Wanderers’ FA Cup run came to an end but not before they had pushed Premier League Luton all the way in a cracking third-round replay, writes Pete Oliver.
On an emotional night when the Whites’ also paid their respects to supporter Iain Purslow – following the sad passing of the 71-year-old after suffering a cardiac arrest while watching Wanderers last Saturday – Ian Evatt’s side gave everything to pull off a shock.
Dion Charles’ early goal offered hope of an upset and a fourth-round trip to either Everton and or Crystal Place.
But despite being the better side for long periods and taking the fight to their top-flight opponents for most of the tie, goals from Tahith Chong and Chiedozie Ogbene’s second-half winner were just enough for Town to come from behind and sneak through.
It was a harsh way for Wanderers’ six-game unbeaten run to come to end but going out with their heads held high, the Whites can now turn their attention back to a promotion push which should stay on track with more performances like this.
After staff had cleared the pitch of snow earlier in the day to guarantee that Luton’s first ever visit to the Toughsheet Stadium could go ahead – and following an impeccably observed minute’s silence – Wanderers quickly raised the temperature with an impressive start.
Victor Adeboyejo had given the Luton defence a tough afternoon in a goalless first meeting at Kenilworth Road and the striker picked up where he had left off as he helped the Whites take an early lead.
Will Forrester turned defence into attack and Adeboyejo then got the better of Teden Mengi to burst into the box and pull the ball back perfectly for Charles to sweep home his 17th goal of the season.
Moments later Charles returned the favour for Adeboyejo to fire wide but, crucially, Wanderers didn’t hold onto their advantage for more than three minutes.
The nature of the equaliser added to the frustration as Josh Dacres-Cogley’s mis-cued pass was picked up by Carlton Morris to feed Chong for a shot which went through the legs of Forrester and beyond Nathan Baxter.
Jordan Clark then missed a great chance to give Town the lead but that would have been harsh on Wanderers who were terrific in a pulsating first half.
Time and again they picked apart the visitors’ defence with some slick football, while Adeboyejo continued to wreak havoc.
And a minute before half-time he was only inches away from an audacious equaliser with a chipped effort from fully 45 yards which had Tim Krul scrambling to touch the ball onto the crossbar and finally keep out of the net.
The pace of the contest didn’t drop following the re-start and both sides went close to going in front in an end-to-end opening.
After Clark had bounced an effort against the woodwork, Nathan Baxter made an excellent double save to keep out follow-ups from Chong and Pelly Ruddock.
And Wanderers then immediately hit back with Adeboyejo and Paris Maghoma exposing the Luton back line to almost create an opening for Charles who was only denied by a brilliant block from former England man Ross Barkley.
Wanderers had Luton on the ropes for a few minutes in a breath-taking spell but couldn’t force the breakthrough and with nearly an hour gone Luton went ahead for the first time.
Morris was again the provider with a low ball across the face of goal and this time Ogbene was the beneficiary as he side-footed home from six yards out.
Still that didn’t deflate the Whites who came again with a chance for George Thomason - outstanding in tandem with midfield accomplice Josh Sheehan - superbly picked out by substitute Jack Iredale before volleying over the top.
And a flurry of corners around the 71st-minute applause to further remember Iain Purslow maintained the momentum as Wanderers pressed for an equaliser they thought they’d earned when Charles flicked the ball home.
Sadly, celebrations were cut short by an offside flag from the assistant referee and despite pushing to the end there was to be no late leveller and at least the chance to take the fight into a deserved bout of extra-time and possibly beyond.
Wanderers: Baxter; Forrester (Iredale HT), Almeida Santos, Toal; Sheehan; Dacres-Cogley, Maghoma (Morley 81), Thomason, Ashworth; Adeboyejo (Bodvarsson 74), Charles (Jerome 74). Substitutes: Coleman, Dempsey, Matheson, Andreucci, Lewis.
Luton Town: Krul; Burke (Brown 74), Osho, Mengi (Belll HT), Doughty (Giles HT); Ruddock, Barkley, Clark (Adebayo 81); Ogbene, Morris, Chong (Townsend 74). Substitutes: Kaminski, Potts, Berry, Woodrow.
Booked: Mengi, Clark
Referee: Thomas Bramall
Attendance: 10,878 (751 away)