Flares usually signal danger but for the pitch-invading Huddersfield fans they are a sign of hope. They are one game away from a Premier League return after Jordan Rhodes came off the bench to score his fourth and most significant goal of the season to send them into the Championship playoff final at Luton’s expense.
Huddersfield were lucky to be still in the game when Rhodes poked home a free-kick with eight minutes to go to edge the tie but what matters in football is taking chances and, despite a barren season, the 32-year-old striker still knows how to get things done when it matters, a trait Luton lacked.
The visitors, missing eight first-team players, should have taken the lead in the 11th minute when Kal Naismith drifted into space on the left and sent a low cross into the box for Harry Cornick to tap home but he sidefooted the ball from six yards straight at Lee Nicholls, much to the relief of the majority in the ground.
Unlike in many playoff semi-finals there was little caution shown by either side. Huddersfield looked to play with great intensity to get through Luton, while the visitors’ pressing was causing problems for the hosts when they attempted to play out from the back. Luton moved the Huddersfield defence around to create gaps in wide areas. Robert Snodgrass took advantage to cut in from the right and curl a shot towards the corner which Nicholls palmed straight out to Amari’i Bell, who could only jab the rebound wide.
Huddersfield going so close to conceding ramped up the tension inside the ground. Danny Ward almost relieved it with a mazy run into the Luton box but he was stretching to shoot and failed to garner sufficient power in his jabbed effort, allowing Matt Ingram to palm it away. Injury meant it was Ward’s final action, with Rhodes coming on to replace him before the break.
Huddersfield looked unable to cope with the occasion, wanting to take too much time on the ball and being repeatedly caught out by Luton. The visitors maintained their intensity and almost took the lead when Allan Campbell got to the byline to chip a cross to the back post from the right but Bell put his header across goal and wide.
The only thing that looked to cause Luton problems was a lack of discipline creeping into their play. Jordan Clark was booked for a lunge on Rhodes, while Campbell received a lengthy talking to for a nibble at Lewis O’Brien after a free-kick had already been awarded to Huddersfield. Naismith joined Clark in the book for going through the back of the substitute Sorba Thomas.
Huddersfield finally came to life in the 74th minute, forcing Ingram to make two fine saves in quick succession. For the second he failed to gather properly and clashed with Harry Toffolo in the box as he attempted to collect the ball. Everyone in stripes demanded a penalty but the referee shook his head, earning the ire of the stadium in exchange. The fans were probably right, the referee wrong on this occasion.
Thomas had provided dangerous deliveries since coming on to the pitch. He swung in a free-kick from the left to the back post, where Rhodes showed his experience to hold off the challenge of Bell and slide the ball back across Ingram to bring delirium to Huddersfield which did not abate until the final whistle, nor will it in the town until they visit Wembley on Sunday 29 May where they will face Nottingham Forest or Sheffield United.
“It was a very, very difficult goal,” Carlos Corberán, Rhodes’ manager, said. “Only a striker with a lot of goal instinct can score.”
Huddersfield rode their luck to make it through. Bodies were put on the line throughout. “Without the character of the players, it would be possible to be sitting here celebrating going to Wembley,” Corberán said.
Not everyone enjoyed the pitch invasion. “The fans were an absolute disgrace,” Luton’s manager, Nathan Jones, said. “The stewards … I don’t know why they turned up, it took them hours to get on to the pitch.
“We won’t complain because football fans are like that. Some are idiots, they didn’t paint Huddersfield Town as a good club in terms of how they were. They’d won the game, go celebrate with your players, go celebrate something wonderful, but they were more concerned with obscene gestures. I saw a mother with a little kid; if it was my wife I’d be disgusted.”