The Hatters fought back from two goals down to take a late point on an afternoon of controversy at Kenilworth Road as Cheltenham once again proved a bogey side for Nathan Jones and his team.
The Robins, who won 3-2 on their visit here last season, looked like returning to the Cotswolds with all three points once again as Joe Morrell and Mohamed Eisa goals either side of half-time gave them a two-goal advantage.
The second came moments after referee Mark Heywood had awarded the Hatters a penalty, despite Olly Lee was volleying a James Justin cross into the visitors’ net as he was being held by full-back Ilias Chatzitheodoridis and Harry Cornick was being manhandled by defender Will Boyle.
Cheltenham keeper Scott Flinders saved James Collins’ spot-kick, and Eisa doubled the Robins’ advantage five minutes later.
The Town had the character to bounce back to grab a point, however, with Luke Berry netting his eighth goal of the season just before the hour, and captain Alan Sheehan heading in an injury-time equaliser to keep the Hatters three clear of second-placed Accrington Stanley in second place, and seven ahead of Notts County in fourth.
Jones named an unchanged side from the one that beat Crawley 4-1 in the Town’s last outing at Kenilworth Road, which meant goalkeeper Marek Stech started behind a back four of Jack Stacey, Glen Rea, captain Alan Sheehan and James Justin, who celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday.
In midfield was Flynn Downes, Olly Lee, Luke Berry and Andrew Shinnie, with Harry Cornick and James Collins up front.
There were two changes on the bench, however, where leading scorer Danny Hylton – who celebrates his 29th birthday tomorrow – returned along with recent signing from Liverpool, Lloyd Jones.
The opening quarter-of-an-hour was a slow, stop-start affair, with the visitors seeing a header from Joe Morrell and a left-foot blast from Chatzitheodoridis fly well wide of Stech’s goal.
The first moment of real quality came in the 16th minute when Berry found space on the Town left and the midfielder delivered a pinpoint low cross for Collins, who opened the face of his right foot on the half-volley, but his angled effort went just over the bar.
A minute later Olly Lee latched onto a loose ball 25 yards out, but his shot lacked power, then Downes, who had been booked early for a foul on Harry Pell, was at the heart of the Hatters’ next chance, playing a sharp pass into Collins, who flicked it inside for Berry to shoot at goal – though his effort was comfortably saved by Flinders.
Lee had another shot on the half-hour that Flinders pushed wide but prevented it going for a corner, before Collins’ low 31st-minute cross flashed across the six-yard box, but neither Cornick or Lee could convert as they homed in on goal.
Lee, clearly confident after scoring against Crawley for the first time in 13 games, was popping up in promising positions all around the penalty area, and when Cheltenham only headed a Sheehan corner half-clear, the midfielder had another go – this time mis-hitting his shot tamely wide.
Cheltenham reminded the Town that they posed a threat on the break when Kevin Dawson raced clear in the 35th-minute and drew a good save from Stech with his outstretched foot, before Cornick led an immediate counter for the Town, that ultimately came to nothing.
The Robins soon had the lead though, Morrell letting fly from fully 25 yards and finding the top corner with a shot that seemed to dip as it flew against the strong wind on 41 minutes.
Town came out for the second half a goal down, but they immediately went on the attack, Sheehan and Shinnie combining to tee up Cornick for a snap-shot from the left side of the area, then Justin fizzed a low cross in from the left that Flinders gathered just ahead of Collins.
The came a moment of real controversy in the 50th minute as Justin crossed from the left once more, and Lee – despite being held by Chatzitheodoridis – volleyed into the back of the net, but referee Mark Heywood already had his whistle in his mouth to award a penalty, although it wasn't clear if it was for that foul or Boyle's on Cornick just in front of them.
Collins, who had scored penalties in the previous two games at Stevenage and against his old club Crawley, saw his effort saved low to his left by Flinders, and Cheltenham somehow managed to smuggle the ball up and over the bar as the Town striker closed in on the rebound.
Almost inevitably amid the uproar, Cheltenham doubled their lead in the 55th minute when Moore crossed from the right and Eisa buried a free header past Stech.
Jones responded straightaway by bringing Hylton on for Collins, and Jake Jervis for Shinnie.
The Town were back in business almost immediately as Stacey dug out a 58th-minute cross from the right that just eluded Hylton, but Berry made no mistake coming in behind him to finish brilliant from eight yards for his eighth goal of the season.
It was all Luton now, and Lee saw another volley fly over the bar into the Kenny end when Cheltenham only half-cleared another Sheehan corner, then Hylton pulled the trigger from 25 yards in the 65th minute, but his shot flashed the wrong side of the post.
Hylton was starting to make things happen, and a snaking run across the edge of the box and one-twos with Cornick and Lee almost saw him put Jervis in.
Jones made his third substitution with 13 minutes to go, throwing Luke Gambin into the fray in place of Lee, and within a couple of minutes the Malta international was teasing his way around the area, whipping in a low cross that was just too far in front of Hylton.
Then, in the 83rd minute, Gambin produced a lovey bit of skill to feed the ball to Hylton to the right side of the area and the top scorer delivered a right-footed blast that Flinders did well to beat away at his near post.
With 89 minutes on the clock, Cornick whipped in an inviting cross that Gambin – the smallest player in among the giants of the Cheltenham defence – got his head on, but couldn’t keep his effort down.
Gambin was the provider for the late equaliser though, as his right-wing corner picked out Sheehan – who would normally be taking the set-pieces – to ram in a close range header at the far post to rescue a point with his third goal of the season.
In the end, a point was better that nothing as the Hatters once again showed the character that has seen them fight back late on several occasions already this season, and extend the unbeaten run throughout February to four matches before next week's trip to Cambridge.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan ©, Justin, Downes, O Lee (Gambin 77), Berry, Shinnie (Jervis 57), Collins (Hylton 57), Cornick. Subs: Mullins, D’Ath, Jones, Shea (GK)
Yellows: Downes, Sheehan, Hylton
Goals: Berry 58, Sheehan 90+2
CHELTENHAM: Flinders, Moore, Grimes, Boyle, Chatzitheodoridis (Rodon 78), Atangana, Dawson, Winchester ©, Morrell, Pell, Eisa (Odelusi 82). Subs: Wright, Sellars, Graham, Lovett (GK), Onariase
Yellows: Dawson, Winchester, Pell, Grimes
Goals: Morrell 41, Eisa 55
REFEREE: Mark Heywood
ATT: 8,453 (142 away)