Oxford United 0 Northampton Town 1 – match review, player ratings and highlights

Ecstasy: Cobblers celebrate after Marc Richards' penalty gives them the lead at Oxford (pictures by Kirsty Edmonds)

Ecstasy: Cobblers celebrate after Marc Richards' penalty gives them the lead at Oxford (pictures by Kirsty Edmonds)

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Eight straight wins, eight points clear and one breathless, record-shattering season which, barring some kind of disaster, will almost certainly culminate in bringing League One football back to Sixfields next season.

The 2015/16 campaign will live long in the memory of anyone who has had the pleasure of following it.

There’s still work to be done but even relegation form from now until the end of the season would be enough to take the Cobblers over the line, such is the commanding position they have created.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Eight wins on the spin – which equals a 56-year-old club record – is only the start of it. There’s also the seven successive away wins, the 18-point margin back to fourth, the three straight clean sheets, the 51 points taken from a possible 60.

The list is endless.

Whichever way you look at it, this Cobblers team are reeling off some remarkable numbers.

And it’s not just their own club records that are falling left, right and centre in this phenomenal season.

In England’s fourth tier, no team this century has picked up as many points (67) at the 30-game mark as the Cobblers and since three points for a win was introduced in 1981, only two sides have racked up more – and one of those was Graham Carr’s title-winning Northampton side in 1986-87.

There’s more, too.

Not only have Northampton already surpassed their points tally from the entirety of last season, they’ve also surpassed the points totals of 16 of the 24 teams in League Two from 2014/15 – and that’s all with 16 (sixteen!) games remaining.

The latest team to be swept aside were Oxford United when a battling defensive performance and an emphatically taken Marc Richards penalty were enough to complete the double over their Oxfordshire counterparts.

Though it didn’t come in quite the same comprehensive fashion as at Orient on Saturday, this win was equally impressive as it came away to a high-class outfit who were arguably in need of the points more than Northampton.

But there was no evidence of that in their performance as Oxford, known for their neat and tidy passing game, just couldn’t live with Northampton’s high, energetic pressing as the visitors gave their hosts no time to play.

“No team this century has picked up this many points (67) at the 30-game mark in England’s fourth tier and since three points for a win was introduced in 1981, only two sides have racked up more than the Cobblers – and one of those was Graham Carr’s title-winning side in 1986-87.”

James Heneghan

While the game never really caught fire, this was a compelling, intriguing contest between two well-matched sides that swung one way and then the other.

The first half was a to-and-fro battle, first Oxford taking the initiative in a strong start before Northampton grew into the game and finished the opening 45 minutes on top, the visitors coming closest when Benji Buchel had to be at full stretch to tip over Richards’ looping header.

As it was, the game hinged on two contentious moments either side of half-time which left U’s boss Michael Appleton frustrated with referee Keith Hill.

The first of those incidents came on the cusp of half-time when the impressive Danny Rose was fortunate to escape a straight red card after going in strongly on Liam Sercombe, the ref producing just a yellow despite furious protests from the home fans and players.

The second then arrived on the hour-mark. After starting the second half strongly – Buchel saving from Rose and John-Joe O’Toole hitting the bar – the Cobblers were awarded a penalty when Johnny Mullins handled in the area.

Oxford’s protests were less vigorous this time and Richards made no mistake from the spot, hammering high into the roof of the net.

Now trailing, many might have expected an Oxford onslaught but it took a while to arrive as the U’s struggled to build up a head of steam in the face of Cobblers’ high pressing and relentless work ethic.

The tension built, though, and gradually United applied sustained pressure as Chris Maguire’s curling effort struck the post while Sercombe’s weak effort dribbled inches wide of Adam Smith’s goal.

But that was all Oxford could muster on a night where Smith, bar a first-minute save from Danny Hylton. had very little do having been well protected by a terrific defensive performance, built on outstanding central defensive duo Zander Diamond and Rod McDonald.

In fact, the game’s last clear-cut opportunity fell to the away side when a slick exchange between O’Toole and Brendan Moloney culminated in Sam Hoskins finding himself with space and time in the penalty area, but the substitute could only find the side-netting.

That would have made the five long, agonising minutes of stoppage time more bearable for the noisy away fans, who were magnificent after travelling in their numbers once again, but nothing would deny the Cobblers from notching an eighth straight win and moving eight points clear of second-placed Plymouth.

This game at Oxford was meant to be the second of a run of three fixtures that would put Northampton’s promotion credentials under the microscope, but so far they’ve past with flying colours and have only accelerated their promotion march.

These latest two wins also catapult Town to the top of the away table, to go with their exceptional home form.

Remarkably, the Cobblers have not dropped a single point away from home since October.

The season that keeps on giving, just keeps on delivering.

How they rated...

Adam Smith - In truth, for all Oxford’s good build-up play, the Cobblers goalkeeper had very little to do all evening.... 7

Brendan Moloney - All successful sides need a pair of consistent full-backs and Moloney fits the bill on the right. Backed up Saturday’s impressive display with another on Tuesday, faultless at the back and almost bagged himself a couple of assists at the other end... 8

Zander Diamond - Barely put a foot wrong in a defensive masterclass. Dominant in the air and read the game superbly... 9

Rod McDonald - An immovable rock at the heart of defence. Found himself in the right place at the right time to clear two particularly dangerous crosses in just two examples of many where he read the game brilliantly... 9 CHRON STAR MAN

David Buchanan - Complements Moloney perfectly down the left. Got caught out on one occasion but that was a rare blip in a performance which we’ve become so accustomed to. Full of energy and endeavour... 8

Ricky Holmes - Picked up the ball in space and led the break out numerous times, his pace and quality causing problems for the Oxford defence all evening... 8

John-Joe O’Toole - Him and Rose have struck up an immediate partnership and the pair were central to this victory as they won the crucial midfield battle. Only downside was his booking, now one away from a two-game ban... 8

Danny Rose - Hugely impressive start to his Cobblers career. In games gone by Byrom’s miss would have been a major blow but Rose fitted serenely in, though was fortunate not to see red for one reckless tackle... 8

Lawson D’Ath - Good night on his return to the team, particularly first half when he linked up well with his team-mates and his movement was a constant source of danger... 8

James Collins - Ball didn’t quite fall for him and missed one good chance but led the pressing in a hard-working display... 7

Marc Richards - Was denied by a fine finger-tip save from Buchel in the first half but the Oxford keeper had no chance with his emphatic penalty. Now just two short of 20 goals for the season... 8

Substitutes

Lee Martin - 7

Sam Hoskins - 7

Jason Taylor - 6

Chris Wilder hailed his side's 10-game winning run as an "unbelievable achievement"

Chris Wilder hailed his side's 10-game winning run as an "unbelievable achievement"