Luton deservedly booked their spot in the Championship play-off final after a superb 2-0 second leg win saw them beat Sunderland 3-2 on aggregate on Tuesday night.
They will face either Middlesbrough or Coventry – who play one another in the other second leg on Wednesday night, live on Sky Sports Football – at Wembley next Saturday for a place in the Premier League.
Rob Edwards’ Hatters trailed 2-1 after Saturday’s first leg and made their intent to pull level in the tie clear from the off, which they did after 10 minutes, when Gabriel Osho helped the ball over the line from just one of the many set-pieces the visitors struggled to deal with all evening.
That goal, coupled with the intensity of Kenilworth Road, unsettled Sunderland, who had the fourth-best away record in the division during the regular campaign.
But when they needed a performance on the road the most, Tom Lockyer’s header before the break shifted the momentum in Luton’s favour, and the Black Cats could not find a way back.
How Luton’s valiant fightback was rewarded with a trip to Wembley
From the word go, this had the makings of a classic. The setting was one of the most unique stadiums in the second tier, the atmosphere one made up of passion and anxiety in equal measure. A pantomime villain emerged early on, too, in Amad Diallo, whose needless theatrics quickly irked the home fans.
Just as they had done on Wearside four days earlier, Luton drew first blood. Sunderland failed to deal with an inswinging corner, and with goalkeeper Anthony Patterson unable to claim, Osho pounced to bundle in the opener to restore parity on aggregate.
Two important saves in quick succession from Ethan Horvath denied Pierre Ekwah an equaliser, while Diallo kept trying to find pockets from which to launch one of his trademark long-range efforts, but Luton were not prepared to grant him the space he desired to operate.
The Hatters were denied a second as Luke O’Nien hooked Carlton Morris’ shot off the line midway through the first half, but they continued to put the Black Cats under the cosh and reaped the rewards just before the break when Lockyer showed immense determination to head home Alfie Doughty’s delicious cross.
Mere seconds after the break, Luton could have taken the game away from their opponents altogether. Patterson swept up after O’Nien’s error, but then made a hash of his own pass, which fell straight to Morris, but he was unable to keep his composure and skied his shot.
Much of the second half passed without incident, but as the conclusion drew nearer, Luton were forced to dig deep defensively, knowing one Sunderland goal would have resulted in extra-time. Dig deep they did, with every block or tackle celebrated in the stands as though it were a goal.
And when the final whistle sounded, with Luton’s clean sheet intact, they moved to within one game of the Premier League, 14 years after they were relegated from the EFL.
Player of the match – Tom Lockyer
Luton’s Tom Lockyer speaking on Sky Sports Football:
“Commiserations to Sunderland, it was an absolute battle over the two legs. We had to mix it up against them today, be horrible and dirty and that’s how we won the game.
“To see Luton in the Premier League would be massive. Near on 10 years ago in non-League and to have that journey, it’s almost a bit of a fairy tale. The fans deserve their day out at Wembley and hopefully we can send them home happy.”
Edwards: I’m delighted but there’s still a job to do
Luton boss Rob Edwards speaking to Sky Sports:
“It’s incredible. I’m so proud of the players and pleased for this football club, these fans and everyone connected to the club. To get to Wembley and a final is incredible. When you get to finals it becomes about winning so I’m aware that there’s still a job to do. But it is a great feeling.
“We started really well and on the front foot as we’d hoped and it kind of went to plan. You can’t plan to score at the right moments, but you hope it can come off that way. We started on the front foot and put them under a lot of pressure. To get a couple of goals up was great and to see it out was even better. Over the two legs they haven’t had loads and loads of chances. Tonight, we had a lot. I thought it was a thoroughly deserved win. I’m delighted for the lads.”
Mowbray: We were missing ingredients, but I’m proud
Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray speaking to Sky Sports:
“We knew their strengths and we knew our potential weaknesses and they came to fruition really. I’ve just told them how proud I am of them all. I’m proud of the supporters, proud of the city of Sunderland. It’s amazing what they’ve done this year and unfortunately we ran out of the ammunition of what you need in a football team.
“I’ve always said that football teams are made up of speed, quality, size, physicality and talent. We were missing a few ingredients in our team. We have to give them lots of credit. They were hugely committed of course as you would expect. They scored from the set plays which we knew were our Achilles heel. The main message is how proud I am of the team.”
Analysis: Luton have been through the ringer – they are in dreamland
Curtis Davies on Sky Sports Football:
“They’ll be in dreamland at the minute. There are a lot of clubs that drop into this division from the Premier League and expect to be promoted. To see a club like Luton Town amongst it, people didn’t expect it. Even after last season they weren’t fancied. To overcome a deficit to get to Wembley. It’s credit to them and the players. But Wembley isn’t the goal. It’s the Premier League.
“This club has been through the ringer over the last 10 to 12 years. They have dropped out of the Football League and had to make their way back. After everything that has happened financially for the club, to get to the Premier League would help to sustain these positions going forward. The money that comes with it, the infrastructure will change massively for the club and the community.”
Kevin Phillips on Sky Sports Football:
“When you come into the game with a lead, especially with their away form this season, you expect them to go and win the game. But you don’t finish third in this league for no reason as Luton did.
“Sunderland can be extra proud of what they’ve achieved this season. To get promoted and then to finish in the play-offs, it will stand them in good stead for next season. Tonight’s game was that one step too far for this young side, but the fans should be proud of their players.”
While Sunderland will remain in the Sky Bet Championship for the 2023/24 campaign, Luton will play Middlesbrough or Coventry in the play-off final at Wembley Stadium at 4.45pm on Saturday May 27 for a place in the Premier League.