Cobblers 2 Crawley 2: Five things we learned
Although Saturday's 2-2 draw with Crawley Town was accompanied by more than a hint of frustration, there were still plenty of positives to come out of Cobblers' performance.
Chris Lines scored from the spot and Shaun McWilliams added a second to put the home side in command, but two late goals rescued a point for Crawley as the Cobblers dropped to 12th in League Two.
Here are five things we learned...
Cobblers on the right track
The ultimate result was disappointing but Northampton's performance followed an encouraging recent trend, one that is heading in a positive direction if you are hoping for a promotion challenge this season.
The Cobblers went through various stages in this match. They started well, had a wobble after going ahead, wrestled back control and then retreated as Crawley pushed forward in the closing stages.
In the first-half in particular they strung together some nice passages of play, and when Shaun McWilliams finished off another well-worked passing move 20 minutes into the second period, three points were there for the taking.
Had Town maintained their two-goal lead for more than five minutes, the sting would have gone from Crawley's play and the game might have petered out. Instead, Nathaniel-George's fine finish just moments later, the result of Northampton switching off for just a second, reversed the momentum and spurred the visitors on.
Joe Martin's 95th minute own goal was still a cruel twist that agonisingly denied Cobblers their third win in a week, but encouragement can be taken from their performance.
Mature McWilliams thriving in attacking role
Shaun McWilliams' future at the Cobblers was up for debate towards the back end of last season when he struggled to make the squad, let alone the team, and there were question marks over his attitude.
But not only has he got himself back into the fold this year, he's almost become a guaranteed starter - he's made 11 starts in a row - thanks to his versatility, improved fitness and, most importantly, raw ability.
After spells at right-back and central midfield earlier in the campaign, it's now in an attacking role where the 21-year-old is thriving. His energy, pressing and passing are all key components of Town's recent play, and on Saturday he finally got his first goal in senior football when he followed smart movement in the box with a rasping low finish.
His unconfined joy was evident for all to see as he sprinted away in celebration. Hopefully it's the first of many. For all the summer signings, it might well be a local lad who spearheads Cobblers' promotion charge this season.
Hoskins threatening Adams' mantle
Nicky Adams has been regarded as League Two's assist king for the past few seasons but, two months into the current campaign, he's in danger of having to hand his mantle to a Cobblers team-mate.
Sam Hoskins divides fan opinion far more than Adams but he seems to have taken his game up a level this season. After scoring against Newport last weekend, he notched his third assist of the season against Crawley when picking out McWilliams at the back post.
It was not the only telling delivery Hoskins produced on the day, in fact it was his well-directed cross that eventually led to Charlie Goode being fouled for the early penalty. If Hoskins can maintain his good form, Adams might lose his crown as the assist king.
Crawley will trouble many teams this season
Crawley were not even regarded as dark horses for promotion this season, never mind mentioned among the outright favourites, but their record across 10 games speaks for itself.
While not at their best against Northampton, as manager Gabriele Cioffi admitted afterwards, their late show maintained their record of scoring in every game this season and its's not difficult to see why; they commit men forward, play enterprising football and in Bez Lubala, possess a genuine goal threat.
Currently eighth with 16 points, anyone expecting them to tail off might well be disappointed.
Cobblers well placed to push on
It was at this stage last season - 10 games in - when Dean Austin was dismissed from his post as Northampton manager. It can be said with a degree of confidence that Keith Curle will not suffer the same fate this time around.
With 14 points on the board - double last season's tally - and having posed problems for all opponents so far this year, the Cobblers now look in a far stronger position to launch a serious and sustained promotion challenge, unlike last term when they briefly flirted with the play-offs but ultimately came from too far back.
It's hard to see them blowing away many teams but neither should they suffer heavy defeats themselves. The question is: can they win enough tight games to finish in the top seven?