Stevenage 2 Northampton Town 3 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
Just when you thought the Cobblers had used up their quota of blockbuster moments in this thrill-a-minute season, up popped that man Ricky Holmes to deliver the most explosive and dramatic moment of them all to cap off a stirring fightback in another thrilling Northampton game.
The Cobblers engine which has operated in top gear so often this season had somewhat stalled in recent weeks after three draws in four games, but it revved into overdrive on Saturday with this gripping, topsy-turvy encounter that was in keeping with this whirlwind season.
It was a game and a result that had all the hallmarks of a championship-winning team as Northampton recovered from a nightmare start, got themselves a foothold and then snatched the points in thrilling, last-gasp style to cruelly deny Stevenage what would have been a deserved point.
But winning ugly is a necessity for any team with promotion and indeed title aspirations and that is a habit which this Cobblers side have become so adept at.
Hard-fought wins against Dagenham and Accrington fall into that category but this exhilarating fightback against struggling Stevenage topped anything seen so far this season.
Promotion is now merely a formality and though taking the League Two crown may require a bit more work, surely nothing will stand in the way of this team becoming the first to win a league title since the Graham Carr days.
It wasn’t only the fact the winning goal came five minutes into stoppage time, it was the manner in which it arrived and Holmes just had to be the scorer.
Boro had done well to restrict him to few openings for 94 minutes but when he picked up the ball in space on the right, there was only one thing on his mind.
Holmes cut back, drove inside and unleashed a magnificent left-footed shot that rocketed through the mass of bodies and went in off the post, leaving Jamie Jones grasping at thin air.
The goal sparked bedlam in the away end as players and fans alike wildly celebrated a moment which encapsulates the craziness of this extraordinary, once-in-a-generation season.
Chris Wilder let out a fist punch once the full-time whistle sounded and the Northampton manager had nothing but the highest praise for his players in a post-match interview where he carried the persona of a man who knows nothing will stop his side from finishing the job.
It all came after undoubtedly Town’s worst 45 minutes of the season during a first half in which they were the architects of their own demise.
Outrun, outplayed and outfought, Cobblers were fortunate to find themselves only 2-0 down four minutes before half-time when James Collins struck a vital blow in the context of the game.
Prior to that, Stevenage’s tenacity and high pressing caused untold problems for the league leaders who were unable to ever find their usual passing rhythm.
Joel Byrom and John-Joe O’Toole, so often the foundation for their side’s good play, were overrun and constantly hassled into mistakes, and no one could begrudge Boro’s 2-0 lead which came through two Luke Wilkinson’s headers from two Dean Parrett set-pieces.
But while he struggled in open play, Byrom remains deadly at set-pieces and it was his quick-thinking which produced the game’s key moment as his smartly-taken free-kick allowed an unmarked Collins to nod home on the brink of half-time.
That breathed new life into the visitors who, roared on by their once again outstanding travelling supporters, improved markedly after the break as O’Toole improvised well to turn home another pinpoint Byrom set-piece to get his side on level terms.
But if Northampton thought they’d now go on and complete the comeback, they had another thing coming as Stevenage, to their credit, responded well to being pegged back with Greg Luer three times going close, only denied by a fine Adam Smith double save.
The introduction of Sam Hoskins made a notable difference, though, and it was his pace that brought about Fraser Franks’ red card as the Stevenage defender hauled the striker down when through on goal with 12 minutes to go.
Cue the Northampton onslaught which only intensified as the minutes ticked away.
Collins squandered two glorious opportunities to win it, first spooning over and then heading wide, and the chance to take home the points seemed gone when the game entered its 95th minute.
A last-minute winner had so far eluded Northampton in a season which has otherwise had it all but Holmes – who else – rectified that with one of his trademark wonder goals.
The euphoric scenes which followed, with Adam Smith running 90 yards to join in the celebrates and bodies piling on top of one another, was just another memorable moment in this unforgettable story that is Northampton’s 2015/16 season.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - His decision to rush out and attempt to punch clear Parrett’s free-kick was a fatal one, however redeemed himself with a fine double save from Luer at 2-2... 7
Brendan Moloney - Passing and crossing was a let down all afternoon on one of his poorest days of the season... 6
Zander Diamond - Better of the two centre-backs and improved significantly after half-time. Distribution was particularly notable... 7
Luke Prosser - Ran ragged by Stevenage in a shaky first half and never looked comfortable up against the physical approach. Will be fortunate to retain his place with McDonald back fit... 6
David Buchanan - One of few who was anywhere near par prior to half-time and continued that into the second half. Deserves man of the match for being the only Northampton player to produce a consistent 90 minutes.... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Ricky Holmes - Spent most of the first half venting his frustration with the decisions of both his team-mates and the referee but came to life in the final 10 minutes when he twice teed up Collins before snatching victory in predictably sensational fashion... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Usually so reliable but even he was guilty of misplacing simple passes once too often prior to half-time, however made amends with an improvised finish for the equaliser... 7
Joel Byrom - Several wayward passes in a shoddy first half-hour but began dictating things from half-time onwards. Bagged himself two assists with two pinpoint set-pieces... 7
Nicky Adams - Seems low on confidence and it showed. No end product despite finding plenty of space and seeing lots of the ball... 6
John Marquis - Struggled to have much impact up against the impressive Wilkinson. Was withdrawn shortly after half-time... 6
James Collins - Took his header well and good movement brought about two other excellent chances which he should have done better with... 7
Sam Hoskins - 7
Lawson D’Ath - 6
James Taylor - 6