against the left-hand upright as it rebounded across the line and out.
The dangerous Chambers sent another effort into Justham’s midriff before racing clean through deep into stoppage time, but the Town stopper came out to narrow the angle and saved brilliantly from point-blank range and, with Town unable to clear the danger, Arnold’s follow-up from the edge of the area flicked the join of the post and bar as Town somehow clung on for a draw and a replay at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night.
U’s (4-4-2): John Sullivan, Kevin Roberts (Tom Champion 46), Greg Taylor, Tom Bonner (Ashley Chambers 37), Ian Miller (C), Tom Elliott, Harrison Dunk, Liam Hughes, Luke Berry, Michael Spillane (Richard Tait 69), Nathan Arnold. Substitutes not used: Josh Coulson, Will Norris.
Hatters (4-3-3): Elliot Justham, Anthony Charles, Solomon Taiwo, Alex Wall (Ian Rees 78), Jake Howells (C), Mark Cullen, Ryan Inniss, David Viana (Jon Shaw 46), Shaun Whalley, Kane Ferdinand, Brett Longden. Substitutes not used: Zane Banton, Craig King, Tinashe Chabata.
Booked: Longden 31; Howells 63; Ferdinand 73; Champion 73;Wall 78.
Referee: Simon Bennett.
Assistant Referees: Stuart Eagland and Matthew Jones.
Fourth Official: Jonathan Burridge.
Attendance: 3,194 (Luton 687).
Star Hatter: Elliot Justham. No chance with the goal and made a vast number of saves.