Cobblers’ promotion party will have to wait another week at least after they were held to an entertaining 2-2 draw by Notts County in front of the biggest Sixfields crowd for almost two years.
Northampton could have clinched their return to League One with a win, but in the end they were grateful for a point after Ricky Holmes’ penalty salvaged a draw after Town fell behind for the first time in a home game this year, stretching their unbeaten run to 18 games.
After a fast start, the Cobblers went ahead on the half-hour mark through another piece of Ricky Holmes magic, this time the winger volleying home from 20 yards, but Thierry Audel’s header four minutes later brought County level.
The Magpies continued their improvement into the second half and took a shock lead through Jon Stead’s penalty but Holmes almost immediately levelled when scoring from 12 yards himself.
Northampton had chances to win it too but there was to be no winner as they were held to their fifth draw in eight games.
As it happened, Bristol Rovers’ win over Crawley and Accrington’s draw with Cambridge meant Cobblers could not have won promotion regardless of the result at Sixfields, however a win at home to Rovers next weekend would ensure it.
After last week’s disastrous attempt at 4-3-3, Cobblers boss Chris Wilder reverted to his favoured 4-4-2 for the visit of struggling Notts County as he brought back Holmes and Nicky Adams on the wings with James Collins joining skipper Marc Richards up front.
It was Adams who led the first wave of Cobblers pressure which came in the opening 90 seconds as a rampant start by the hosts saw his weak shot easily held by keeper Scott Loach before Holmes dragged one wide when well-placed at the back post.
Northampton had come out all guns blazing but County rode the early storm and got a foothold in the game, even if the home side continued to dominate.
Despite some neat and patient approach play, though, half chances were the best the Town could muster, while some hesitancy at the other end gifted County a couple of opportunities to test Adam Smith in the home goal but Stead scuffed wide and then Rod McDonald blocked Curtis Thompson’s goal-bound effort.
But just when the Mapgies appeared to have weathered the storm and gained an element of control, Cobblers broke the deadlock is sublime fashion on 32 minutes.
An Adams corner was headed clear to the edge of the penalty area where Holmes lined up a volley and then predictably found the bottom corner with a sensational first-time strike.
Cobblers might have used that as a springboard to go on and dominate but County responded well and levelled within four minutes.
With the home side still smarting from a free-kick that wasn’t given for a foul on Adams, Liam Noble ghosted in at the back post and though his header was well saved by Smith, Audel was there to force home the follow-up effort.
There was more than a suspicion of offside to their equaliser but County’s response to going behind had deserved an equaliser and they remained on level terms through to half-time despite further Northampton pressure.
Each side had half chances in the early moments after half-time as Collins failed to connect to Adams’ cut-back before Noble was left unmarked at a corner but his shot was blocked by a team-mate.
County had started the second half in the ascendency and substitute and former Cobblers loan man Izale McLeod twice troubled the home defence but Smith and then Diamond saw off the danger.
Cobblers resorted to too many aimless long balls forward that County easily dealt with as the nearest they came to a goal was through a miss-hit Brendan Moloney shot which deflected off Collins and flew a whisker wide with Loach beaten.
The Magpies were always a threat at the other end, however, and that was underlined when they won a penalty on 71 minutes after Stead was brought down following a poor header from McDonald.
Stead picked himself up and emphatically fired home the spot kick to put Cobblers behind for the first time in a home match in 2016.
But County’s lead lasted barely three minutes as Northampton won a penalty of their own when Holmes was bundled to the floor by Mike Edwards following terrific work by substitute John Marquis.
Again, like Stead, Holmes took the spot-kick and fired clinically down the middle to bring his side back on level terms.
With County now settling for a point, Northampton were the only team who looked like winning it in the remaining 15 minutes and they should have done with four minutes left when Marquis missed a sitter from all of eight yards having been teed up by great play by Rose and Sam Hoskins.
Holmes then sent in a wicked cross which evaded everyone and that was their final chance of the afternoon as County held on.
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Diamond, McDonald, Buchanan, Holmes, O’Toole, Rose, Adams (D’Ath 57), Collins (Hoskins 85), Richards (c) (Marquis 57)
Subs not used: Clarke, Prosser, Byrom, Taylor
Notts County: Loach, Atkinson, Edwards, Hollis, Audel, Campbell (McLeod 55), Aborah (Snijders 87), Thompson (Hewitt 45), Noble, Milsom, Stead
Subs not used: Carroll, Murray, Amevor, Sharpe
Referee: Ben Toner
County fans: 438