There’s barely been a chance to pause for breath in this thrillingly unpredictable, absorbing Northampton season so far, and nothing epitomised that more than Saturday’s riveting FA Cup tie against MK Dons as the Cobblers were harshly denied what would have been a richly-deserved place in the fourth round.
That could still happen, of course, with a replay to come at stadium:mk next Tuesday, but this will feel like a missed opportunity for Chris Wilder and his players after they more than held their own against Championship opposition, albeit an admittedly weakened MK Dons side.
It was a goal from Nicky Maynard, which may eventually go down as another Ryan Cresswell own goal, which rescued Karl Robinson’s men but Wilder and co can take great heart and satisfaction from their performance during which they exhibited all the qualities of a side very much on the up.
There was the relentless, terrier-like chasing which time and again forced Dons into mistakes, the visitors not able to implement their usual fluent passing game, and that was allied with a touch of quality in the final third as Ricky Holmes did what Ricky Holmes does.
After recovering well from the setback of Cresswell’s early own goal, Northampton finally made the most of their good play with a goal that oozed class just moments after half-time.
John-Joe O’Toole was the orchestrator, cutting out a loose pass and feeding the ball into the penalty area, and Holmes was the finisher, making space for himself with a neat first touch before placing a sublime curling effort into the top corner, giving Cody Cropper no chance despite the keeper’s despairing dive.
And a few minutes later, Holmes repeated the trick with another unerring finish having been teed up by Sam Hoskins after a swift move as Northampton turned a one-goal deficit into a 2-1 lead in the space of eight minutes.
It was deserved, too, and they had their chances to add a third and maybe even a fourth on the counter-attack, several times working themselves into promising positions only to be let down by a poor final ball, and that proved costly as a somewhat fortunate Dons equaliser eight minutes from time spared the away side’s blushes as Ben Reeves’ low shot cruelly deflected beyond a helpless Adam Smith.
Having hauled themselves back level, many might have thought that the Championship team would now kick-on and look to avoid a replay, but instead it was the Cobblers who applied all the late pressure and only some desperate last-ditch defending prevented Wilder’s side from nicking victory.
Ultimately, it wasn’t to be and they’ll do it all over again at stadium:mk next Tuesday.
Given the way the game unfolded, there was an element of frustration and disappointment about the final scoreline for most of the 5,878 fans inside Sixfields – the biggest crowd of the season to date – but this was yet another indication of Cobblers’ quality as they more than matched a side who lie 30 places higher up on the football league ladder, playing some exciting, attacking football in the process.
Holmes may have made all the headlines, and understandably so, but there was another player who caught the eye during this compelling contest.
Written off in some quarters at the start of his Cobblers career, Rod McDonald’s rapid progression during his short time at Sixfields has gone under the radar but his performance in this cup tie was one of maturity that belied his inexperience at this level.
It’s easy to forget that this season is McDonald’s first taste of league football, though perhaps not so easy earlier in the campaign when he endured a tough first few games at the club, but having been restored to the starting line-up for the visit of MK Dons, McDonald didn’t look out of place against Championship opposition as he produced an assured, authoritative display at the heart of the defence, the highlight of which was a miraculous last-ditch tackle to prevent a certain goal.
In fact, if anything, it was McDonald who looked the senior centre-back partner rather than the more experienced Cresswell beside him, an indication of just how much the 23-year-old has come on.
Brendan Moloney, who seems to like the FA Cup after his superb performance at Coventry earlier in the competition, was also back to his best with the marauding right-back giving Dons problems at both ends of the pitch, while Sam Hoskins put in another tireless shift and it was no surprise that John-Joe O’Toole featured prominently in everything Northampton did well.
Though the result will be viewed as a wasted opportunity, it does at least ensure Northampton’s place in Monday’s fourth round draw, something which hasn’t been the case for 12 years.
But, for now, the focus switches back to the league and Tuesday’s eagerly-anticipated top-of-the-table clash at leaders Plymouth.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Two unfortunate deflections rendered him powerless for both Dons goals. Didn’t really have much to do otherwise... 7
Brendan Moloney - After his excellent performance against Jacob Murphy earlier in the competition, he kept Jacob’s twin brother Josh equally quiet. His best performance since that win at Coventry... 8
Ryan Cresswell - Not a day he’ll want to remember. Second own goal was unfortunate but should have done better for the first... 6
Rod McDonald - Restored to the team for the first time in seven games and built on his impressive early season form with an assured, commanding display, the highlight of which was a perfectly-time sliding tackle that denied a certain goal... 8
David Buchanan - Carried a real threat down the left, especially second half. Indebted to McDonald for getting him out of trouble after a poor clearance... 7
Joel Byrom - Takes a bit of a back seat next to the all-action O’Toole but this was another quietly efficient display... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Covered every blade of grass in another box office midfield performance, exemplified by his assist for Holmes’ first where he won the ball back and then teed up the winger... 8
Ricky Holmes - What more is there left to say? Two wonderfully-taken goals in another superlative showing. Easy to forget this was just his second start of the season too... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Sam Hoskins - Never fails to give his all to the cause. Hassled and harried Dons’ back four into mistakes. Nice pass into Holmes for the second... 8
Nicky Adams - Back in the team. Worked hard and always provided an outlet on the break but his final ball was lacking on this occasion... 7
Marc Richards - Struggled to really impose himself on Dons’ back four but did play a role in the second goal... 6
Lawson D’Ath - 6
Chris Hackett - 6
Jason Taylor - 6