Cambridge United put in an assured second-half performance to finish on level terms in a topsy-turvy encounter with fierce local rivals Luton Town. After going behind following a neat strike and a commanding first-half by the Hatters, the U's looked much more balanced in the second period, and had substitute Liam Hughes to thank for the equaliser following sustained United pressure to continue the unbeaten run that has now lasted nine games.
In the corresponding game two years ago, there was trouble both on and off the field after a fractious affair that saw injured Luton captain Kevin Nichols ejected from the stands. However, this time the Abbey's biggest attendance of the season failed to ignite mainly due to cautious refereeing by Tony Harrington who waved away calls for a penalty from Jez George’s men and a red card claim by the visitors at the other end.
The home team were missing talismanic striker Harrison Dunk, and almost had another injury casualty after a bloody clash of heads, with United and appropriately named Michael Gash coming off the worse. The first chance came after nine minutes when United's James Jennings was harshly judged to have committed a foul on the edge of the U's area. The resulting free-kick from Jake Howells was shot tamely over the bar. Three minutes later came a potentially match-turning moment when Hatter's captain George Pilkington's raised hand came into contact with the ball in the penalty area. Many spot-kicks have been awarded for a raised hand, but the referee decided not to take any action in the corner dominated by the visitor's 1,700-strong following.
However, Luton had started the strongest and their goal came after an exquisite through ball from James Dance on 18 minutes, directly in the path of Aaron O'Connor who, after a neat first touch, calmly slotted the ball home.
Things could have got even worse for United when the referee again erred from making a controversial decision, this time in front of the home Newmarket Road stand, when defender Josh Coulson bundled goalscorer O'Connor off the ball when he was the last line of defence just outside the area.
Despite United's impotency on the left, Ashley Carew was proving a constant menace down the other wing and it was Carew who almost got the equaliser, when his cross took a wicked deflection and was pushed wide by a scrambling Luton goalkeeper, Kevin Pilkington. It was all Luton now, however, and they were only prevented from going further ahead by offside flags on two occasions. United's only showing was a 30-yard effort blasted well-over by Kevin Roberts.
The visitors started how they had left off after the break and rained crosses into the United area, but Jez George's men gradually got back into the game. Carew nicely set up a shot for Gash, who sent a dipping shot which was pushed wide of the near post by the Luton keeper.
Carew almost turned provider again when his whipped cross was just snatched by the keeper before Luke Berry's lunge got the vital touch. Berry’s biggest contribution, however, was his substitution, and replacement Hughes equalised after Tom Shaw's cross found the United man on the far post to drive the ball home on 77 minutes.
The game had now turned in United's favour. Carew, Shaw and Coulson had chances to get the winner. Shaw was in the thick of it, in one of his best performances in a United shirt. He won the ball back in midfield and fed Gash who shot over the bar and was inches short of intercepting a weak back pass and complete the double over the Bedfordshire team.
A draw was about the fair result, but an unbeaten and confident United go into Tuesday's FA Cup replay with Wrexham on a well-deserved high.
United's next home game is vs Bath City, Tues 29 Nov, 7.45pm, £17/5