Another game, another stern examination of their promotion credentials and another pass with flying colours – this Northampton team just keep marching relentlessly on.
It seems that no matter what question is posed of them this season, the Cobblers always have the answer.
Beat three different League One sides in three different cup competitions? No problem.
Win seven straight matches amid major off-field distractions with the club’s very existence under threat? Easy.
Beat the league leaders in their own back yard three days after an energy-sapping cup tie? Done.
That latest win was achieved with a performance that combined attacking flair with defensive grit as goals from James Collins and Marc Richards inflicted just a sixth defeat of the season on League Two’s current top dogs.
Though this game didn’t quite have the excitement of Saturday’s FA Cup tie, it had all the drama, tension and intrigue to keep everyone on the edge of their seat from the first whistle to the last.
These games, between two evenly-matched, table-topping sides, always tend to be tight, cagey affairs and this was no different, though few can argue that Town were worthy winners.
Even away at the league leaders, on a poor pitch and three days after holding Championship opposition in the FA Cup, the Cobblers produced a performance that had all the traits of a promotion-winning side.
In truth, for all Plymouth’s endeavour and build-up play, they struggled to create much in the way of genuine goalscoring chances with Adam Smith forced into just the one save of note when tipping over Reuben Reid’s header.
Even after Gregg Wylde’s goal, which came seven minutes from time, Northampton kept the hosts at arm’s length as Plymouth frantically chucked everything forward in search for an equaliser, but Josh Simpson’s off target header right at the death was to be the only scare for Town who deservedly saw out seven nerve-shredding minutes of stoppage time.
Earlier in the game, Collins marked his Cobblers debut in the best possible way when presented with a gift by Plymouth goalkeeper Luke McCormick, who inexplicably dithered on the ball after Kelvin Mellor’s under-hit back pass. To his credit, Collins never gave it up, read the play and duly nipped in to steal the ball, round McCormick and side-foot into an empty net.
Prior to that, the first half had been a cautious affair as the best either side could manage were half chances – Richards and Reid respectively – but Collins’ goal altered the pattern of the game and allowed Northampton to play on the counter-attack, something which they did to great affect.
Let’s not forget, this is a Plymouth side who not only boast the best defensive record in League Two but also came into this game on the back of four straight wins yet, at times, they were opened up at will during a 20-minute spell at the start of the second in which the Cobblers threatened to run riot.
If the first goal had been fortunate, then the second was fully deserved and it came thanks to an incisive passing move. John-Joe O’Toole, who was once again magnificent in a commanding midfield performance, pounced upon a poor clearance and after some slick interchange between him and Richards, the ball was played across the face of goal where a clever dummy from Nicky Adams gave the Cobblers skipper time and space to dispatch beyond McCormick for his 16th goal of the season.
It could have been more, too, as Adams twice came close while only the final ball was lacking on two or three other occasions as Northampton time and again broke with pace, power and strength.
But, predictably, this was never going to be straightforward, nothing ever is with Northampton, and Plymouth duly set up a nail-biting finale when Wylde beat Smith after Brendan Moloney was caught napping.
There was to be no heartbreak this time, though, as while Plymouth desperately pressed forward and launched ball after ball into the Cobblers penalty area, the visitors stood firm, repelled the bombardment and saw out seven long minutes of stoppage time to claim a priceless win.
This Cobblers team is the complete package. The football at times has been sumptuous – demonstrated perfectly by Tuesday’s wonderfully-constructed second goal – but they also have the physicality and the strength to mix with the league’s more direct sides, the organisation and discipline to blunt the best attacks and the work-rate and team spirit to fight for every ball right until the final whistle.
But, most importantly of all, Chris Wilder and his players have developed the useful knack of winning football matches, and all of those attributes were on show during Tuesday’s win.
Having already been hyped up as the season’s most eagerly-anticipated game, the excitement levels cranked up a notch or two before kick-off when it was revealed Collins would make his debut at Home Park, and the on-loan Shrewsbury man didn’t disappoint.
His goal will go down as a McCormick error but it was just one example of Collins’ impressive work-rate as he didn’t stop running all evening and gave everything to the Northampton cause.
There were also signs of a promising partnership building with Richards as the two, helped by the pace and movement of Adams and Ricky Holmes, caused constant problems for the Plymouth defence.
O’Toole and Joel Bryom laid the platform by bossing the midfield, while Rod McDonald and Zander Diamond were equal to anything thrown at them as everyone played their part in another hugely impressive victory.
Want a stat to illustrate just how good Northampton have been? Well, take your pick. Tuesday’s victory made it 12 wins in 15 games in all competitions, eight in nine in the league and it’s now just two defeats in 19 League Two matches.
Whichever way you look at it, that’s pretty handy.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Only made one real save of note, tipping over Reid’s header. Did get lucky with one fumble from a corner... 7
Brendan Moloney - Switched off for Wylde’s goal but generally excellent, particularly in the air... 7
Zander Diamond - A rock at the back as he returned to the team to partner McDonald and the two seem to be forming an encouraging partnership at the heart of defence. Rarely flustered despite Plymouth’s frantic late barrage... 8
Rod McDonald - Brave call by Wilder to select the inexperience of McDonald over Cresswell but proved to be the right one. Continues to impress with another performance that exuded confidence and calmness despite the magnitude of the game... 8
David Buchanan - Handled the tricky Jervis well as he produced another predictably error-free, hard-working display... 8
Joel Byrom - Superb, only pipped to MOTM by his midfield partner. The pair ran the show with their ability to break the play up, retain possession and set up counter-attacking opportunities ... 8
John-Joe O’Toole - Just keeps getting better and better. Brilliant invention for the second goal in another dominant midfield display. Been said many times but his turnaround at the club almost beggars belief... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Lawson D’Ath - Unfortunate to have been taken off shortly before half-time with a groin injury... 6
Ricky Holmes - Burst into life after a quiet first half. Had Plymouth back-peddling when he led the Cobblers charge on the counter, unfortunate not to have created or scored a goal himself... 7
James Collins - Not a bad debut. Opportunistic goal and showed signs of a promising understanding with Richards... 8
Marc Richards - Immaculate hold-up play brought others into play and gave Plymouth’s back four a torrid evening. Took his goal with typical ruthlessness... 8
Nicky Adams - Bright cameo having replaced D’Ath, including a nice dummy which gave Richards the space to score Town’s second. Game could have been out of sight had he brought his shooting boots... 7
Jason Taylor - 6
Ryan Cresswell - 6