The Hatters fought back from two goals down at promotion rivals Mansfield this afternoon to take a valuable point home after a thrilling second half at the One Call Stadium.
Pre-season title favourites Mansfield had taken a two-goal lead with goals either side of half-time from Rhys Bennett and Lee Angol.
But Hatters boss Nathan Jones threw Luke Berry on for his debut and Harry Cornick as a third striker, and the changes paid off with James Collins and Danny Hylton – with his first goal of the season on his 50th Town appearance – netting in the last five minutes of normal time to level as the first part of the late drama.
Then, with five minutes of added time up, goalkeeper Marek Stech produced his second brilliant penalty save in the opening four matches of the season to preserve the point after captain Scott Cuthbert had been harshly adjudged to have handled in the penalty area.
Jones made one change from last week’s home win over Colchester, with Cuthbert returning to the starting line-up after missing the 3-0 win over the U’s at Kenilworth Road last Saturday through injury.
Cuthbert replaced Glen Rea at the heart of defence, while new signing Berry – whose move from Cambridge United was completed on Friday in time for him to be eligible for today’s fixture – was on the bench.
The hosts had the first sight of goal with just over a minute on the clock when former Hatters youngster Angol put Kane Hemmings in the clear to the right if the area, but his shot flew well over the bar into the travelling Town fans.
Then, seconds later, right-back Rhys Bennett’s cross caused consternation in the Town six-yard box as Angol went in to challenge Stech, with Jack Stacey’s clearance at the far post hitting Stags skipper Paul Anderson but, thankfully, again the rebound went over the bar.
Mansfield were looking strong in the opening ten minutes, and Alan Sheehan had to be alert to get back goal-side of Hemmings in the ninth minute as the striker looked to profit on another ball over the top, the Irish defender producing a perfectly timed tackle as the Stags man prepared to shoot.
Bennett had a free header from a Joel Byrom corner on 13 minutes that went well wide, then Sheehan had to get across again to deny the rampaging right-back before Anderson shot wide from the edge of the box with a quarter-of-an-hour gone.
The Hatters grew into the game and Sheehan, Olly Lee and Andrew Shinnie combined down the left for the latter to deliver a dangerous cross that James Collins couldn’t quite get on the end of.
Their first sight of goal came in the 18th minute when Shinnie set up Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu for a right-footed shot from 20 yards, but his effort was screwed well wide when a ball to Collins just to his right might have been the better option.
Mansfield took a deserved lead in the 23rd minute after Dan Potts had been shown a yellow card for bringing Angol down in full flow on the Stags’ right. Byrom whipped in a deep free-kick that travelled through a host of bodies in the penalty area and found Bennett waiting to prod home at the far post.
The Hatters fashioned a good chance for an equaliser on the half-hour when Olly Lee and Shinnie worked the ball into Collins on the left, but his strike partner Hylton was prevented from getting on the end of the low cross by a sliding challenge from David Mirfin.
At the other end Stech collected an Angol free-kick safely, then – after Shinnie had been brought down on the Hatters’ right by Anderson – Sheehan curled in a 37th minute free-kick that beat everyone and travelled just wide of the far post.
Town finished the half on the front foot, Shinnie cutting in from the left and firing a low shot that Logan got down to deal with at his near post, but it was the Stags who went in at the break with the single-goal lead.
The Hatters came out of the blocks quickly, Hylton nutmegging Mal Benning on his way to the right byline and cutting back an inviting cross for Collins, but the ex-Crawley man’s volley flew high into the Town supporters behind the goal just 40 seconds into the half.
Almost immediately Mansfield had another go, Stech flying across his goal to push a Jacob Mellis shot away, but Town were looking much more the part after the interval.
Olly Lee did extremely well on the right wing to feed Shinnie just inside the box, but the Scot’s cross-shot was blocked by Logan and Byrom turned the ball behind for a corner, which Lee delivered onto Potts’ head, although the left-back couldn’t keep his effort down.
Lee was starting to have a growing influence on the right, but it was his flick into space for midfield partner Shinnie that resulted in the on-loan Birmingham man picking up an injury that would soon end his afternoon, his studs appearing to catch in the turf as he attempted to turn.
Shinnie’s 58th-minute departure brought new signing Berry into the action for his Town debut as part of a double substitution, with Rea also coming on for Alan McCormack, the former Brighton man dropping into a back three, with Berry the furthest forward in a new five-man midfield.
Logan held a 25-yard free-kick from Sheehan after Hylton had been pushed by Krystian Pearce, and the Town were taking a firmer grip on the game, but it was the hosts who had the next attempt, Benning firing across Stech in the 70th minute, but safely wide from the Hatters’ perspective.
That wasn’t the case a minute later, however, when Angol burst into the left side of the penalty area and slipped his shot past the advancing Stech for the Stags’ second goal.
Hemmings was soon trying to increase the Mansfield advantage, but his left-foot half-volley was well wide, then Jones made his third and final substitution with 15 minutes to go – Cornick thrown on as part of a front three, with Olly Lee making way.
The recent signing from Bournemouth was the next Town player to have a go, his curling 84th-minute effort after cutting in from the left flank was always rising though.
A minute later the Town halved the deficit, Stacey racing to the right byline and sliding a terrific low cross into the six-yard box for Collins to ram home his fifth goal of the season.
Then, four minutes later and with just a minute of normal time remaining, came the leveller. Cuthbert took a short throw to Hylton and then the captain slung a deep cross to the far post, where Potts and Collins kept the ball live, the former delivering a delightful chip into the middle for Hylton to force the ball over the line.
Two minutes into five added on the Town looked to have created a chance to win it, Mpanzu flying down the right and eventually shooting wide after getting the ball back from Stacey.
Then, with five minutes of injury time up, came the late drama.
Will Atkinson threw a cross in from the right and referee Joyce pointed to the penalty spot after Cuthbert flicked the ball clear at the far post, penalising the centre-half for an apparent handball – although replays suggested it had been headed by the skipper.
Stech dived low to his left to keep out Jimmy Spencer’s penalty with another stunning save, then Danny Rose blasted the rebound over as the Town clung onto take a valuable, hard-earned point back down the M1.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Cuthbert ©, Sheehan, Potts, McCormack (Rea 58), Mpanzu, O Lee (Cornick 75), Shinnie (Berry 58), Hylton, Collins. Subs: Justin, Gambin, Shea (GK), E Lee
Yellows: Potts, McCormack, Sheehan, Cuthbert, Berry, Stech
Goals: Collins 85, Hylton 89
MANSFIELD: Logan, Bennett, Benning, Pearce, Mellis (Digby 75), Angol (Spencer 90), Anderson ©, Atkinson, Mirfin, Hemmings (Rose 82), Byrom. Subs: Olejnik (GK), MacDonald, Taft, Sterling-James.
Yellows: Mellis, Benning, Hemmings, Byrom, Angol, Bennett
Goals: Bennett 23, Angol 71
REFEREE: Ross Joyce
ATTENDANCE: 4,665 (987 Hatters)