The Hatters secured automatic promotion from Sky Bet League Two – guaranteeing League One football for the first time in ten years – on a sun-drenched afternoon at Carlisle.
Olly Lee’s second-half equaliser, combined with Exeter being held at home by Crawley, means the Town cannot now be caught by the Grecians and almost certainly guarantees second place, with Wycombe six points behind but 29 goals worse off than Nathan Jones’ men.
Carlisle had taken a first-half lead through Danny Grainger’s penalty, but once again Jones’ side showed the never-say-die character and spirit to come from behind to get something from the game, meaning that the title remains a possibility – albeit slim.
Accrington won at Wycombe to move six points clear of the Town, but victories from their remaining two games and Stanley losing all three of theirs would see the Hatters crowned champions – not that the possibility of that even entered their heads as the manager, his staff and players celebrated with 1,404 delirious Hatters at the end.
Jones had named an unchanged side for the third successive match knowing a fourth win in a row would bring about confirmation of automatic promotion.
James Shea was in goal, with Jack Stacey, Glen Rea, Alan Sheehan and Dan Potts at the back, Alan McCormack, Olly Lee, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu and Elliot Lee in the midfield diamond, with top scorer Danny Hylton and James Collins up front.
Carlisle started on the front foot, Mike Jones sending in the game’s first shot on goal in the third minute, then Jamie Devitt trying his luck from range three minutes later, but Hatters keeper Shea was comfortably behind both efforts.
The Hatters worked their way into the game and after Mpanzu had played Hylton in down the left channel, the top scorer picked out Olly Lee with a clever cross, but the midfielder’s first touch let him down.
The hosts were in front by the 13th minute when Richie Bennett was brought down by Shea as he looked to get on the end of a pass from Ashley Nadesan, with captain Grainger converting the penalty with a side-footed shot to Shea’s right.
Veteran defender Clint Hill was next to have a go, meeting a right-wing corner with a firm header that Shea held well, and it took the Hatters until the 26th minute to mount another attack of any real note.
First Olly Lee’s cross from the left found Hylton, but Hill took the ball off the striker’s toe before he could shoot, then Elliot Lee regained possession and worked it out to Potts to the left edge of the box, but the left-back’s right-footed shot trickled harmlessly into Jack Bonham’s arms.
Within a minute, as fans cheered on learning that Crawley had taken the lead at Exeter, Jack Stacey was racing to the right byline and cutting the ball back towards Hylton, but once again the Carlisle defence held firm.
Devitt was soon firing a 30-yard free-kick high over the bar at the other end, before Sheehan’s 36th-minute set-piece from the right touchline caused consternation in the home box, as Elliot Lee then stood a cross up for Hylton, whose header was blocked, and McCormack saw a follow-up shot cleared.
Collins had a sight of goal in the 43rd minute when Mpanzu’s pass found him lurking to the right of the area, but the ex-Crawley man’s shot was deflected wide of the far post, then Potts went into referee Seb Stockbridge’s book for a foul on home right-back James Brown, although the decision might just as easily have gone the Hatters’ way.
With Carlisle slowing the game down at every opportunity, the first half had been a stop-start affair – but the Hatters came out after the break and immediately went on the attack, Potts’ cross from the left travelling all the way through to Mpanzu to the right of the area, but the midfielder’s 20-yard shot flashed just wide of the post.
Moments after Shea had claimed a dangerous looking Grainger free-kick from wide on the left, Hylton led a rapid Town break through the centre of the pitch on the hour, eventually finding Collins to his left, but Ellis produced a timely block as the striker pulled the trigger.
The equaliser came in the 62nd minute, and once again Hylton was at its heart, finding a pocket of space to the right of the box and firing a low angled shot in that Bonham could only parry into Olly Lee’s path.
It may not have been from 70 yards, but this was the midfielder’s sixth – and most important – goal of the season as he calmly side-footed home from six yards.
Rea had produced a fine header to put Bennett off as he looked to nod in at the far post just before the goal, then McCormack somehow managed to get a back header on a Bennett cross as Nadesan prepared to head in.
Stacey led a Town charge in the 79th minute, carrying the ball 40 yards and slipping Mpanzu in through the middle, but Bonham raced out to block as the midfielder looked to place the ball past the onrushing keeper.
Devitt dragged a right-footed shot just wide of the post with Shea rooted to the spot, then Mpanzu went up the other end and saw a looping header bounce off the top of the bar.
Carlisle threw men forward in search of a winner, knowing they could still get in the play-offs – but the Hatters defence were solid and saw the game out with news of the final whistle blowing on the 2-2 draw at St James Park guaranteeing the Town’s promotion.
Congratulations to NJ, his staff and all the players who have played a part. You have been immense and while Nathan always says how proud he is...today, we can tell you exactly how proud we are of you all!
The Town Are Going Up!
TOWN: Shea, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan (c), Potts, McCormack (Mullins 90+1), O Lee, Mpanzu, E Lee (Downes 90+2), Collins, Hylton. Subs: Justin, Cornick, Jervis, Gambin, Stech (GK)
GOALS: O Lee 62
CARLISLE: Bonham, Grainger (c), Joyce, Jones, Devitt, Campbell-Ryce, Bennett, Ellis, Brown (Miller 72), Hill, Nadesan (Twardek 72). Subs: Gray (GK), Parkes, O'Sullivan, Lambe, Stockton
GOALS: Grainger (pen) 13
Yellows: Ellis, Grainger, Jones
REFEREE: Seb Stockbridge
ATT: 5,523 (1,404 Hatters)