Northampton Town continued their impressive run of form with this deserved, if at times nervy, 2-1 home victory over a toothless Hartlepool United outfit at Sixfields.
It could and probably should have been more comfortable for Chris Wilder’s men, especially after they raced into a 2-0 lead inside the first quarter.
Starting games quickly has become something of a trait at Sixfields this season and Saturday’s encounter was no different.
In all honestly, the Cobblers could have been out of sight by the time Hartlepool’s Rakish Bingham pulled a goal back for the visitors on 30 minutes.
The hosts were guilty of missing a number of presentable chances prior to that – Marc Richards and Ryan Cresswell the main culprits – and their inability to be ruthless in front of goal almost proved costly.
But although the second half was a nervy and at times anxious affair, Wilder will be delighted with how his side controlled possession and dealt with anything Hartlepool could throw at them and, if anything, it was the Cobblers who looked more likely to add to their lead.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, and Bingham remained a constant menace all afternoon as he threatened to expose the lack of pace in the Northampton defence by constantly playing on the shoulder, making for a few heart-in-mouth moments in the second half, though Adam Smith barely broke sweat in the home goal.
On an individual front, Nicky Adams ran the show and the resurgence of John-Joe O’Toole, on his fourth successive start, continued with another tenacious, hard-tackling and all-action midfield performance.
From outcast to first team regular, O’Toole’s turnaround has been quite remarkable and against all the odds, he could yet to prove a vital player moving forward. He’s turning in the sort of performances which convinced Wilder to bring him to Sixfields in the first place.
That’s already eight assists for Adams now – the second most in League Two – and he should have at least one more with another well-directed set-piece but Ryan Cresswell inexplicably missed the target with a free header from just yards out.
Along with left-back David Buchanan and goalkeeper Adam Smith, Adams is proving a fine acquisition by Wilder. He has that invaluable ability to create something out of nothing and the fact he is two-footed is equally priceless as that alone is enough to cause plenty of headaches for defenders who are unsure whether to show him inside or outside.
Adams’ form is one reason Northampton aren’t missing the injury-stricken Ricky Holmes as much as they may have done, and Wilder will be keen for the former Bury man to keep up his promising start at Sixfields if his side are to maintain their excellent form.
Not many could have envisaged what has followed after Northampton’s home defeat to Dagenham & Redbridge five weeks ago, but Saturday’s win now makes it six league games unbeaten.
Not only that, the Cobblers have also now won four of their last six to move within two points of top spot in what is becoming an extremely congested Sky Bet League Two table.
Remarkably, given the sorry mess off the pitch, Northampton retain the look of genuine promotion challengers, which just makes the off-field issues all the more frustrating as they continue to overshadow what is turning into an exciting season.
But all Wilder and co can do is focus on matters on the pitch and they are doing a mighty fine job in the circumstances.
Next up, a trip to out-of-form Cambridge.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Two fine stops early on but got caught in no man’s land for Bingham’s goal. Was barely troubled after half-time... 7
Darnell Furlong - Excellent going forward, carried a real offensive threat. Couple of dangerous balls into the box and also helped see off what late Hartlepool pressure there was... 7
Shaun Brisley - Has been a revelation since signing on-loan and this was another commanding, assured centre-back display.... 7
Ryan Cresswell - Struggled when isolated against Bingham and missed a sitter in the first half. Baffling decision by the sponsors to award him man of the match although he did improve after half-time... 6
David Buchanan - Could run all day down the left. Dealt with any threat down his side and did an excellent job of wasting valuable late seconds in the corner... 7
Chris Hackett - Surprise starter and didn’t do much to push for a regular spot despite improving as the game wore on... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Fourth successive start and was once again excellent in another all-action, dynamic midfield performance. Looks back to his best... 8
Joel Byrom - Started the season quietly but has upped his game significantly in recent weeks. Helps the team click by ticking over possession. Produced a perfectly-judged first-time ball over the top which set away Adams for the opener... 7
Nicky Adams - Pulled the strings in the opening half-hour and was rewarded with two assists. Could easily have had more with numerous dangerous crosses into the box throughout. Being two-footed makes him a real handful for defenders... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Sam Hoskins - Industrious and hard-working as always. Twice denied by close-range blocks in the first half. Has become a crucial component in Wilder’s team... 7
Marc Richards - Missed two sitters but took his goal well. Remains invaluable... 7
Lawson D’Ath - 6
Dominic Calvert-Lewin - 6
Jason Taylor - 6