A sold-out Kenilworth Road produced an electric atmosphere to celebrate New Year’s Day in possibly one of the most entertaining 0-0 draws this afternoon against Barnsley.
Both sides played superbly, trying to snatch the points in a match where a draw was a fair result.
It meant the Hatters remain unbeaten at home this season, and stay in second spot even though Sunderland and Portsmouth picked up wins. The last time the Hatters played out a stalemate at home was Nathan Jones’ first match in charge against Cambridge United in 2016.
Barnsley came to Kenilworth Road and played with a real intent to win the match, pressing high up the pitch and not allowing the Hatters to dictate the game as they usually do at home.
Fireworks rained down in a neighbouring garden behind the executive boxes, symbolising the beginning of 2019, although it did feel like a rather fitting celebration, dedicated to the Hatters’ fine work in Sky Bet League One this season.
It was another match unbeaten in the league, the run now stands at 13, and this afternoon’s point came against a team who played in the Championship last term.
The only disappointing aspect of this afternoon’s game was Harry Cornick sustaining an injury, hobbling off after two minutes on the field. It was his first touch of the ball in fact, as he rolled his ankle trying to take on a Barnsley defender.
Danny Hylton was the only change to the starting XI that grabbed that late equaliser away at Walsall on Saturday, coming in for Cornick, who dropped to the bench.
That meant James Shea was between the sticks, with a usual back four of Jack Stacey, Sonny Bradley, Matty Pearson and James Justin. Alan McCormack started for the second match running in his usual holding midfield role, with Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu and Andrew Shinnie on either side of him.
Elliot Lee, as his number suggests, led the midfield in the number 10 role from which he has been so clinical from this season, followed by James Collins and Hylton, who made his first league start since his red card against Rochdale on the 3rd of November.
Former Hatters’ players Cauley Woodrow and Cameron McGeehan began the match for Barnsley, in what was both of their first appearances back at Kenilworth Road since their departures.
Town started brightly as Hylton found Collins in the box after just 38 seconds, but his pass ran too far and into the on-rushing arms of Adam Davies.
The Tykes had a solid 15-minute spell of possession, putting the home side through their paces, pressing high and keeping the pressure on the Hatters who struggled to keep the ball out of their own half.
Barnsley had their best chance when Woodrow picked it up just inside the Hatters’ half, poking it past McCormack and on to Mamadou Thiam, who looked lively down the left hand side. Thiam managed to get it back to Woodrow whose shot beat Shea but couldn’t find the net, going just past the post.
Moments later, the men in black were at it again, Kenny Dougall this time hitting one from outside the box, but it was never going to trouble Shea, sailing well over the bar.
The Hatters’ defensive line worked hard, soaking up an intense amount of pressure throughout this period. There were numerous blocks to keep the ball away from the goal as well as Shea, commanding his six-yard box, snatching multiple crosses in the air to keep it all square.
But the Hatters did have their own chances. Lee did well to turn in the box, beating three men around him as he fell in the area to win a corner despite shouts of a penalty. Justin lofted the resulting corner over to Bradley who headed down to McCormack. His volley into a crowded box found Hylton’s flailing leg which Davies had to be alert to, tipping it around the post.
Three minutes later, Collins’ delicate header into the path of Shinnie was met by a ferocious effort from the Scot, going well wide of the left post.
Alex Mowatt was then allowed to run at the defence, putting the ball into the path of Brad Potts, who put it just over the bar from around 25 yards.
The second half delivered more of the same, high-tempo football the previous 45 minutes had seen with Barnsley starting strong once more. Thiam hit a swirling shot that Shea had to get down to well. He held onto it too, which was important as the flight of the ball was incredibly awkward to deal with.
Somehow the ball stayed out of the Luton net again when Potts’ shot deflected off the top of McCormack’s head and inches over the bar. But it was Barnsley's keeper, Davies, who was busiest for the remainder of the game, as the Hatters began to battle their way into this tough encounter.
Hylton was unable to convert his header goalward after some neat work by Collins meant Stacey was able to pick out the number nine just outside the six-yard box. A little later, Justin’s free-kick made its way to Lee, who cleverly flicked on his header to Hylton. Although it was on target this time, it was caught easily by Davies.
A few minutes later a similar free-kick routine found its way once more to Hylton, who gave everything to try and convert, making an unorthodox backwards header attempt that flew the wrong side of the post.
But the visitors remained lively, Justin slipping while playing it back to Shea that looked as if it was heading into the path of Thiam who had snuck in behind the defence, but Shea sprinted out and made the ball his, clearing the danger.
Shinnie may have won goal of the season if his 74th minute strike had finished in the top corner. Having already won a strong challenge on McGeehan in the middle of the pitch, he took it around the defender and let fly from outside the area, missing narrowly over the bar. Lee copied his team-mate moments later, also having a pop from a similar distance that Davies kept out low to his right.
Mowatt almost won it for the visitors at the death with a thunderous shot from well outside the area that Shea leaped at. It looked to be heading in, but luckily it fell wide of the post as the points were shared in a thoroughly exciting match.
The Hatters now face Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on Saturday in the third round of the FA Cup. More than 4,000 Hatters fans will be making the trip, hoping that the side can go one better his season and make it to the fourth round.
TOWN: Shea, Justin, Bradley (C), Pearson, Stacey, McCormack, Shinnie, Mpanzu, Lee (Cornick 88) (Berry 90), Hylton, Collins. Sub not used: Isted, Grant, LuaLua, Jones, Sheehan
BARNSLEY: Davies (C), Dougall (Bähre 64), Pinnock, Lindsay, McGeehan, Cavaré, Potts (Adeboyejo 89), Woodrow, Thiam (Brown 76), Mowatt, Williams. Subs not used: Greatorex, Hedges, Moncur, Jackson
REFEREE: John Brooks
ATT: 9,926 (845 away)