The Hatters had to settle for a point from the trip to Stevenage this afternoon, despite taking the lead with a James Collins penalty with just five minutes to go.
Collins picked himself up after being brought down by former Town skipper Ronnie Henry to net his 14th goal of the season from 12 yards, in front of almost 1,900 travelling fans behind the goal.
But the hosts hit back with an 88th-minute header from substitute Danny Newton earning them a deserved draw on an afternoon when neither goalkeeper was called into a save of any real note.
It had been a real battle of attrition on a difficult Lamex Stadium pitch, and although disappointed at conceding the advantage so late in the day, results elsewhere meant Nathan Jones’ side’s advantage over fourth place increased to ten points – although Accrington moved up to second with a win at Coventry, cutting the lead at the summit to six points.
Jones named an unchanged side from last Saturday’s win over Exeter, with goalkeeper Marek Stech behind a back four of Jack Stacey, Glen Rea, captain Alan Sheehan and Dan Potts.
In midfield were Ipswich Town loanee Flynn Downes, Olly Lee and Luke Berry, with a front three of Harry Cornick – who scored the winner against the Grecians – Jake Jervis and Collins.
The only change from last week was on the bench, where Malta international Luke Gambin made his return from injury in place of top scorer Danny Hylton, who is still battling a hamstring problem.
The Town started brightly, winning a free-kick and corner inside the opening two minutes, both taken by Sheehan and the latter met by Collins, although the striker’s header was deflected wide for another set-piece.
Stevenage responded with a burst down the right by Luke Amos, his cross well cleared by the Town defence before Jonathan Smith hit an 11th-minute snap-shot – latching onto a Mark McKee free-kick that had been awarded for a foul by Collins on the former Luton midfielder – but it flew well wide.
Cornick’s pace was causing Stevenage concerns down the right, and only goalkeeper Tom King racing out of his area prevented the Town forward getting a clear run on goal in the 20th minute.
Then, on the other flank, Potts showed some great footwork in the box to burst to the byline after taking a pass from Jervis, but Boro centre-half Jack King read his cut-back to Collins and made a terrific sliding challenge to prevent the ex-Crawley man getting a shot off eight yards from goal.
Stevenage’s recent signing from Swindon, John Goddard, had the game’s next attempt, but Stech was right behind his 20-yard curler, before Sheehan whipped in a 30th-minute free-kick that Rea met at the far post, heading back across for Jervis, who couldn’t keep his volley down.
The game was playing out as a midfield battle, but when the Town got the ball down they looked like carving Stevenage open down the left, Potts playing a one-two with Olly Lee to burst into the area, but his cross went begging.
In the 38th minute Cornick hared down the right once more after Stacey set a move in progress from deep inside his own half. Cornick picked out Jervis with an inviting cross from the byline, but the deadline day signing from Plymouth saw his glancing header drift wide.
Cornick was starting to enjoy himself, and within seconds of the hosts replacing injured centre-half Jack King with another former Hatter, Fraser Franks, the ex-Bournemouth forward cracked a 25-yarder that didn’t quite dip enough to trouble Tom King, before Berry had a go from similar distance, this one straight at the Stevenage stopper, who dealt with the bounce off the greasy surface well.
Stevenage came out of the blocks quickly after half-time, Matt Godden crossing for Alex Revell to head just wide within 30 seconds of the restart, before the recent signing from Northampton stabbed Goddard’s centre wide in the 48th minute.
The Hatters were finding it difficult to gain any fluency going forward until Cornick created space for himself to get a shot in from the edge of the box on the hour, although it flew high into the Town fans behind the goal.
Goddard and Smith then had efforts from range that only troubled the diggers in the building site that currently sits where the North Terrace at the Lamex Stadium once stood, before Jones introduced Andrew Shinnie in place of Jervis with 62 minutes played.
Still it was Boro asking the second-half questions though, and Godden fired a low shot across the face of goal before Ronnie Henry sent a free-kick from inside his own half towards Revell, although the experienced striker’s looping header was easy for Stech to gather.
With quarter-of-an-hour to go, Stech had to be alert to drop on a header from Franks, meeting another free-kick thrown into the Town box from deep, before Jones introduced Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu in place of Downes.
The Hatters’ forwards had been feeding on scraps in the second half, but Sheehan’s set-piece deliveries always carry a threat, and a right-wing corner in the 81st minute almost brought joy for Potts at the far post as it winged its way through the six-yard box.
All of a sudden the Town were lifted, and the golden opportunity to win it came when Collins found himself clear in the 83rd minute and as he prepared to shoot just inside the box, Henry slid in from behind and brought him down.
After a long delay, in which the Boro right-back was shown the yellow card, Collins picked himself up and dispatched the spot-kick into the back of the net as Tom King dived the wrong way.
The equaliser came in the 88th minute when Newton met McKee’s corner with a powerful header that went in off the underside of the bar, and Boro had a deserved equaliser.
Another chance came Collins’ way two minutes into time added on, but Cornick’s cross from the right was just behind him and the striker’s volley flew high over the bar.
Referee Darren Handley penalised Stacey for a handball on the edge of the box a couple of minutes later, but thankfully for the Hatters, Goddard’s free-kick finished up in the building site and we could take home what could prove to be an important point in the long run.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan ©, Potts, Downes (Mpanzu 75), O Lee, Berry (D’Ath 79), Cornick, Jervis (Shinnie 62), Collins. Subs: Justin, Gambin, Jones, Shea (GK)
Goals: Collins 85 (pen)
BORO: T King, Henry, Wilmot, J King (Franks 41), Vancooten, Amos (Kennedy 73), Smith, McKee, Goddard, Godden (Newton 82, Revell. Subs: Fryer, Wilkinson, Bowditch, Conlon
Goals: Newton 88
REFEREE: Darren Handley
ATT: 4,365 (1,889 Hatters)