A late Nicky Maynard goal denied Northampton Town a place in the fourth round of the FA Cup as MK Dons rescued themselves from a cup upset in a thrilling and captivating third round tie that ended 2-2 at packed Sixfields on Saturday afternoon.
This was widely-anticipated to be an entertaining and attractive tie and it didn’t disappoint as both sides gave it their all but, ultimately, they couldn’t be separated despite the two league difference.
A Ryan Cresswell own goal had Dons ahead early but Northampton fought back strongly and dominated much of the first half, though it wasn’t until the second period when they got their reward.
A sublime Ricky Holmes goal deservedly brought the Cobblers level before Holmes repeated the trick eight minutes later with an equally unerring finish to flip the tie on its head and put Town on course for a fourth-round berth.
But it wasn’t to be as substitute Maynard diverted in Ben Reeves’ shot to take the tie to a replay, which will be played at stadium:mk next week.
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 from 30 places higher in the football league ladder.
For the first time this season, Nicky Adams and Holmes started together in a strong Cobblers side that also featured Rod McDonald in place of Zander Diamond, who dropped to the bench.
With both sets of fans in fine voice, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation at a noisy Sixfields when the game kicked off and the two sides showed positive early intent with Rob Hall having a fierce shot well held by Adam Smith before Adams headed Holmes’ cross straight at Cody Cropper.
Well known for their neat and tidy football, it was little surprise to see Dons dominate possession in the opening stages but Northampton’s pressing gave the visitors some early trouble, though it was the home side who were guilty of slack defending on 12 minutes.
That was when Dons made the breakthrough as left-back Lee Hodson worked space for himself to send a low cross into the six-yard box where Cresswell miscued his attempted clearance into his own net.
Northampton responded positively to the early setback, Marc Richards just failing to get the required connection to left-wing cross, as Adams and Holmes combined well to cause problems for the Dons defence.
The open and enterprising nature of the first half gave the impression that more goals were forthcoming but on two or three occasions Northampton were guilty of overplaying after getting themselves into promising positions.
The home side struggled to properly test Cropper despite having Dons firmly on the back foot for a sustained spell towards the end of the half, indeed the closest they came to levelling was via a visiting player when skipper Kyle McFadzean headed inches wide of his own net.
Northampton’s relentless pressing continued to give Dons problems as the visitors attempted to pass their way out from the back, but there was to be no equaliser before half-time with John-Joe O’Toole’s scuffed shot the only moment of note in the closing stages of the half.
Finally, just four minutes after the break, Northampton, who began the second half as strongly as they ended the first, were rewarded for their efforts thanks to a moment of class from Holmes.
O’Toole was the architect as he cut out a loose ball and then squared to Holmes, who made space for himself with a classy first touch and then cut back inside before curling an exquisite shot into the top corner, out of the reach of a Cropper’s despairing dive.
If the Cobblers had been on top prior to that goal, the equaliser lifted them up a level and they now came pouring forward in search of a quick second - and they didn’t have to wait long.
In the space of eight minutes, Northampton turned a one-goal deficit into a 2-1 lead and once again it was Holmes who finished off a well-worked move. Having been teed up by Sam Hoskins, Holmes took a touch and placed a precise low finish into the bottom corner.
Karl Robinson responded by chucking on three new players, while Chris Wilder then opted to take off Holmes for Lawson D’Ath with Tuesday’s clash at Plymouth in mind.
With Dons now labouring, unable to cope with the pace at which Town were playing at, there was a chance for the home side to put the game to bed but both Hoskins and Adams were off target with speculative attempts.
Cobblers were then almost their own worst enemy when David Buchanan’s poor clearance rebounded off a Dons player and fell kindly to Nicky Maynard who seemed through on goal, but with the striker set to shoot, Rod McDonald chased back and pulled off a superb last-ditch tackle.
Northampton went straight back up the other end in what was a now end-to-end, breathless contest but O’Toole took one touch too many when inside the penalty area and Dons managed to clear.
Dons seemed to be struggling to make much headway as Hall’s 25-yard free-kick was easy for Smith, but the Championship side rescued themselves from a cup shock with eight minutes remaining.
The goal was a fortunate one and came somewhat against the run of play as Ben Reeves let fly from distance and though his shot was on target, it needed a deflection from Maynard to diver it beyond Smith.
Northampton applied all the pressure in the closing six minutes but no winner was forthcoming and the two sides will do it all over again at StadiumMK.
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Cresswell, McDonald, Buchanan, O’Toole, Byrom, Holmes (D’Ath 64), Hoskins (Hackett 78), Adams (Taylor 89), Richards (c)
Subs not used: Clarke, Diamond, Horwood, Lelan
MK Dons: Cropper, Spence, McFadzean (c) (Upson 61), Walsh, Hodson, Forster-Caskey, Reeves, Bowditch, Hall, Murphy (Maynard 61), Church (Carruthers 61)
Subs not used: Burns, Brittain, Randall, Hitchcock
Referee: Darren Drysdale
MK Dons fans: 947