There were times during this compelling cup tie when the might of Manchester United didn’t have things all their own way, when they stuttered and stumbled and allowed Northampton to believe as an already famous night at Sixfields threatened to turn into something truly spectacular.
But it was not to be. Life for the country’s biggest and most famous club was not made uncomfortable enough for long enough and eventually their superior quality told, albeit partly in thanks to their lower league hosts who made what was always going to be a difficult task that much harder.
Arriving at Sixfields with an abundance of star names and full internationals – nine of whom started – the last thing United needed was a helping hand in their bid to avoid an almighty shock but that’s what the Cobblers, specifically Adam Smith, gave them.
And it wasn’t just the manner of the goals conceded that left many with that nagging feeling of what could have been, it was also the approach Northampton opted for from the outset.
This is not the United of old, it’s not a team that have have that same swagger or aura of previous sides. They came into this game low on confidence and under intense scrutiny having suffered three straight defeats, but they were allowed to quickly settle into their rhythm by Town who almost seemed in awe as they afforded their visitors too much time and space to pick off their passes.
Perhaps it was nerves, perhaps it was just a case of United being a class apart, but there’s that lingering sense that Rob Page’s men could have ruffled a few feathers sooner, instead of letting the Premier League giants to ease themselves into the game.
No matter, Northampton were by no means disgraced and they rightfully emerge from this, the grandest of occasions, with deserved credit for a battling, fighting performance that must have had Jose Mourinho sweating, even if he didn’t show it as he calmly prowled the Sixfields touchline.
There was no disgrace or embarrassment in the result, nor was there any reason to feel disappointed by the way Northampton went about their business for much of the game, although there will still be some fans who feel understandably disappointed.
Because for all United’s firepower and quality, which at one point included a front line of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford and Wayne Rooney, they rarely opened up Northampton who defended with resilience and nous, only to be let down by their goalkeeper who chose a bad time to have by far and away his worst game for the club.
Take out those schoolboy mistakes and one exceptional long-range strike and there was very little in this game when it boiled down to clear-cut, genuine goalscoring chances.
Much of the focus was on that formidable front line but it was Man United’s classy midfield duo of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick which caught the eye, the two controlling and directing play all evening and taking full advantage of the space they were afforded.
It’s a tricky balance for managers in games like this. Set up too negative and you risk allowing the opposition to run amok, but show too much ambition and a team packed with quality of United will pick you off with ease.
It was the former which cost the Cobblers as much as anything on Wednesday.
For the first half-hour, they found themselves too deep and too much on the retreat, affording their illustrious visitors the time and space to do as they pleased.
Northampton were by no means disgraced and they rightfully emerge from this, the grandest of occasions, with deserved credit for a battling, fighting performance that must have had Jose Mourinho sweating, even if he didn’t show it as he calmly prowled the Sixfields touchline.James Heneghan
That allowed the metronomic Carrick to pick off passes at will and it was his exquisite first-time strike that put United into a well-deserved lead.
At that point, Northampton looked in for the long haul and there was no immediate change in the pattern of play as Mourinho’s side almost toyed with their League One opponents who were left chasing shadows.
But then, almost from nothing, the Cobblers sprung into life. A five-minute flurry before half-time offered hope.
Kenji Gorre clattered the crossbar, the crowd roared into life and a calamitous piece of defending presented Alex Revell with the type of glorious opportunity he was never going to squander, confidently plating his spot-kick beyond Sergio Romero.
United were rattled and an upset felt on the cards, only for half-time to get in the way.
The break allowed United to settle and reassert their authority, something which they duly did in the second-half albeit without really troubling Smith as their pretty passing failed to result in clear-cut chances.
But whilst this was not the greatest United side to ever take the field, they still possessed an embarrassment of riches and with Rashford and Ibrahimovic now introduced, their quality eventually shone through.
Herrera battered the post from 25 yards and that was a warning shot which Cobblers failed to heed. Within minutes, Herrera again let fly from range but this time he corrected his radar to send a rasping low drive whistling past Smith.
Northampton immediately sought a quick riposte but any hope of a second comeback was immediately snuffed out when a howler to end all howlers from Smith gifted Rashford the easiest goal he’ll ever score and that, sadly, was that.
After excellent wins over Barnsley and West Brom, United proved just a stretch too far for the Cobblers.
But the priority always has been and always should be on the league and this defeat does at least allow Page to do just that.
Games against Manchester United are all well and good but they do not make or break your season.
Another United visit Sixfields this weekend. The national media may not be in attendance this time but in the context of Northampton’s season, it’s every bit as important.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - A night to forget. Total brain failure when he chose to pick up Taylor’s back-pass that led to United’s opener, and then compounded that error by gifting the visitors a killer third... 4
Brendan Moloney - Struggled to contain the tricky Depay early on but grew in confidence and emerged from the game with credit... 7
Zander Diamond - Brilliant at the heart of defence, as he has been for much of the season. Won his battle against the England captain and let little get past him all night. Another top performance... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Gabriel Zakuani - Restored to the starting line-up and did little wrong in the face of United’s barrage. Seemed to relish his battle against the big boys... 7
David Buchanan - Up against is boyhood club and gave a terrific account of himself as you would expect. Rarely fazed by anything, irrespective of the occasion or the calibre of opposition... 7
Jak McCourt - Was the only Northampton player to really let his presence known in the first-half when he put in more tackles than the rest of the team combined. Perhaps fortunate not to be sent off for a reckless challenge in the second but that was typical of his tenacious, no-nonsense style... 7
Sam Hoskins - Barely featured prior to the penalty but nipped in smartly to win the spot-kick. Work-rate phenomenal as ever... 7
Matty Taylor - Strangely off colour. Seemed to struggle with the pace of the game as he gifted possession away too easily and too often... 6
Harry Beautyman - Toiled hard but to little avail. Barely saw any of the ball on a frustrating night... 6
Kenji Gorre - One of his better days. Was as lively as anyone in the first-half, crashing one effort against the crossbar, and showed glimpses that he’s learning and improving... 7
Alex Revell - You know what you’re going to get every time and he didn’t disappoint on the grandest of occasions, keeping his cool to slide home the penalty... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - 7
Alfie Potter - 7
Marc Richards - 6