The Hatters spurned a host of chances to move back to the top of the Sky Bet League Two table as Cheltenham twice fought back from a goal behind to take a point from this afternoon’s clash in the Cotswolds.
Nathan Jones' Town led twice through Dan Potts, who headed in his third of the season early on, and Elliot Lee, who scored what appeared to be a winning goal with five minutes left, as they travelled in search of a first-ever win at Whaddon Road.
But five minutes into time added on, the Robins struck a second equaliser when centre-half Will Boyle turned goalkeeper Scott Flinders’ goalbound header home and the Hatters – who would have returned to the summit with a win – dropped out of the automatic promotion spots to fourth.
Fresh from picking up the Sky Bet League Two Manager of the Month award, boss Jones made two changes to his starting line-up for today’s return to league action at Cheltenham.
Coming back into midfield after serving a one-match ban in last week’s 1-0 FA Cup win over Portsmouth was Glen Rea, with Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu dropping to the bench, and replacing Andrew Shinnie – who played at the tip of the diamond last Saturday – was Harry Cornick as part of a front three.
The Hatters opened the scoring with their first real attack – and first corner – of the game. Alan Sheehan, as ever, strode over to the right to swing it in with his trusty left foot and Potts found himself in oceans of space at the far post to direct his header back past Robins keeper Flinders.
It was the left-back’s third goal of the season, and within a couple of minutes the only outfield player in the starting line-up not to have netted for the Town so far this season, Rea, was trying his luck from distance, but his 25-yard volley didn’t dip enough to trouble Flinders.
Cheltenham were proving a threat when throwing balls into the Hatters’ box, without creating a real chance, while the Town were stringing together some incisive passing moves down the right, exploiting Cornick and Jack Stacey’s pace.
It was from the left, however, that the next glorious chance arose in the 21st minute as Berry skipped past his man to the byline and stood up a beautiful cross to the back stick for Hylton, who didn’t make a clean connection with his header, perhaps put off by Jordan Cranston’s jump in front of him.
Two minutes later, after another rapid break down the right involving Stacey and Cornick, Olly Lee whipped a dangerous low ball across the six-yard box that Cheltenham defender Jamie Grimes did well to slice over his own bar, rather than into the roof of the net, at full stretch.
The hosts’ first opportunity came just before the half-hour when Brian Graham pulled off onand rose to meet Harry Pell’s clipped cross, but his header drifted wide of the far post, watched closely by Stech, who had been commanding his area by coming through crowds of players to claim several crosses and relieve any pressure.
He could do nothing about the left-wing delivery that led to Grimes’ equaliser, however, in the 37th minute as first a long throw, and then a deflected cross from Daniel O’Shaughnessy, saw the ball find its way to the right-back, who stabbed home from almost on the line at the far post.
The Hatters went in search of a second goal and as half-time approached, Hylton – who had set Rea up for another 20-yard shot just before the leveller – led a quickfire counter-attack from inside his own half, before playing Cornick in on the right to cross low for a sliding Olly Lee, who couldn’t steer his stabbed effort on target.
Then, in time added on for stoppages, the Town spurned two great chances. First, Cornick slipped Collins into the area and, after checking back onto his right foot, the striker’s curling shot went over the bar.
Second later, Cornick raced onto a fine throughball from Lee and bore down on Flinders one-on-one, but couldn’t beat the onrushing Cheltenham keeper who smothered the ex-Bournemouth forward’s shot almost as it left his boot.
Collins had gone down injured in the build-up to that last chance, and the striker didn’t reappear for the second half, replaced by Elliot Lee, who joined Hylton and Cornick in the Hatters’ front three.
The first sight of goal in the second half came when Sheehan stepped forward to take a 25-yard free-kick, but couldn’t clear Cheltenham’s mountain range of a defensive wall, then Cornick burst into the box but couldn’t keep his right-footed shot down as the ball nestled in among the 1,007 travelling fans.
Town were attacking at break-neck pace, and Cornick saw another shot from the edge of the box blocked after Elliot Lee and Hylton combined to set him up, before the younger Lee brother had a go – with the same end result – in the 56th minute.
Cheltenham grew into the half and threatened again in the 65th minute when Boyle rose highest to meet an inswinging right-wing cross from Jerell Sellars, but his header flew over the bar into the home fans in the Speedy Skips Stand.
The Hatters had plenty of possession without creating any further chances, and the next decent opening went Cheltenham’s way in the 77th minute when, after another aerial bombardment on the Town box, sub Danny Wright’s knock-down found Mohamed Eisa, but the Robins striker made a hash of his attempted shot.
Cornick had the Town’s next opportunity, although his 78th minute effort as he drifted along the edge of the Cheltenham box was always rising.
Then, just inside the final ten minutes, Olly Lee hit a rasping left-foot drive from 30 yards that only just cleared the angle of post and bar as Cheltenham keeper Flinders flew across his line.
The hosts’ captain, Kyle Storer, called Stech back into action with an 83rd-minute free-kick after Stacey had been penalised for a foul on Sellars.
It was a free-kick at other end that led to what everyone though would be the key moment for the Hatters two minutes later, after Berry had been fouled by Grimes 20 yards from the Cheltenham goal.
Sheehan’s curling effort made its way around the wall, but it hit a Cheltenham defender further back and fell invitingly into Elliot Lee’s path and the former West Ham youngster gobbled up the opportunity to bundle home his second league goal of the season in front of the gleeful Hatters fans in the Hazlewoods Stand behind that goal.
A bemused Sheehan was booked in the aftermath (*it was later clarified that it should have been given to Cornick), then Berry became the third Hatter to go into ref Robert Lewis’ notepad before Jones brought Mpanzu on in place of Cornick in an attempt to see the game out.
It didn’t go accordingly to plan, as five minutes into injury-time Cheltenham grabbed a second equaliser as a right-wing corner was flicked on at the near post and home keeper Flinders, up for one last throw of the dice, headed goalwards and Boyle turned it in from almost on the line for a share of the spoils.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Cuthbert ©, Sheehan, Potts, Rea, O Lee, Berry, Cornick (Mpanzu 90), Hylton, Collins (E Lee 46). Subs: Justin, Cook, Shinnie, D’Ath, Shea (GK)
Yellows: Hylton, Cornick (card originally shown incorrectly to Sheehan), Berry, Stech
Goals: Potts 11, E Lee 85
CHELTENHAM: Flinders, Grimes, Cranston (O’Shaugnessy 34), Storer ©, Pell, Winchester, Boyle, Sellars, Eisa (Hinds 79), Graham (Wright 75), Moore. Subs: Flatt (GK), Bower, Davey
Goals: Grimes 37, 90+5
REFEREE: Robert Lewis
ATT: 3,900 (1,007 Hatters)