Long strike sees Cobblers climb out of relegation zone as Milton Keynes Dons are sent packing at Sixfields
Cobblers moved out of the Sky Bet League One relegation zone with a tension-riddled 2-1 win over rivals Milton Keynes Dons at Sixfields on Saturday as they survived an anxious finish to claim a third straight league win.
The usual suspects were on target in the first-half - John-Joe O'Toole and Chris Long - with the former's 16th minute opener immediately cancelled out by Alex Gilbey.
Attacking full-backs were the feature for Town but that left space for Dons to exploit at the other end in an enterprising and open first-half, however despite the visitors edging it, Long's low finish, his eighth goal of the season, had the hosts ahead at half-time.
The Cobblers were comfortable for most of the second period but their failure to add to their lead meant a tense finish as Dons applied relentless late pressure but three superb late saves from the outstanding Richard O'Donnell preserved the points and ensured Town moved up to the giddy heights of 18th place, replaced by Dons in the drop zone.
This was by no means a stress-free, straightforward victory but, in the end, Northampton were good value for the points and, remarkably, they are now just four points off 12th and are surely now looking up instead of down.
Amid all the coming and going at Sixfields, manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink made only the one change from last week's win at Bradford City with new boy Joe Bunney drafted straight in at left-back.
There was no place in the squad for David Buchanan as Jordan Tunrbull shifted across to centre-back and Regan Poole dropped to the bench, where he was joined by another new signing in Gboly Ariyibi, whose loan spell at MK Dons ended just three days earlier.
The persistent heavy rain made for a slick pitch and that encouraged Dons to get the ball down and ping it around in the early stages, however the first save came from visiting goalkeeper Lee Nicholls who beat away Matt Grimes' 25-yard free-kick.
Town warmed to their task and by 16 minutes they were ahead courtesy of a well-crafted goal. They worked the ball out to the left flank where Sam Foley slipped in Bunney and his low cross was squeezed through the legs of Nicholls by O'Toole.
But the lead was short-lived with Dons back on level terms barely three minutes later.
There was some controversy about their equaliser as Ash Taylor looked to have been fouled in the build-up but the referee Brett Huxtable waved play on and Osman Sow's flashed a ball across goal for Gilbey to hammer beyond Richard O'Donnell.
The Cobblers were playing some good stuff in attack, and another sweeping move led to O'Toole having a shot blocked, but Dons also threatened and Shay Facey had to hack Sow's header off the line before Callum Brittain's long-range pile-driver was shovelled behind for corner by O'Donnell.
After being pegged back, Town lost their way and there was a spell towards the end of the half in which they were guilty of misplacing simple pass after simple pass which only encouraged Dons forward as the away side edged things.
That said, a goal did not seem forthcoming before half-time, certainly not for the home side, but that was the case five minutes prior to the break.
For all Dons' neat passing, their vulnerabilities at the back were exposed again when Foley's shot deflected to Sam Hoskins and his cross, at the second attempt, was diverted into the bottom corner by Long.
That put the Cobblers into a half-time lead but they almost surrendered it upon the restart when Peter Pawlett found too much space to shoot wide of the far post.
Town went back up the other end where Britain almost put into his own net, scooping Long's cutback over the crossbar, before Hildeberto Pereira, just on as a sub, forced Nicholls to block with his legs.
Town needed a third goal to ease the nerves and they almost found through Matt Crooks, who flashed a shot marginally wide from 20 yards, before Dons almost put into their own net, George Williams lucky his attempted headed clearance didn't drop into the bottom corner.
Then came the first sight of new loan signing Ariyibi, who replaced Foley on 73 minutes, and his marauding run forward led to a corner from which Long somehow cleared the crossbar on the turn from inside the six-yard box.
Northampton had not really come under undue pressure for much of the second-half but, unable to extend their lead, the final 10 minutes were always going to anxious as the hosts dropped deeper and deeper.
Dons came so close to levelling on two occasion but O'Donnell was there both times, reacting superbly to keep out Williams' header and then getting down quickly to hold Chuks Aneke's fierce low shot.
The visitors weren't done there as they kept coming forward and they had a chance right at the death to sneak a point when winning a free-kick right on the edge of the box, with Aneke sent off for his part in a scuffle that broke out in the aftermath.
But O'Donnell was again Dons' nemesis as he superbly kept out Marcus Tavernier's thunderbolt of a free-kick and that was that, the Cobblers clinging on for a third successive victory, one which moves them out of immediate trouble.
Cobblers: O'Donnell, Facey, Taylor, Turnbull, Bunney, Grimes, Crooks, Foley (Aryibi 73), Hoskins (Pereira 57), O'Toole, Long (Revell 90)
Subs not used: Cornell, Moloney, Poole, McWilliams
MK Dons: Nicholls, Williams, Wootton, Cisse (McGrandles 71), Pawlett ( Agard 83), Tavernier, Ebanks-Landell, Brittain, Gilbey (c), Ugbo, Sow (Aneke 59)
Subs not used: Upson, Sietsma, Muirhead, Nesbitt
Referee: Brett Huxtable
MK Dons fans: 1,210