The Hatters were more than a match for Championship side Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough this afternoon as they stretched their unbeaten run to 16 matches in all competitions to earn a third round replay in the Emirates FA Cup.
The real core outcome of the game though, was the feeling that the squad can really compete at this level and that the squad has come so far under Nathan Jones’ guidance, the day before his third anniversary in the job.
The result means the Hatters will be in the hat for the fourth round draw on Monday night - ball number five - and will entertain the Owls again in due course under the lights at Fortress Kenny.
The gaffer made one change to the side that drew 0-0 with Barnsley on New Year's Day, with Luke Berry making his first start of the season after battling back from that horrific injury suffered at Colchester on Good Friday, replacing Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu who dropped to the bench.
What better place to make your return to the starting line-up, than in the FA Cup third round, away at Hillsborough, with more than 4,200 travelling Hatters behind you!
It was the hosts that started quickest, producing a chance within two minutes - Barry Bannan crossing from the right to find Stephen Fletcher unmarked. The Owls' forward rose highest, but couldn’t keep his header down, rising just over the bar and James Shea, who was rooted to the spot.
The Hatters settled into the game though and looked comfortable at the level, with Berry playing a wonderful over-lapping pass through to James Justin, but his ball into James Collins, lurking in the area was judged offside.
Sonny Bradley had a good header blocked by Cameron Dawson in the Owls’ goal, but the centre-half’s physicality on the Wednesday defender proved to be too much for referee Robert Jones, giving the foul in favour of the home side.
Wednesday were back at it again with some decent one-touch play that sent George Boyd on his way in front of the Luton goal. The forward appeared to be through but Matty Pearson’s sliding challenge in front of the away stand was greatly received by the army of Hatters supporters behind the goal.
Danny Hylton got the better of his former Aldershot team-mate Michael Hector to win the Hatters’ second corner of the afternoon, cleverly putting it past him on the by-line until his run was eventually stopped. However, the corner quickly dissolved into a Wednesday attack.
Adam Reach, with a neat first touch, took the ball away from the Hatters defence and the ex-Middlesbrough man fired at goal. Shea had to be ready for it, diving quickly down to his right as the ball sailed narrowly past the post. Fletcher was also a menace throughout the half, doing well in the six-yard box to create space, inviting several uneasy crosses.
There was another brilliant passing move from the Hatters, making its way to Justin on the edge of the area moments later, the defender hitting it too, but the shot never going to worry Dawson.
Andrew Shinnie then collected the ball in his own half and, following by a slick one-two with Hylton, the Scot drove towards the penalty area, but his shot was blocked.
The final chance of the half fell to the Hatters again, when Justin picked out Berry, whose shot from range was on target but not hard enough to trouble Dawson, who safely held the midfielder's clurliung shot.
The second half contained more promise as seen in the opening 45 minutes, the Hatters looking as if they had gained in confidence, playing more of the free-flowing attacking football that Kenilworth Road has become accustomed to throughout the course of this campaign.
Jack Stacey worked hard down the right throughout, on one occasion finding Berry’s outstretched leg at the far post. The midfielder couldn’t force his touch on target though.
‘He’s one of our own’ filled Hillsborough’s historic walls when Justin slid in to make a saving challenge to break down the Wednesday attack, winning a free-kick in the process. It was a memorable moment for the 20-year-old who has been outstanding so far this season.
The Owls continued to probe too, Matias forcing a terrific save from Shea in his final contribution before being substituted. It looked to be heading in at the near post, but the keeper got a strong hand on it to paw it out of play for a corner.
The Hatters keeper was called upon once more seven minutes later, just about tipping a cross away from danger as he fell backwards in a crowded area. The shot-stopper, as well as the whole squad, looked more than comfortable on the day though, dealing with pressure from a side who were unbeaten in four Championship matches.
Bradley even had time to go on an attacking run, battling forward with the ball fown the left as the game entered its final third. Although he was eventually stopped by three men in a Wednesday shirt, his effort and determination to make it up the field was remarkable.
It could have gone either way as the game became stretched at the end, two good sides trying to grab a late winner. Shinnie sent over a well-placed cross that Hylton couldn’t get on target and Bannan hit a good volley that made its way into Shea’s arms comfortably.
A draw was a fair result though, and an excellent result for the Hatters who looked more than capable of playing just as well as a Championship side, especially at such an iconic stadium.
Nathan Jones lapped up the applause at the end, and rightly so, building a side that the fans can get behind and be proud of.
The Hatters will now turn their attention to next week’s top of the table clash with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, where they’ll be hoping to grab three important points to keep them in the top two.
TOWN: Shea, Justin, Pearson, Bradley (C), Stacey, McCormack, Berry (LuaLua 82’), Shinnie, Lee (Jarvis 89’), Hylton, Collins (Mpanzu 66’). SUBS NOT USED: Jones, Sheehan, Grant, Isted.
WEDNESDAY: Dawson, Palmer, Fox, Fletcher (Nuhiu 76’), Bannan, Lees (C), Matias (Winnall 58’), Reach, Boyd, Hutchinson (Pelupessy 26’), Hector. SUBS NOT USED: Wildsmith, Thorniley, Baker, Shaw
REFEREE: Robert Jones
ATT: 16,974 (4219 Away)