James Spencer struck in the final minute of normal time to deny the Cobblers another three points in their pursuit of both promotion and the title as League Two’s table-toppers were held to a 1-1 draw by Cambridge United at Sixfields on Saturday.
This was a rare occasion where Northampton’s usually fluent attacking play didn’t quite click into gear but they always looked a cut above Cambridge and were on course for a deserved victory when John Marquis headed home Joel Byrom’s corner with 18 minutes remaining.
But the visitors, who had spent virtually the entire game camped inside their own half, were not to be denied a point as Spencer lashed beyond Adam Smith just as the clocked ticked into stoppage time in what was United’s only real chance of the afternoon.
Though frustrating, a point hardly represents a disaster for the League Two leaders who have actually extended their lead at the top to 14 points thanks to Oxford United and Plymouth both losing.
Chris Wilder stuck with the same team which won 4-1 at Carlisle United and named a matchday squad that featured just one change as Rod McDonald returned to the 18 in place of Ryan Cresswell.
The buoyant atmosphere inside a packed Sixfields was matched by the start of both teams who showed early intent and positivity, even if chances were at a premium.
That promising start proved to be a false down, however, and although Northampton had most of the possession and pressure, James Collins’ 25-yarder which sailed comfortably wide was the closest either team came in the opening half-hour.
United’s Josh Coulson looped a header narrowly wide in response but that was a rare occasion when Cambridge crossed the halfway line, while Northampton’s attack was struggling to click into gear as loose touches and sloppy passes meant Will Norris remained largely untroubled in the away goal.
He was only once called into action prior to half-time when doing well to gather Lee Martin’s low drive from an acute angle but speculative pot shots remained the most likely source of a first-half goal as John-Joe O’Toole twice for Northampton and Ryan Ledson and Zeli Ismail for the visitors had efforts but none threatened the goal.
The second half began at a quicker tempo and both teams showed more urgency in attack, particularly Northampton, which resulted in the game’s best chance but Collins couldn’t get the necessary power or accuracy to beat Norris from Martin’s delightful right-wing cross.
There were occasions when Northampton had the opportunity to open Cambridge up thanks to some well-worked, patient build-up play but too often the final pass let them down.
However, the home side increasingly applied pressure as the half wore on to a point were Cambridge dropped deeper and deeper and found themselves barely able to get out of their own half.
Though clear-cut chances remained rare, the sheer weight of pressure on Cambridge’s goal eventually brought the breakthrough on 72 minutes.
Northampton’s set-pieces had threatened all afternoon and this time it was Joel Byrom who produced a perfect in-swinging corner which Marquis headed home despite Norris’ best efforts.
Inevitably, Cambridge, who had employed time-wasting tactics all afternoon, suddenly played with greater urgency as they looked to hit back but that also allowed Northampton the space and opportunity to catch their visitors on the counter-attack, with Lawson D’Ath inches from doubling the lead after Holmes had led a break out.
Cambridge’s only real spell of pressure came in the dying moments when Northampton sat deep, and it yielded the equalising goal when a poor clearing header from Zander Diamond saw the ball dropped to Spencer in space and the substitute lashed past Smith.
There was still time left for Northampton to come desperately close to snatching the points but O’Toole hit the post before Diamond’s effort was cleared off the line and that was that.
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Diamond, Prosser, Buchanan, Holmes, O’Toole, Byrom, Martin (D’Ath 62), Marquis, Collins (Rose 81)
Subs not used: Clarke, McDonald, Taylor, Adams, Hoskins
Cambridge: Norris, Furlong, Legge, Coulson, Haynes, Berry (c), Ledson, Dunne, Dunk (Spencer 70), Ismail (Omozusi 90), Williamson
Subs not used: Roberts, Beasant, Simpson, O’Neill, Horne
Referee: Rob Lewis
Cambridge fans: 901