James Collins scored an 85th minute equaliser to earn Luton a point in a pulsating Championship opener against Middlesbrough, but it was record signing Simon Sluga who was the hero.
But for a mistake that allowed Britt Assombalonga to make it 2-2, the Croatian international pulled off a string off fine saves, most notably midway through the second period after Lewis Wing had sent a screamer into his top corner that threatened to be the winner.
And it was a night for net-busters as Sonny Bradley, who was the only Hatter that didn’t score last term, broke his long-standing duck with a top bin rocket from 22 yards after Ashley Fletcher had headed Boro into an early lead.
It got better for Town though as Martin Cranie bagged on his debut with a header that put the host in front until Sluga’s only error saw the team turn in at half time all square.
It was harsh on the Hatters as they were the best side and after Wing gave Boro a spectacular lead they should have put the game to bed from the spot. But Assombalonga blazed over and that set the scene for a grandstand finish.
Along with goalscorer Cranie and stopper Sluga, there were two other summer recruits in Luton’s starting line-up with Ryan Tunnicliffe and Callum McManamam also given competitive home debuts. Both impressed as Luton showed fight, determination and a good deal of verve.
They’d made a good start but it was Middlesbrough forward Fletcher who drew first blood with a close range header after Marvin Johnson had all the time in the world to pick him out with the penalty box still crowded from a corner.
But Luton fans kept the noise up and they had they saw something sensational for their efforts when Bradley levelled the scores with an absolute smasher.
It went from good to glorious in the 24th minute through Cranie’s header before Sluga showed the very best of what he could do followed quickly by a moment he’d rather forget. A Marvin Johnson curler looked destined for the top corner until the Croatian stretched his 6ft 3ins frame to paw it away, but moments later Andrew Shinnie gave the ball away in front of his own area and Assombalonga’s tame effort slipped through his grasp for the softest of equalisers. He’d soon redeem himself.
Town thought they’d got the third in 50th minute when McManaman whipped in a devilish cross and Collins converted only for referee Oliver Langford to rule it out, booking the forward for a handball.
A deflected McNair shot from an acute angle hit the bar as Boro went down the other end to hint that they weren't done.
Dan Potts was caught in a tangle of legs in Boro’s box and the whole of Kenilworth Road appealled for a penalty that Mr Langford looked at but remained unmoved.
By by the hour mark Luton’s dominance began to wane and their standoffishness cost them in the 69th minute when Wing took advantage of some space and slammed a shot beyond the despairing dive of Sluga, to hand the visitors the lead.
Then the stopper shone. He had his whole body instinctively in the way as Daniel Sanchez Ayala fired a point blank header his way and raced off his line to deny Assombalonga, with his feet.
It was all Boro and it looked to be game over when Cranie fouled Hayden Coulson in the penalty area, but Assombalonga blasted the spot-kick over and was then denied again soon after when Sluga slid in at his feet again. It proved a turning point.
Kenilworth Road errupted in the 85th minute when Harry Cornick - a threat after his introduction - got in behind and found Potts. The defender shimmied and shot straight at a Boro player prostrate on the ground, yet Collins was lurking and last term’s top scorer slotted in the rebound. And he could have won it too.
As the contest ticked into added time Town bombed forward with George Moncur finding Collins and the striker leathering the ball for what looked like a winner, only for Republic of Ireland international Darren Randolp to pull over an outrageously good save.
But, the feelgood factor continues at Kenilworth Road with a familiar “we are top of the league” chant ringing around the old girl. What a return to the Championship.
TOWN: Sluga, Cranie, Potts, Tunnicliffe, Bradley, Pearson, McManaman (Moncur, 74), Lee (Butterfield, 60), Shinnie (Cornick, 69), Mpanzu, Collins. Unused subs; Berry, Galloway, Jones, Shea
MIDDLESBROUGH: Randolph, Sanchez Ayala, Shotton, Clayton, Assombalonga, Fletcher, Hobson, McNair (Saville, 86), Johnson (Browne, 70), Wing, Coulson. Unused subs: Tavernier, Gestede, Wood, Bola, Pears
Referee: Oliver Langford
Attendance: 10,053 (960)