IT does not matter how you get to Wembley, it’s getting there that counts.
That has been York City manager Gary Mills’ repeated mantra ever since Jon Challinor’s scrappy stoppage-time equaliser forced an FA Trophy first round replay against part-timers Solihull Moors.
For that reason, any judgement on Saturday’s frustrating 1-0 semi-final, first leg home win over a nine-man Luton team will ultimately need to be reserved until after this weekend’s return match at Kenilworth Road.
Only then will history record whether the failure to capitalise on their opposition being two men down for 40 minutes of this match represented a costly opportunity missed for the Minstermen or is deemed irrelevant come the Wembley final against Newport or Wealdstone on May 12.
Bedfordshire, not Bootham Crescent, will provide the setting for celebrations or recriminations and, despite City fans’ palpable and understandable disappointment at not making Saturday’s second leg a mere formality, their team should travel down the M1 with little trepidation.
Including last season’s abandoned fixture between the two teams, Luton have only ever beaten City once as a non-League outfit in nine meetings and, on that occasion, it was Mills’ team that finished a game with nine men.
The Minstermen also remain unbeaten on the road for ten games, having last lost an away match with an experimental side during October’s 2-1 FA Cup preliminary round defeat at Wrexham.
As Mills stressed too, having just seen his defence keep a fourth consecutive clean sheet for the first time since November 2010, if Luton fail to score in front of their own fans they go out.
Further encouragement should be taken from the fact that, prior to Keith Keane’s 55th-minute dismissal and the breaking up of James Meredith and Lanre Oyebanjo’s surprise midfield partnership, the hosts had looked the superior side.
It was what then followed that provided cause for alarm.
Luton might have parked nine men behind the ball for the remainder of the match but, far too often, City also had at least six doing the same with goalkeeper Michael Ingham continuing to play behind a back four of Challinor, Chris Smith, Dan Parslow and Meredith, as well as a deep-lying midfielder in Scott Kerr.
Chambers’ quality in the final third of the field remains too frequently unreliable, while Pilkington’s crossing fell short of his recent standards.
What Matty Blair, who was left on the bench, or Adriano Moké, omitted from the 16 completely, might have achieved against tiring Luton legs can only be speculated on.
Challinor’s refusal to accept countless overlapping opportunities in the second half, meanwhile, was particularly baffling, given that the less-than-energetic striker Danny Crow was left up front alone by the visitors.
City’s movement in the central attacking areas also grew increasingly predictable during open play with Jamie Reed, scorer of the hosts’ 14th-minute penalty that saw Jake Howells receive his marching orders, too easily policed by the Hatters’ impressive centre-backs Janos Kovacs and George Pilkington during the latter stages.
Earlier, it was the home side that might have been reduced to ten men after only three minutes when Moses Ashikodi, recalled to the starting line up on the left wing by Mills, escaped with a caution following his crude challenge on Charlie Henry.
Further question marks were then raised about Ashikodi’s temperament when Mills screamed for him to retreat at a Luton free-kick – an offence which might again have resulted in him seeing red.
An afternoon that had also seen the former Kettering striker seemingly reluctant to use his head in the literal sense came to an end on 49 minutes after receiving treatment from physio Jeff Miller for a minor injury.
With 45 seconds on the clock, Ashikodi had curled well wide of Luton ’keeper Mark Tyler’s left-hand post before City forged ahead courtesy of Reed’s tenth goal of the season.
Matthew Blinkhorn, whose movement at set-pieces has been a welcome addition to the City squad, stole a march on the Luton defence to meet Oyebanjo’s corner with his head.
A shot by Reed at the far post was then prevented from finding the roof of the net when Howells threw up his arm on the goal-line, leaving referee Paul Tierney with no option but to point to the spot and then to the dressing rooms.
Reed sidefooted confidently to the left of Tyler, who dived in the opposite direction.
On 24 minutes, Blinkhorn’s header offered Reed an unopposed run at the visitors’ goal but the former Bangor City striker opted to shoot early and his 20-yard strike was pushed over by Tyler for a corner, that was delivered by Oyebanjo and headed over by Smith.
Moments later, Luton threatened on the break with Greg Taylor driving across the face of goal after Reed has lost possession in the visitors’ half.
At the other end, Kerr and Blinkhorn both fired over before Oyebanjo’s spectacular overhead kick from a Challinor cross was parried by Tyler with Ashikodi too slow to react to the rebound.
Kovacs, though, might have levelled the scores on 38 minutes when he held off a Challinor challenge to meet Crow’s right-wing cross but headed wide of the far post.
After the restart, Tyler tipped over a Reed free-kick after he had been tripped cynically by the cautioned Keane, who was yellow carded again seconds later for a high challenge on Jamal Fyfield.
Oyebanjo had hobbled off moments earlier and, when Meredith reverted to left-back in place of Fyfield just past the hour, City lost mobility in the middle of the park.
A low edge-of-the-box Kerr shot was saved by Tyler, who went on to comfortably catch a Potts header.
The Hatters ’keeper also parried Blinkhorn’s eight-yard attempt, while Potts fired narrowly over from 20 yards.
Tyler’s smartest stop, however, came on 85 minutes when George Pilkington’s clearance cannoned back towards his goal off team-mate Curtis Osano.
It was a telling moment with City having now managed only one goal in open play – from Oyebanjo – during their last three matches, all at home.
In the fourth minute of stoppage time, meanwhile, Ingham grabbed an inswinging Taylor corner from under his own crossbar to preserve City’s slender first-leg advantage.
York City 1 (Reed pen 14), Luton Town 0
York City: Michael Ingham 6, Jon Challinor 5, Chris Smith 6, Daniel Parslow 6, Jamal Fyfield 6, Lanre Oyebanjo 7, Scott Kerr 6, James Meredith 7, Jamie Reed 5, Matthew Blinkhorn 6, Moses Ashikodi 5.
Subs: Ashley Chambers 5 (for Ashikodi, 49), Michael Potts 5 (for Oyebanjo, 53), Danny Pilkington 5 (for Fyfield, 62). Not used: Blair, McLaughlin.
Key: 10 – Faultless; 9 – Outstanding; 8 – Excellent; 7 – Good; 6 – Average; 5 – Below par; 4 – Poor; 3 – Dud; 2 – Hopeless; 1 – Retire.
Star man: Meredith – helped set a good early tempo.
Luton: Mark Tyler, Ed Asafu-Adjaye, Janos Kovacs, George Pilkington, Greg Taylor, Keith Keane, Alex Lawless, Adam Watkins (Curtis Osano, 82), Charlie Henry (Shane Blackett, 58), Danny Crow (Jake Woolley, 87), Jake Howells.
Subs not used: JJ O’Donnell, Lewis Kidd.
Booked: Ashikodi 3, Reed 50, Keane 53, Henry 56, Potts 78, Blackett 90. Sent off: Howells 13, Keane 55.
Shots on target: York 10, Luton 2.
Shots off target: York 9, Luton 5.
Corners: York 10, Luton 3.
Offsides: York 4, Luton 0.
Fouls conceded: York 12, Luton 6.
Referee: Paul Tierney (Wigan). Rating: patchy display. Ignored a couple of mandatory cautions but two red cards were correct decisions.
Attendance: 3,365 (457 away fans).
Shot of the match: Oyebanjo’s flying overhead kick.
Save of the match: Howells’ quick reflexes to keep out Reed’s strike.