The Hatters led twice and extended their club record unbeaten run in Sky Bet League One to 25 matches, but had to settle for a point against Gillingham at Kenilworth Road this afternoon.
Danny Hylton and Jack Stacey had given the Town the advantage either side of a Tom Eaves equaliser, before a stunning Luke O’Neill free kick dragged the Kent side back on terms with just over ten minutes to go.
A good second-half display from the visitors meant the points were shared in a well contested encounter at Kenilworth Road, where the Town have now gone over a year without being beaten in the league, when Accrington Stanley won 2-1 on 10th March 2018.
The draw means the Hatters remain five points clear at the top of Sky Bet League One after Barnsley picked up a point in a 0-0 draw with Doncaster last night, and seven points above third-placed Sunderland, who beat Walsall at home.
Mick Harford was forced to make the one change to this afternoon’s starting XI with Luke Berry replacing Alan McCormack, who picked up a hamstring injury in Tuesday night’s victory over Bradford.
A historic week in the club’s history meant 2020 and the directors were greeted with a rousing reception in the 20th minute following the decision to grant planning permission to Newlands Park on Monday. Their hard work behind the scenes means the Hatters can finally envision the future of the club in a brand-new stadium.
It only took nine seconds for the first Luton chance. From the kick-off, Sonny Bradley clipped a neat ball onto the chest of Hylton, who found Collins just outside the penalty box. Visiting keeper Tomas Holy had to be alert in the Gillingham goal to parry the striker’s effort past the post in a swift attack which could have the seen the quickest goal of the season.
The Hatters looked the better of the two sides early on, searching for their second win of the week. Hylton was on hand to play some good passes, carving open the Gillingham defence with small half chances on a few occasions. James Justin was also allowed to cut inside on his right foot and curl his effort over.
Stacey was then tripped in the area, or so he thought, only for the ref to pull it back for a free-kick just outside the box on the far side of the pitch for an earlier tug on his shirt. Justin fizzed the ball in but Holy palmed the shot out, just about dealing with it as Bradley commanded his way forward towards the loose ball.
The Gills stood firm as the Hatters laboured for a breakthrough. The visitors pressed the Hatters, making it difficult at times.
Right-back O’Neill was a real threat for the away side. The defender whipping some dangerous crosses passes into the Hatters box, linking up with Brandon Hanlan on more than one occasion, the first a slight miskick that luckily rolled through to Shea.
The second presented a real chance for the Gills, when Hanlan made space and nodded wide of the far post, pulling away from both Bradley and Matty Pearson.
Soon Collins was able to win the ball on the halfway line, spinning away from his man and cleverly back heeling into the path of Berry, who brought the ball forward and whipped his shot in, but couldn’t keep it down.
Graham Burke had a shot of his own from 25 yards, falling well wide of the upright, and then Hanlan – who seemed lively for the Gills – got the wrong side of Bradley and skipped his way into the box, firing a low drive into the arms of Shea who held on to it well.
Back came the Hatters though, Shinnie again dominating the middle of the park like he has done all season, winning the ball from an advantage played by the referee. The Scot did everything right, bending a firm shot towards the top right corner, only to fly just over the top.
The goal finally came on the stroke of half-time, a slice of luck perhaps, but Hylton didn’t mind taking advantage of a Callum Reilly mistake. After good work by Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu down the left-hand side to win the Hatters a fourth corner of the half, Justin’s cross was soon volleyed back into the box by Reilly, and Hylton was waiting to side foot past Holy and claim his seventh goal of the season.
After the break a darting run from Shinnie meant Hylton found space on the wing, and the goalscorer belted a cross-come-shot into the path of Collins, who tapped in from close range. The flag was soon raised though and cut the celebrations short.
Out of nowhere the visitors found their way back into the contest. Reilly, the man who gifted the Hatters their opener, found Eaves in the area with a delightful chip and the Gills’ top scorer nodded in from close range to notch his 18th of the campaign.
The Hatters then found themselves on the back foot for the next ten minutes, defending well to keep a well-drilled Gillingham side at bay – looking far from a side battling to stay clear of relegation.
The second period became a nervy encounter at times, these nerves were somewhat quashed for a while when Stacey netted his second of the week.
The goal was almost a re-creation of Tuesday night with Shinnie releasing the full-back down the right side. As Stacey darted into the area, he waited for Holy to commit and smashed his shot the other way to the keeper’s near-post.
But the tie became a battle as the clock ticked into its final third, Shea with a vital stop in the 72nd minute when O’Neill got a small touch on a shot from Eaves, the keeper already diving to his right just about scooped the shot away from goal with his legs. Eaves tested Shea moments later with a powerful half volley from 30 yards, although it was struck towards the centre of the goal.
The equaliser the Gills perhaps deserved for their patient build-up play eventually came from O’Neill when Lee was judged to have pushed a Gills attacker. The full back produced a moment of class, lifting the ball over the wall and sweetly into the top corner from 25 yards, giving Shea no chance.
The home side dusted themselves down though and pressed their way forward in search of the winner, the substitute LuaLua making an instant impact, twisting and turning his way into the box. Stacey continued with some marauding runs and Collins even headed just wide in the final stages of the match, but unfortunately the ball wouldn’t find its way in.
A last-minute corner had Shea scrambling for the ball in the dying embers of the match but in the end, the points were shared.
James Collins will now head to the Republic of Ireland training camp in his first call-up for the side while the rest of the squad turn their attention to another important home match against Doncaster next week.
TOWN: Shea, Stacey, Pearson, Bradley ©, Justin, Mpanzu, Shinnie, Berry (Potts 66), Lee (LuaLua 80), Collins, Hylton (Cornick 90+2). Subs: Moncur, Baptiste, Thorne, Isted (GK)
Goals: Hylton 45, Stacey 67
GILLS: Holy, O’Neill, Ehmer ©, Hanlan, Eaves, Burke, Fuller, Reilly, Da Silva Lopes (Rees 87), Byrne, Ogilvie. Subs: Garmston, Charles-Cook, Campbell, List, King, Hadler (GK)
Goals: Eaves 53, O’Neill 79
REFEREE: Andy Haines
ATT: 9,963 (601 away)