The Hatters remain top of Sky Bet League Two on goal difference after Notts County came up with a second-half equaliser to take a point in front of a sell-out crowd at Kenilworth Road.
In a tight encounter that mirrored the first versus second positions at the summit, Johnny Mullins netted his first goal of the season to give Nathan Jones’ Hatters a half-time lead, to the delight of the majority of the 10,063 fans inside the ground.
But Kevin Nolan’s County, who have been at the top for most of the campaign before being overtaken by free-scoring Town’s recent winning run, had Shola Ameobi on target just after the hour to earn them a deserved point to take back up the M1.
The result extended the Town’s unbeaten run to nine matches in all competitions as Jones, fresh from picking up his second successive manager of the month award, named an unchanged side from last Sunday’s FA Cup win at Gateshead.
The only change as the Town went in search of a sixth successive win in league and cup, looking to move clear of the second-placed Magpies at the top of the table, was on the bench where James Collins returned in place of Jack Senior after a month out with a hamstring injury.
County had the game’s first chance, Ryan Yates meeting Carl Dickinson’s free-kick with a free header, but Hatters keeper Marek Stech was equal to it, tipping over the bar.
The Hatters were struggling to impose themselves, but a promising break down the right involving Danny Hylton, Elliot Lee and Andrew Shinnie saw them win their first corner on nine minutes, although it eventually came to nothing.
The visitors were creating the better opportunities, and Stech had to get down low to keep efforts from Jon Stead out in the 13th and 16th minutes, the second after the County striker had gone one-on-one with Mullins after appearing to shove captain Alan Sheehan from behind 40 yards from goal.
County left-back Dickinson became the first man into ref Charles Breakspear’s notepad when he tripped Elliot Lee to the right of the County penalty area in the 24th minute, but Ameobi rose highest to head Sheehan’s inswinging delivery clear at the far post.
The breakthrough wasn’t long in coming, however, and it was courtesy of the younger Lee brother’s pressing out on the left that the Town won the corner for Sheehan to drill a cross to the far post for Mullins, who produced a towering header to direct the ball into the bottom corner on 26 minutes.
It was the 32-year-old first goal of the campaign, topped off by a kneeslide celebration that got the whole ground rocking, as he became the 21st different player to net for the Town this season.
As has been the case of late, Elliot Lee was getting on the ball and enjoying himself, wriggling past two defenders on the left to arc a cross towards the far top corner, but just too high, on the half-hour, before the striker, Shinnie, Jack Stacey and Hylton produced a couple of intricate passing moves in the final third as the Hatters got well into their stride.
Dan Potts has been in prolific goalscoring form in recent weeks, earning nominations for two player of the month awards. But the left-back has been equally effective in his own area, and in the 43rd minute he produced a terrific defensive header to clear Ameobi’s cross, before beating the ex-Newcastle striker to the resulting corner.
County finished the half as they’d started it, in the ascendancy with Dickinson testing Stech from 20 yards, but it was Jones’ men who had the all-important advantage to take into the break.
They came out after it in attacking mode, Hylton driving at the retreating County back-four only to find his shot blocked. The top scorer wasn’t giving up though, and he won the ball back twice – after losing it once – to set up another attack.
Shinnie got on the ball and lofted an inch-perfect pass out to Stacey, who was galloping down the right. The full-back beat his man before trying to out-smart Ross Fitzsimons at his near post, only finding the side-netting.
Olly and Elliot Lee combined brilliantly down the right to draw a free-kick on the edge of the box, and a yellow for Shaun Brisley, as the County defender tripped the latter, but Sheehan’s free-kick was cleared.
County upped the ante again and had two chances in the 57th minute, Grant heading a Matt Tootle cross over angle of post and bar before Ryan Yates shot just wide from 20 yards.
Then, in the 61st minute, they had their equaliser when a long free-kick into the Hatters’ box flicked off Ameobi’s head and past a stranded Stech, despite Potts’ best efforts to hook it back off the line.
The Hatters went straight back on the attack and Mullins headed a Sheehan corner wide, before Hylton got his head on a 66th-minute cross from Shinnie, but couldn’t keep it down.
Stech had to be on his guard to keep out Grant’s curling effort in the 69th minute, but the Hatters had a glorious chance to retake the lead in the 72nd minute when Sheehan’s corner dropped at Glen Rea’s feet, but the midfielder blazed his half-volley over the bar from inside the six-yard box.
Six minutes later Shinnie and Elliot Lee combined down the left for Potts to stand a lovely ball up to the far post, but Dickinson did well to head behind just in front of Hylton.
It was Lee’s last involvement, as Jones brought Collins on in the 79th minute to try and prise open the County defence, but it was the visitors who would have the next shot on goal, with a sub of their own, Lewis Alessandra, nipping in front of Potts to fashion a shooting opportunity, only to fire high into the Kenny End from range.
The Hatters’ best opportunity came with 90 minutes on the clock, and again it fell to Mullins, who latched onto Rea’s knock-down from another Sheehan corner, but couldn’t divert it past Fitzsimons who saved well from point-blank range.
The Hatters’ winning run had been ended at five, but they remain on top courtesy of that plus-15 goal advantage and have now lost just once in 20 matches in all competitions.
As importantly, with Exeter and Coventry losing and Wycombe only picking up a point at Stevenage, the draw extended the Hatters’ advantage above fourth place to six points before the trip to Forest Green next week.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Mullins, Sheehan ©, Potts, Rea, O Lee, Berry, Shinnie (Gambin 83), Hylton, E Lee (Collins 79). Subs: Justin, Cook, Mpanzu, D’Ath, Shea (GK)
Goal: Mullins 26
COUNTY: Fitzsimons, Tootle, Dickinson, Hewitt, Duffy, Ameobi, Grant, Hawkridge (Alessandra 75), Brisley, Yates, Stead (Smith 90+2). Subs: Pindroch, Forte, Hunt, Jones, Milsom
Yellows: Dickinson, Brisley, Stead, Ameobi
Goal: Ameobi 61
REFEREE: Charles Breakspear
ATT: 10,063 (810 away)