There will be no dream date with Premier League champions Chelsea for Northampton Town this season after the Cobblers were denied a place in the fourth round of the FA Cup by a 3-0 defeat to MK Dons at stadiummk on Tuesday night.
For the most part, this was an evenly-contested, well-balanced game, however the tie turned on two controversial incidents at the start of the second half when the referee first ruled out a Northampton goal for a foul on goalkeeper Dave Martin before, a minute later, Dons won a penalty when Zander Daimond was deemed to have tripped Dean Bowditch.
Ben Reeves converted from the spot and Josh Murphy added a swift second to put Dons in the driving seat and although the Cobblers, cheered on by their magnificent 7,000-strong army travelling fans, never gave up hope, there was to be no way back.
Their fate was sealed in the final minute when Simon Church scored a third, also from a penalty, and sealed Dons’ place in the fourth round where they will face Chelsea.
The final scoreline was harsh on Northampton who, for the second time in 10 days, had competed well against Championship opposition and matched Dons stride-for-stride but it wasn’t to be and attention will now switch back to the league winning promotion.
There were two changes made to the team which beat Dagenham at the weekend as Marc Richards and Ricky Holmes replaced the cup-tied James Collins and Lee Martin.
Anyone expecting a quiet start were in for a shock as Dons almost broke the deadlock on just 43 seconds when Church, who was a late replacement for the injured Nicky Maynard, was denied by a terrific Adam Smith block having found himself with a clear shooting opportunity.
As it happened, that chance was one of very few in the first half as the game settled down with little to separate the two sides in a cagey opening 15 minutes, although Sam Hoskins did have Town’s first effort on goal but after creating space for himself with a neat turn, his shot lacked the necessary power to trouble David Martin.
Hoskins and Ricky Holmes were the two Northampton players who gave Dons the most problems early on as the former had another long-range attempt which Martin parried away.
Dons replied immediately and proceeded to enjoy their best spell of the half, and they looked certain to score on 18 minutes when Rob Hall cut the ball back to the centre of the penalty area where Bowditch lined up to shoot but he was denied by a brilliant last-ditch block from Brendan Moloney.
Dons were looking a different proposition to the side which drew at Sixfields the previous week as another teasing cross from the dangerous Hall just evaded both Bowditch and Church.
Though the home side’s build-up play was patient and probing, their finishing left a lot to be desired, exemplified by wild efforts from both Hall and Samir Carruthers when space had opened up for a shot.
The Cobblers spent much of the half being pulled from side to side by some crisp Dons passing but for all the home side’s possession, they struggled to break down a hard-working, well-drilled Northampton side and Smith remained largely untested, while the visitors occasionally threatened through the pace of Holmes on the counter-attack.
The first half ended goalless but the match then burst into life with two controversial moments in a matter of moments shortly after half-time.
First, Northampton thought they had the ball in the net when the linesman signalled for a goal after Martin had taken the ball over the line from a corner, however the referee instead awarded a free-kick to Dons for a push on the goalkeeper.
Then, almost instantly, Dons broke up the other end and won themselves a controversial penalty when Bowditch went to ground under a challenge from Diamond.
It looked to be outside the penalty area but referee Tony Harrington pointed to the spot and Reeves duly stepped up to calmly convert the spot-kick and give Dons a 53rd minute lead.
With their tails now up, Dons could have put the game to bed in the minutes immediately after the goal through two quickfire efforts from Murphy, who first hit the bar before having a second effort drift wide.
Murphy was causing the Cobblers all kinds of problems having come on as a substitute and with the visitors rocking, a second goal seemed only a matter of time and so it proved on 62 minutes.
Murphy had too much pace for the Town defence as he raced through on goal and shrugged off Moloney before biding his time and then beating Smith with a composed finish into the bottom corner.
That could have signalled the end of Northampton’s hopes but to their credit, the Cobblers responded well to going 2-0 down as Hoskins saw his shot blocked before Rod McDonald just failed to get a touch on Adams’ dangerous free-kick.
Moloney had an effort well-blocked by Joe Walsh as the visitors continued to apply relentless pressure but Dons stood firm before going up the other end and adding a third themselves a minute from full-time.
It came via another penalty as the referee penalised Smith from bringing down Hall despite the Cobblers goalkeeper appearing to clearly win the ball, and Church made no mistake to add third to condemn Cobblers’ FA Cup hopes for another season.
Dons: Martin, Hodson, Kay, Upson (Walsh 38), Lewington (c), Carruthers, Forster-Caskey, Hall, Reeves (Powell 74), Bowditch (Murphy 55), Church
Subs not used: Cropper, Spence, Hitchcock
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Diamond (Cresswell 88), McDonald, Buchanan, Holmes, O’Toole, Byrom, Adams, Hoskins, Richards (c)
Subs not used: Clarke, Horwood, Taylor, Lelan, Potter
Referee: Tony Harrington
Cobblers fans: 7,040