Magnificent Hatters youngsters into the last eight after penalties
The Hatters Under-18s are through to face Blackburn Rovers in the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup after prevailing 5-3 following a dramatic penalty shootout against Preston North End at Deepdale.
The Town fired all five of their penalties home with supreme precision, with Preston's unfortunate Freddie Tracey seeing his effort rebound off the post to take the Hatters through to the last eight for the first time since 1997.
Jack Snelus had given the visitors the lead after just five minutes of the game, but Joshua Earl scored with less than two minutes remaining to take the game to extra time.
Preston had a chance to win it when Dylan Davidson was fouled in the area by Cameron McJannet, but the same man saw his penalty crash off the crossbar from virtually the last kick of extra time.
The Town made one change from their victory at Oldham in the previous round, with captain Frankie Musonda injured to be replaced by Kyran McGhan-George.
And the Town got off to the perfect start when Snelus struck his sixth goal of the season. Having started the move, the midfielder spread the ball out to George Murray on the left before finishing superbly inside the box following the perfect cross back into him.
It could – and perhaps should – have been two before ten minutes were played. Preston failed to clear a free-kick from the penalty area but the Town, despite having several opportunities, could not force the ball home as two shots were cleared off the line before stopper Mathew Hudson blocked McGhan-George’s effort.
Intent on making the opportunities count, Murray shot wide on 12 minutes before Alex Atkinson tested Hudson from distance six minutes later with the keeper parrying the ball to safety in a dominant period from Paul Driver's side.
The Hatters defence had been rarely troubled in the opening stages and it wasn’t until the 27th minute that goalkeeper Liam Gooch had any meaningful action in the Town goal.
But Preston enjoyed their best spell of the half as the half-hour mark ticked past, with Lilywhites’ left-winger Joshua Earl heading at Gooch before sending in a menacing left-wing cross into the box that no team-mate could take advantage of.
However the Hatters came through the pressure and ended the first period the stronger.
The Town were frustrated on 38 minutes when Snelus had a second goal harshly ruled out for offside after Atkinson’s shot from the edge of the box was deflected goalwards by a Preston defender. The ball spun viciously, bamboozling Hudson in the North End goal to leave Snelus to tap home from close range – only for the goal to be chalked off by a very late offside flag.
“Forget about it” was the shout from the Town bench and a minute later James Justin drilled a shot wide from 20 yards as the half ended with the solitary goal.
The Hatters then had Justin to thank at the other end seven minutes into the second period, putting in a brave block in his own penalty area to divert away a goalbound effort from North End’s right-back Clive Smith.
Preston continued to press the Town back without seriously testing Gooch and that allowed the Hatters to attack on the break as leading goalscorer Freddie Hinds, who has 18 goals already this season, smashed a first-time shot wide just after the hour.
Back came the Lilywhites and they came mightily close to equalising on 65 minutes when Freddie Tracey’s glancing header from an inswinging Dylan Davidson cross came back off the foot of the post. With the danger still not clear, Preston midfielder Jonathan Lunney tested Gooch’s handling with a shot on the turn which the Hatters stopper dealt with to keep the Hatters in front.
As the tie entered the final 20 minutes a number of the Town players began to suffer from cramp – at a time when Preston were being to dominate – and Driver made his first change on 72 minutes, bringing on Under-16 defender Ciaren Jones for McGhan-George.
Preston continued to pose the Town problems at timed ticked down inside the final 10 minutes but the Hatters defence held firm and Snelus twice had chances to give his side breathing space in the final moments when shooting over on 84 minutes and a minute later.
However, just when it looked as though the Hatters had done enough, Preston levelled with 90 seconds remaining of normal time. Davidson’s teasing cross from the right arched over the Town defence and Earl guided a header past Gooch to take the game to extra-time.
The Town replaced Hinds with James Verney for the start of the 30 additional minutes, but Preston came close to taking the lead two minutes after the restart when defender Jack Burgoyne headed over the bar following a right-wing corner.
The Hatters slowly began to find their passing rhythm again and on 99 minutes Cotter was unlucky to see a shot from the edge of the box deflected off target after being found well by fellow sub Verney.
Driver’s side ended the first half of extra-time on top but couldn’t test keeper Hudson and in the second half the Town came close on 113 minutes only for Cameron McJannet’s effort to bounce inches the wrong side of the post.
But with just seconds remaining, the Town were dealt what they thought was heartbreak. Davidson strode past McJannet, whose weary challenge felled the Preston man in the area, leaving the Hatters defender almost inconsolable as the referee pointed to the spot.
But to his, and the team's relief, Davidson's penalty struck the crossbar and away from chance, the last chance in a frenetic 120 minutes at Deepdale.
Into the shootout, and it was the Town who took first as Justin, Snelus and Bakinson hit the target while Preston responded to take it to 3-2. But the next spot kick was to be the crucial one from Tracey, who beat Gooch but not the post to give the Hatters the advantage.
Cotter made it 4-2 to the visitors, while Davidson made amends to give Atkinson a chance for glory, and he made no mistake to give the Hatters their fourth successive away victory in the competition, a fifth win overall, and a visit to Blackburn Rovers in the last eight.
Town: Gooch; Bean, McJannet, McGhan-George (sub Jones 72), Famewo; Atkinson, Bakinson, Justin, Snelus; Murray (sub Cotter 82), Hinds (sub Verney 91).
Subs not used: Davey, Brown.
CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL INVOLVED!