Paul Buckle’s men clawed their way back from two goals down with an opening day draw with Gateshead at Kenilworth Road, with goals from Stuart Fleetwood and debutant Jon Shaw sealing a comeback in a strong second-half display.
Two-nil down at half-time after a muted first half display, the Hatters came out for the second half with real vigour and attacking intent, but fell just short of picking up the three points they wanted after giving themselves too much to do against a strong and well-organised Heed side.
The Town lined up with four debutants in a 4-3-3 formation, with new captain Ronnie Henry lining up in defence alongside left-back Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, loanee Yaser Kasim sitting deep in the midfield, and Scott Rendell starting in a central striking role alongside last season’s top forwards Andre Gray and Stuart Fleetwood.
JJ O’Donnell was handed his first ever league start by Buckle, and his enthusiastic running gave the visitors a scare as early as the third minute, as he drove forward from midfield and sent a low shot skidding into the body of Adam Bartlett in the Heed goal.
The Town enjoyed the bulk of the possession in the early stages, with Kasim and Jake Howells linking up well in a mobile three-man midfield and entertaining the Town faithful under the bright Luton sunshine.
But it was Gateshead who struck first, deflating the buoyant atmosphere at a packed Kenilworth Road. Hatters old boy Liam Hatch stooped low to head in a left wing corner, which ricocheted off Greg Taylor and trickled past Mark Tyler to send the visitors in front on 25 minutes.
Hatch looked to double his account three minutes later but sliced his shot well wide after robbing Kasim 25 just outside the Town’s eighteen-yard box, before the Town sank further behind when Yemi Odubade got in behind Ronnie Henry and fired a low strike into the back of the net.
The visitors had set themselves up perfectly for an away game, sitting too deep to allow the Hatters’ strikers any space behind the back four, and using the power of Hatch and pace of Odubade to hit the Town on the break. Two goals in front, Gateshead grew in confidence, with the lively Odubade causing problems among the home defenders, carving out a decent half chance for midfielder Josh Gillies on 40 minutes as the Hatters struggled to get a handle on the game.
A visibly frustrated Buckle took drastic action at half-time and made a double substitution. Taylor and Kasim were replaced with Alex Lawless and Shaw, the burly striker making his Town debut against his old club. Rendell dropped back into midfield to make way for Shaw, while Lawless slotted in a right-back.
The changes seemed to invigorate the Hatters, who came back onto the pitch with new purpose and aggression. Five minutes after kick-off, Gray throttled a volley over the bar on the turn after O’Donnell deftly chipped the ball over Ben Clark in the Heed back line. On 56 minutes, Howells found Fleetwood in some space in the area with a lofted free kick, but the striker could only snatch at the half chance from a tight angle.
The Hatters’ pressure paid dividends when new-boy Shaw glanced in his first goal in Town colours on the hour mark, turning in a Fleetwood cross in front of a delighted Kenilworth Road end.
Suddenly, the stadium was rocking as the Town faithful responded noisily to the Hatters’ improved performance. Rendell and Shaw were putting themselves about with physical displays up front, while Lawless and O’Donnell were showing great bite and energy further back.
A hanging cross from Rowe-Turner caused panic in the Gateshead box on 66 minutes; as Shaw challenged the ‘keeper the ball fell to Fleetwood to the left of the six-yard box, who couldn’t quite adjust his footing quickly enough to get a cross or shot in, as blue shirts crowded him out.
Buckle shuffled his back again on 69 minutes, introducing Adam Watkins for Gray, allowing Rendell to push right up alongside Shaw in a formidable-looking front line, and Rendell made his presence in opposition box count immediately, nodding down an O’Donnell cross for Fleetwood to lash in an equaliser from close range on 71 minutes.
As the Kenilworth Road decibel level reached new heights, Gateshead’s Micky Cummins should have silenced the home end after being put through more or less straight from the kick-off. The Heed midfielder managed to shrug off the attentions of Kovacs and get a clear sight of goal as he bore down on Tyler’s goal, but with time to pick his spot he could only spoon the ball high and wide.
Yet it was the home side who were showing the most initiative in the opposition half, especially using set-pieces as a means of unleashing an onslaught on the Heed goal, with Howells repeatedly seeking the head of Kovacs as the Hungarian made a nuisance of himself in and around the six-yard box.
Watkins almost bagged a winner with five minutes to go, sending a low, left-footed shot just wide of the post after Shaw cushioned a header into his path.
The visitors remained a threat on the break though, and demonstrated that they remained capable of launching set-piece assaults of their own as giant defender James Curtis crashed a header from a corner against the bar in the dying minutes of the match.
Neither side could force a winner in the end though, despite the Hatters continuing to seek out Shaw and Rendell as long options up until the final whistle.
And so the Town left the field to applause from the 6,700-strong crowd, unable to get the winning start they would have hoped for, but showing a grit and determination to dig in and respond to the two goal half-time deficit.
Buckle’s men will be hoping to register their first win of the season on Tuesday, with a trip to Kidderminster, who went down 1-0 at Lincoln today.