A young Town side bowed out of the FA Trophy as Cambridge progressed to the quarter-finals with a narrow win at Kenilworth Road.
The average age of the Hatters’ starting XI was just 23 and for long spells the Town impressed against a strong United side.
However, it was a heavily deflected goal six minutes before half-time that did the damage. Ashley Chambers’ shot looked destined to reach the gloves of goalkeeper Elliot Justham until Ryan Inniss deflected the effort into the back of the net.
The Hatters made three changes to the side that drew 2-2 on Saturday with teenagers Luke Trotman, 16, and Ian Rees, 17, given starts along with Jon Shaw.
The winning goal, on 39 minutes, came came when Chambers was allowed time and space to get a shot away but Inniss’ intervention diverted the ball away from its intended path and it rolled agonisingly over the line passed a stranded Justham.
It was harsh on a young Town side who were helped by senior pros Anthony Charles, Solomon Taiwo and Shaw throughout the 90 minutes.
The first half had seen the Hatters test visiting goalkeeper John Sullivan with Brett Longden and Rees both going close.
After the restart the Town continued to huff and puff in their quest for an equaliser. Shaw’s towering header from Shaun Whalley’s left-wing corner was pawed away by Sullivan on 64 minutes in the pick of the chances for the hosts.
Cambridge were threatening on the counter with Chambers and Nathan Arnold’s searing pace causing the Town defence plenty of problems, but the Hatters were aggrieved with 10 minutes to go when substitute Zane Banton tucked home Mark Cullen’s cross from six yards only for the linesman’s raised flagged to rule the goal out for offside.
Undeterred, the Hatters plugged away as the rain teemed down on an already boggy Kenilworth Road turf. And the Town thought they’d forced extra-time in the dying moments when Cullen’s first-time curling effort seemed for all the world it would find the top corner, only for Sullivan to fly to his left to keep the shot out. And that was that.
It was a first home defeat of the season and the Town’s first at Kenilworth Road in the FA Trophy. Disappointment and frustration maybe but there are bigger sights for the Hatters to concentrate on now.
Town: Justham; Longden, Trotman, Charles, Inniss; Taiwo, Rees, Whalley (sub Viana); Shaw, Wall (sub Banton), Cullen.
Subs not used: C. Smith, Chabata, King.
Attendance: 2,132, including 326 from Cambridge.