Cobblers had a Boxing Day to remember when they stopped the rot in sensational fashion thanks to Marc Richards’ 93rd minute goal which was enough to see off rivals Oxford United 1-0 in a dramatic League One affair.
In desperate need of some festive cheer to reverse their floundering fortunes, it seemed Northampton had done enough to earn themselves a hard-fought draw with a resilient, dogged display that repelled in-form Oxford for large periods whilst always carrying a goal threat.
But a point turned into three deep into added time when Richards improvised brilliantly to backheel Harry Beautyman’s volley into the net, prompting wild scenes of celebration among the delirious away fans, who witnessed their side clinch a third straight 1-0 win over the U’s.
Given that this was a contest between two teams heading in very different directions, there was a sense of trepidation from many of a Cobblers persuasion going into the festive period but for all Oxford’s huffing and puffing, Northampton’s stubborn defending kept the recalled Adam Smiht’s workload to a minimum.
At the other end, despite not seeing as much of the ball, the Cobblers created the better chances throughout and finally, after squandering several good openings at various stages, they took advantage through Richards’ smart finish to claim a much-needed victory, one which takes them up to 13th.
The opening half followed a familiar pattern to recent weeks and saw Oxford shade things in general play but it was Northampton who were guilty of failing to convert opportunities into goals in a bitty, fractious affair.
Lewin Nyatanga went closest of anyone when heading over from eight yards before the second-half continued in the same vein, although Oxford’s pressure gradually increased as they pushed for a winner.
But clear-cut chances would not come for Michael Appleton’s side and they paid the price at the death, much to the delight of the 1,200 travelling fans who took great joy from once again getting one over their Oxfordshire counterparts.
It’s also a vital victory for Cobblers boss Rob Page, who had seen his side tumble down the table after a run of five league defeats in six, but at last they turned the fine margins in their favour, and they will now head to Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United with a spring in their step and seeking another big result.
Page was dealt a big blow prior to kick-off when key man Sam Hoskins was ruled out with a hamstring strain, which meant a rare start for Alfie Potter who lined up on the right side of midfield in a 4-4-2 with Richards back up front alongside Alex Revell.
The other headline team news saw a return for Smith, who replaced David Cornell between the sticks, and he was almost called into early action but Chris Maguire’s 20 yard free-kick on four minutes clipped the top of the wall and was scrambled clear.
That was the highlight of a cagey opening 20 minutes as the two teams jostled for superiority without much success, although Matty Taylor almost drew a mistake from United goalkeeper Simon Eastwood, who was fortunate the ball fell to a team-mate after spilling Taylor’s 20-yard strike.
Northampton enjoyed a spell in the ascendancy at the midway point of the half, during which they had three separate opportunities to break the deadlock.
Taylor’s burst and cross first teed up Richards, whose header was deflected off target, before the subsequent corner saw Paul Anderson’s thunderous first-time strike again blocked behind for another corner.
Again Taylor delivered another excellent set-piece and it should have brought the opening goal, only for Nyatanga to plant his free header over the crossbar when well-placed.
That miss was as close as anyone went in the first 45 minutes as that flurry of activity came against the flow in a scrappy, bitty game that saw neither side able to wrestle control and build up a head of steam.
Oxford threatened sporadically through Maguire’s free-kick, which Smith held well, and several dangerous crosses that were repelled by a stubborn Cobblers rearguard, led by the excellent Gabriel Zakuani, as the game remained goalless going into half-time.
Even the half-time chipping contest provided more quality and entertainment than the first-half for the near-12,000 fans at the Kassam Stadium, and there was little improvement once the action restarted.
That said, however, Northampton did carve out their second excellent chance of the game when Potter found himself with space and time inside the box but he delayed his shot, allowing John Lundstram to race back and pull off a brilliant goal-saving block.
And as Oxford failed to get out of first gear, the visitors continued to look the more threatening side as yet another golden opportunity went begging moments after Potter’s miss.
This time Potter was the provider when his chipped cross was headed back across goal by Richards, where Anderson was unable to sort out his feet to scramble the ball into an empty net.
That was the third presentable chance that had gone begging for Town, and Oxford responded by upping the ante with a dominant passage of play that only really yielded long-range shots and half chances.
Despite barely bringing Smith into action bar collecting crosses and over-hit through balls, United were now starting to seize the initiative and gain the upper-hand going into the closing stages.
They might have scored too but for a sensational block from Zakuani as he flung at his body as Maguire’s fiercely-struck effort, while several other speculative shots failed to trouble Smith.
Attacks at the other end had become more infrequent but, in the final minute of normal time, the visitors could have snatched a dramatic victory, only for substitute Beautyman to slice over from 12 yards.
Not to worry, though, as just moments later, Northampton struck the killer blow through Richards, who deftly flicked home Beautyman’s volley to hand his side a stunning victory and three precious points.
Oxford: Eastwood, Edwards, Nelson, Dunkley, Johnson, Hall (Roberts 83), Lundstram, Ledson, MacDonald, Maguire, Hemmings (Taylor 68)
Subs not used: Buchel, Skarz, Ruffels, Rothwell, Raglan
Cobblers: Smith, Phillips, Zakuani, Nyatanga, Buchanan, Anderson, O’Toole, Taylor, Potter (Beautyman 86), Revell, Richards
Subs not used: Cornell, Diamond, McCourt, Gorre, Sonupe, Iaciofano
Referee: John Brooks
Cobblers fans: 1,128