Cobblers have been assured of their Sky Bet League One status for next season but only courtesy of results elsewhere after their winless run extended to seven games with a wretched 3-0 defeat away at fellow strugglers Bury on Saturday.
Bury had scored just one goal in their past six games, failing to win all six, but they were comfortably the better team on Saturday, sweeping to an easy victory against a seriously out-of-sorts Cobblers side.
Justin Edinburgh went with an experimental line-up for this game and his team spent most of the first-half trying to get to grips with their system after James Vaughan’s third minute goal punished a slack start from the visitors.
Town struggled for fluency and cohesion throughout but did gradually claw their way back into the contest to remain only one behind at the break, however despite a promising start to the second-half, Bury reasserted their control through George Miller’s close-range finish before Vaughan’s late second ensured it was the hosts who claimed a priceless victory.
Thankfully for Northampton, Port Vale’s defeat to Bolton Wanderers means they will stay up and remain a League One team, but their survival has hardly been achieved in convincing fashion.
This defeat and performance at Gigg Lane fell several notches below the expected standard - for the third successive game - leaving Edinburgh with plenty of head scratching to do ahead of his side’s final game of the season against former club Gillingham next Sunday.
Edinburgh rung the changes for Saturday’s final away game of the season, the most surprising of which saw first-choice goalkeeper Adam Smith drop to the bench.
David Cornell came in for his first start under Edinburgh, who also brought in Aaron Phillips, Shaun McWilliams and Neal Eardley as John-Joe O’Toole and David Buchanan missed out through suspension and Michael Smith failed to recover from a leg injury in time.
Eardley started at right-back with Brendan Moloney in more of an advanced midfield role but the makeshift team got off to the worst possible start and fell behind inside three minutes.
Some hesitant defending by the Cobblers was pounced upon by top marksman Vaughan, who out-muscled Lewin Nyatanga and worked space for neatly-placed shot that rolled into the bottom corner and gave Cornell no chance.
Bury did not start like a team who have only scored one goal in six matches but that early strike put the wind in their sails, though Moloney slashed over a half chance in reply for Town.
Tom Pope’s weak shot was easy for Cornell and Anderson’s diving header was equally straightforward for Joe Murphy as both teams exchanged chances in an enterprising opening quarter.
The game settled down as the half wore on but it remained an entertaining watch as Murphy produced a diving stop to tip wide Matty Taylor’s well-struck free-kick while Pope’s dipping volley clipped the top of the net and Andrew Tutte also shot narrowly off target from range.
Despite improving on their slow start, Northampton found themselves defending in the final stages of the first-half and Bury’s push for a second was almost rewarded but Pope opted to pass instead of shoot when seemingly through on goal.
His poor decision-making allowed Town to go into half-time just one behind, and it was no surprise that Edinburgh opted to use the interval to make changes.
Rod McDonald replaced Eardley and the Cobblers shifted to three at the back, and those alterations prompted a much-improved start to the second-half.
The visitors were dominant and Bury had to be on their guard to hack away several dangerous crosses and prevent any shots from threatening Murphy in the home goal.
The hosts then steadied the ship and stemmed Town’s dominance with a good spell of their own, during which Vaughan crashed a 20-yard free-kick into the top of the wall.
Northampton were bossing possession but struggled to carve open the home defence and properly test Murphy, and with Bury always carrying a threat on the break, what happened on 73 minutes didn’t come as a great shock.
The Cobblers looked to have been off the hook when Cameron Burgess’ thumping header crashed back off the bar but substitute Miller was quickest to react, poking home the rebound to double the lead.
A fine block from Zander Diamond prevented Lowe from making it three as Northampton struggled to mount a response, and their misery was compounded in injury-time when Vaughan hammered in his second and Bury’s third, capping off an excellent afternoon for the hosts and a terrible one for the visitors, even if confirmation of Vale’s defeat secured their safety.
Bury: Murphy, Leigh, C Burgess, Kay (c), Tutte, Barnett, Moore, Lowe (S Burgess 84), Caddis, Vaughan (Cameron 90), Pope (Miller 65)
Subs not used: Williams, Walker, Mackreth, Hulme
Cobblers: Cornell, Moloney (Beautyman 80), Diamond, Nyatanga, Phillips, Eardley (McDonald 45), McWilliams, Taylor, P Anderson, Revell (K Anderson 64), Richards (c)
Subs not used: Smith, McCourt, Boateng, Iaciofano
Referee: Nigel Miller
Cobblers fans: 772