The Hatters had to settle for a third draw in five unbeaten matches as Cambridge United beat the weather to get this afternoon’s game on – and then hit back to take a point after the Town were reduced to ten men when goalscorer James Collins was sent off in the second half.
The Town increased their advantage at the top of Sky Bet League Two to four points, and eight points over fourth-place, with all the other games in the division called off due to this week’s snow and freezing temperatures, apart from Carlisle v Grimsby.
With the Abbey Stadium pitch in excellent condition having passed referee John Brooks’ morning inspection, the Hatters looked on course for another maximum haul after Collins moved level with Danny Hylton at the top of the scoring charts with his 17th of the season before half-time.
But the striker picked up two yellows in four second-half minutes – the first for handball and second for dissent after Brooks awarded Cambridge a corner when the ball appeared to come off ex-Hatters defender Greg Taylor – and Jabo Ibehre dragged in-form Cambridge level with an 83rd-minute header.
Jones made three changes to his starting XI as top scorer Danny Hylton and Lawson D’Ath returned from the off for the first time in six weeks, while Dan Potts came straight back in at left-back after serving a two-match suspension.
There was also a return to the teamsheet for the first time since suffering a groin injury in the 7-0 home win over Cambridge in mid-November for captain Scott Cuthbert, who was on the bench.
Cambridge made the early running, captain Gary Deegan and striker Uche Ikpeazu both testing Hatters keeper Marek Stech inside the opening eight minutes before a quickly taken free-kick on the left almost caught the Hatters out, though ref Brooks penalised Ikpeazu for a foul at the far post as he looked to get on the end of Harrison Dunk’s inviting cross.
It was a stop-start opening period, littered with free-kicks for the hosts, but Hylton produced his first moment of class to play Luke Berry into the right side of the area, but the man whose every touch was being booed on his first return to his old club couldn’t pick out James Collins with his far post cross.
D’Ath’s return to the team lasted just 19 minutes before he limped out of the action after picking up a foot injury. His replacement, Luke Gambin, almost had an immediate impact when he threw a left-wing cross into the six-yard box, that just eluded Collins, then drew a foul from Brad Halliday on the left angle of the Cambridge box with his quick feet.
Sheehan delivered that set-piece, and then three more dangerous looking balls that no-one managed to get on the end of before the Hatters’ first real chance came just after the half-hour when Gambin won the ball just inside his own half and drove down the left wing.
The Malta international’s cut-back was intended for Hylton on the edge of the box, but the striker let it run past him for Olly Lee to hit a 25-yarder that brushed the outside of the post.
The lead wasn’t long in coming, and in the 33rd minute the Town had the advantage when Hylton’s 20-yard drive was beaten away by Forde, but only as far as Collins who steered in the rebound from a tight angle inside the six-yard box.
It was all the Hatters by this stage, with the excellent Gambin relishing his opportunity, and soon after being scythed down by Deegan – earning the Cambridge captain a yellow card – the equally impressive Berry had the ball in the back of the U’s net.
Unfortunately for the Town, referee Brooks had already blown for a foul by Hylton on Greg Taylor, who had punched the ball into Berry’s path as he rose to meet a high ball into the box.
Berry and Hylton were at the centre of everything, and the latter had another sight of goal in first half stoppage time when Berry took a ball down the right from Stacey and laid it inside for Hylton to curl a left-footed shot at goal, although it flew inches wide of Forde’s near post.
Town came out after the break in the mood to extend their lead, playing some superb football with Berry again at the heart of almost every move, one such passage through the middle of the pitch only coming to an end with another foul on him by Deegan.
The former U’s midfielder had a great chance to silence his critics when he arrived at the far post, but couldn’t steer his stabbed
Just before the hour mark Hylton fashioned space on the right byline after some more pinpoint passing between the striker and Olly Lee, but no-one could get on the end of his driven cross that fizzed across the six-yard box.
Hylton might have played Olly Lee in when the Hatters produced a swift break through the middle, but after the ball had eventually found its way to the midfielder, referee Brooks waved away claims for a penalty as Lee went down.
Cambridge broke quickly themselves and, with four U’s forwards bearing down on three Town defenders, Glen Rea did brilliantly to nick the ball off Medy Elito’s toe, a minute before Stech got down low to save Brad Halliday’s 63rd-minute effort at his near post.
Hylton went off in the 66th minute, being replaced by Jake Jervis, and within a couple of minutes the Hatters almost had their second, Potts meeting Sheehan’s delicious cross at the back stick with a header that drifted just wide.
Ikpeazu was proving an awkward customer for the Town defence, although a header at goal went well wide and he ballooned a shot over the top of the Newmarket Road End.
Berry robbed Deegan again in the centre-circle to set the Hatters on another attack in the 73rd minute, but Jervis’ cross to the far post was just too far ahead of Collins, and the striker picked up a yellow card for handball as he stretched to make it.
That yellow proved costly four minutes later when ref Brooks showed Collins a second yellow for complaining about his decision to award the hosts a corner, when the ball had gone out for a goal-kick off Taylor, and the Town were reduced to ten men.
Jones brought Cuthbert on for Olly Lee just as Cambridge boss Joe Dunne was introducing Ibehre – and it was the United sub who hauled his team level in the 83rd minute when he met Halliday’s cross from the right with a powerful header past Stech.
A minute later Stech had to make a terrific save from Harrison Dunk before another of the hosts’ replacements, David Amoo fired wide as the Hatters came under serious pressure.
Ikpeazu saw another effort drift harmlessly wide as four minutes of added time was announced, just before Stech had to get down low to his right to gather a follow-up shot.
TOWN: Stech, Stacey, Rea, Sheehan (c), Potts, Downes, O Lee (Cuthbert 79), D'Ath (Gambin 19), Berry, Collins, Hylton (Jervis 66). Subs: Justin, Shinnie, E Lee, Shea (GK)
Goals: Collins 33
Yellows: Downes, Collins, Potts
UNITED: Forde, Halliday, Taylor, Taft, Dunk, Deegan (c), O'Neil (Maris 64), Elito (Amoo 64), Brown, Waters (Ibehre 80), Ikpeazu. Subs: Mitov (GK), Carroll, Legge, Lewis
Goals: Ibehre 83
REFEREE: John Brooks
ATT: 6,722 (2,405)