Northampton Town survived a nerve-shredding final 15 minutes to claim a sixth win in seven games and move within two points of top spot in League Two with a 2-1 win over Crawley Town at Broadfields Stadium.
It was very much a game of two halves as the Cobblers initially took command with a devastating display of counter-attacking football in the first half, and Crawley had no answer to the movement and pace of Cobblers’ front four.
Joel Byrom headed Town into a fourth-minute lead and then a stunning strike from John-Joe O’Toole doubled the away side’s advantage.
It could have been more than two at half-time such was Northampton’s dominance, but Crawley came fighting back in the second half and pulled one back through Simon Walton’s penalty after Brendan Moloney saw red for a professional foul.
The home side then threw everything at their visitors as they desperately sought an equaliser but Northampton once again displayed plenty of heart and resolve to withstand the pressure and claim another highly impressive victory that sees them go level on points with second-placed Oxford United.
The result also means Northampton now have 37 points from 19 games, which is their best start to a league season since their title-winning season in Division Four in 1986/87
Having made just one change to the side who beats Notts County, Ryan Cresswell replacing the ill Rod McDonald, Northampton were initially slow to get going.
Crawley had all of the ball in the opening moments and the hosts put a couple of early dangerous balls into the penalty area but, with their first attack, it was Northampton who made a fourth-minute breakthrough.
Lawson D’Ath was the architect as he brilliantly tricked his way into the penalty area before falling to ground after contact former Cobbler Lewis Young and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Marc Richards stepped up, and though his effort was well saved by Darryl Flahavan, the ball rebounded out to Byrom, who kept his composure to nod home from 14 yards.
With only four minutes on the clock, it was the dream start for Town, albeit a slightly fortunate one as Crawley continued to make much of the early running.
Matt Harrold had the home side’s first attempt on goal as his effort deflected just wide of Adam Smith’s right-hand post.
But while the hosts had plenty of possession, Northampton’s threat on the counter-attack was evident throughout the first half and David Buchanan came close to his first Cobblers goal when cutting in from the left, but he snatched at his shot and the ball drifted wide.
That was only a warning of what was to come, though, as Town doubled their lead in spectacular fashion on 20 minutes.
An attack on the left looked to have petered out when D’Ath was tackled, but the ball rolled kindly into the path of O’Toole who, from 30 yards out, coolly stroked a glorious left-footed effort into the top corner, beyond the reach of the despairing Flahavan.
It was a stunning strike which seemed to drain the life out of Crawley, who were fortunate not to be further behind moments later when Richards could only fire into the side-netting after Nicky Adams’ shot had been tipped into his path by Flahavan.
The Cobblers were devastating on the counter-attack and their tireless work-rate made it hard for the home side to build any momentum with the pace of Alfie Potter a particular danger.
Northampton comfortably held on to their lead going into half-time, and then came out flying in the second half with Adams’ curling shot well headed clear by Young.
But despite the Cobblers remaining in the ascendency, Crawley squandered a glorious opportunity to get back into the game 10 minutes after the restart when a fortunate ricochet saw Harrold race away on goal and he looked certain to score after rounding Smith, only to skew his shot into the side-netting.
Having survived that near miss, Northampton seemingly remained in cruise control, but the game then completely changed on the hour-mark when Moloney saw red and Crawley were awarded a penalty of their own.
Moloney was dismissed for pulling back Shamir Fenelon, who had just come on for the home side, when the striker looked destined to score.
Walton stepped up and coolly converted from 12 yards to resurrect hope of a Crawley fightback and swing all the momentum the home team’s way.
After Zander Diamond headed wide from Byrom’s free-kick, Crawley looked for all the world to have made it 2-2 when Roarie Deacon delivered a superb cross from the left which was headed towards goal by Rhys Murphy but Smith pulled off a fabulous reaction save before keeping out the rebound with his legs.
Crawley were now firmly on top as they probed for an equaliser and with 14 minutes remaining, Fenelon had an opportunity to do so but his sliding effort from Josh Yorwerth’s cross drifted wide.
Aside from a rare spell of Town possession, the game was played solely in the away side’s half for the entirety of the final 10 minutes as Gwion Edwards and then Lee Barnard both had half chances but Northampton survived.
But for all Crawley’s endeavour, Northampton dug deep once again as some heroic last-ditch defending from Zander Diamond and Ryan Cresswell saw Town survive four nail-biting minutes of stoppage time and claim yet another hugely impressive three points.
Crawley: Flahavan, Young, Yorwerth, Bradley, Hancox, Deacon, Walton (Rooney 77), Smith, Edwards, Harrold (Fenelon 58), Murphy (Barnard 77)
Subs not used: Preston, Scales, Ashton, Jenkins
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Diamond, Cresswell, Buchanan, D’Ath, O’Toole, Byrom, Potter (Taylor 90), Adams (Lelan 60), Richards (c) (Calvert-Lewin 78)
Subs not used: Clarke, McDonald, Watson, Hoskins
Referee: Stephen Martin
Cobblers fans: 381