Such is the curious way football works, it was perhaps to be expected that the Cobblers, exactly one week on from their shambolic efforts against a team with 10 men, would be presented with precisely the same challenge at Notts County on Saturday.
Keith Curle did not hold back in his criticism of his side’s inability to make their extra man count against Port Vale seven days earlier, neither did supporters hold back in their anger, and here was an immediate opportunity for the players to show him much they’ve learned and improved over the past week.
And whilst the result at Meadow Lane, though an improvement, was accompanied by a tinge of disappointment and frustration for those of a Cobblers persuasion, they made a far better fist of their numerical advantage here than they did previously.
In the end, it was only some erratic finishing – nothing new there, then – and the bounce of the ball which prevented one point becoming three. Indeed, even before Ryan Schofield’s blatant red card a minute into the second-half, Town were the better team at Meadow Lane.
The visitors began with a measure control and fed off restless home support as County’s precarious position at the foot of League Two made for an understandably anxious and jittery atmosphere in the stands.
But control of possession did not lead to chances for the Cobblers as several promising attacking situations fizzled out and all it took was one sweet swing of Mitch Rose’s right leg to fire County into a somewhat fortunate lead.
That seemed to take the sting out of Town’s play but events either side of half-time – just like against Vale – should have swung the match decisively their way, and Daniel Powell was involved in both incidents.
Sam Hoskins’ miscued shot gave him the simplest of all simple tap-ins at the back post before he pounced on a loose pass and was unceremoniously dragged down by Magpies stopper Schofield, who promptly and correctly saw red.
County suffered an immediate second blow when Hoskins’ subsequent free-kick took a wicked deflection and wrong-footed Ross Fitzsimons, only just on, and all Town needed to do now was keep things calm for five minutes and victory would surely be theirs.
But they failed to do so. Jon Stead was allowed to pick out Kane Hemmings and within two minutes the Magpies were level, giving Town 38 minutes plus stoppage-time to utterly dominate the game and seek a winner.
Curle’s subs came in for some stick against Port Vale but he got it right on this occasion. His decision to bring on Dean Bowditch and play him as a deep-lying playmaker was a particularly wise move as it allowed the Cobblers to monopolise the ball and keep possession, patiently probing for an opening.
And it should have been Bowditch who stole the victory for Northampton when a brilliantly-worked free-kick routine put him through on goal but his first effort was saved, his second was cleared off the line and and his third was hacked away before Hoskins’ follow-up attempt was again blocked during the mother of all goalmouth scrambles.
Earlier, Hoskins saw an instinctive first-time effort from six yards go straight at the goalkeeper when anywhere else and it was a goal. Andy Williams also flicked off target and Sam Foley’s deflected shot was pushed wide by substitute keeper Ross Fitzsimons.
Unfortunately, though, the visitors could not sustain their pressure and the remaining 15 minutes fizzled out with little drama, allowing County to claim a precious point and Cobblers to reflect on yet another missed opportunity in a season that has had too many.
Had the Cobblers beaten both Vale and County – which, let’s face it, they should have done – they would currently be four points off the play-offs and very much in the mix with five games to go.
It was ultimately an afternoon that had a bit of everything – drama, tension, controversy and goals – except three points for the Cobblers.
The draw was at least sufficient in mathematically securing Town’s safety this season although any satisfaction taken from that fact was offset by the realisation that, had they beaten both Vale and County – which, let’s face it, they should have done – Town would currently be four points off the play-offs and very much in the mix with five games to go.
It’s unlikely they would have made the top seven even from that position but it’d have at least kept the season alive for a few extra games. As it is, a mid-table finish is now assured.