The Cobblers turned in one of their most lacklustre and disappointing performances of the season as their mini-revival came to an abrupt and unwelcome halt on Saturday, deservedly beaten 1-0 by fellow strugglers Rochdale.
Having not won away from home all season, and without a league win of any kind since November, Rochdale belied those statistics as well as their lowly position to dominate much of the game and come away from Sixfields with all three points, which was no less than they deserved.
Town went into the game three places and 11 points ahead of their visitors in the League One table but you would not have guessed it from the way Dale bossed the opening half.
The Cobblers were fortunate to be level at half-time but their luck ran out eight minutes into the second period when Calvin Andrew’s tap-in finally edged the visitors in front.
Anyone expecting a response from the home side would have been disappointed as Dale continued to control things, and even when Town desperately needed an equaliser in the closing stages, there was no sense of urgency or quality in the final third before the final whistle confirmed the inevitable.
After a good run of form and the arrival of several new faces, this defeat sends Town crashing back to earth and keeps them firmly in reletgation trouble, though they do remain three points above the drop zone.
Kevin van Veen was made to wait for his debut and only made the bench, but there was a first Cobblers start for Hildeberto Pereira, who came in for Sam Hoskins on the right side of midfield while Sam Foley replaced Regan Poole and started on the left.
Despite their wretched away record, the brighter start came from Rochdale whose confident early play caused a few issues for the home team, especially in wide areas.
Dale nearly had the first goal too and it would have been a freak one at that as Richard O’Donnell’s miscued clearance, after racing out of his box, fell at the feet of Callum Camps, whose first-time shot from halfway had the Town ‘keeper racing back to his own goal and shovelling off the line.
Town were struggling to get out of first gear but a couple of chances from set-pieces came their way around the mid-point of the first-half. Matt Grimes delivered both, first a free-kick that Jordan Turnbull nodded wide and then a corner from which John-Joe O’Toole thundered a free header straight at Josh Lillis.
But Rochdale were playing the better football and remained in the ascendancy for most of the opening 45 minutes and it was their turn to fluff their lines from close-range with Mark Kitching, unmarked at the back post, thwarted by a big left hand from O’Donnell before the subsequent corner was scrambled off the line.
Set-pieces continued to be the most likely source of joy for the Cobblers, who had also lost Shay Facey to injury, replaced by Poole, and Grimes threatened to hand them a half-time lead when placing a 20-yard free-kick the wrong side of the post just prior to the interval.
There was no change to the pattern of play in the second-half and, eight minutes after the restart, Dale got the goal their dominance had warranted.
Matt Done capitalised on some slack Town defending to work space down the left side and his low cross presented a simple tap-in for an unmarked Andrew at the back post.
Hasselbaink’s response was to bring on van Veen and match Dale up by going to 3-5-2 with Bunney and Foley going to wing-back, but there was no let-up by Dale who twice came close to a second goal when Kitching rifled a shot over and former Town man Ian Henderson was denied by the legs of O’Donnell.
Town’s attacking threat had diminished even further in the second period and once again set-pieces were the only time they put Dale under any pressure with Grimes’ latest free-kick landing on the roof of the net.
The visitors were sharper, quicker and first to everything while Northampton looked out of ideas and lacking general quality all over the pitch.
The hosts were unable to build any pressure, even in four minutes of added time, and the full-time whistle allowed Rochdale’s fans to celebrate their very first away league win of the season.
Cobblers: O’Donnell, Facey (Poole 36), Taylor (c), Turnbull, Bunney, Crooks, Grimes, Pereira (Van Veen 56), Foley, O’Toole (Ariyibi 72), Long
Subs not used: Cornell, Buchanan, McWilliams, Hoskins
Rochdale: Lillis, Rafferty, McNulty, Andrew, Camps (Humphrys 86), Wiseman, Done, Delaney, Cannon, Kitching, Henderson (c)
Subs not used: McGahey, Rathbone, Moore, Knott, Hart, Dobre
Referee: John Busby
Dale fans: 214