Unbeaten run in the league comes to an end as Cobblers are edged out by Exeter City
Cobblers suffered their first league defeat in nearly two months when they were edged out 3-2 by fellow high-flyers Exeter City at St James Park on Saturday.
The first-half started slowly but soon came to life and the Cobblers, having won five of their last six in the league, went into the break a little frustrated after they let the lead slip so soon after taking it.
Charlie Goode's 33rd-minute goal, on his 100th EFL appearance, was cancelled out by Randell Williams five minutes later and the visitors never really recovered during a disappointing second 45 minutes.
Two goals in as many minutes, scored by Aaron Martin and Alex Fisher, secured all three points for the Grecians, despite Sam Hoskins netting a fine solo effort in the closing stages.
There is certainly no disgrace in losing to a side as strong as Exeter, who moved up to second with victory, but the result is a reminder that, while they've made progress in recent weeks, the Cobblers are not yet the finished article.
They remain in the League Two play-off positions but drop down a place to seventh ahead of next week's meeting with Forest Green Rovers.
The big guns were back for Northampton in Devon as manager Keith Curle made only one alteration from the team that beat Notts County in the FA Cup last weekend, that coming between the sticks where David Cornell replaced Steve Arnold.
But Exeter made the slightly better start at St James Park and carved out the game's first clear chance on eight minutes when Ryan Bowman streaked away down the left, cut inside two defenders and curled a fraction wide of the far post.
The early stages were not full of chances but gradually things warmed up and Town had a decent sight of goal themselves midway through the period as Vadaine Oliver's cross fell for an unmarked Andy Williams, who headed over the crossbar.
That was followed by another good opportunity for the visitors with Hoskins twice going close, seeing a shot blocked and then dragging wide of the near post after Williams caught an Exeter defender dawdling on the ball.
Cobblers were slowly turning the screw and they hit the front just past the half-hour mark. Exeter attempted to break away from a corner but Alan McCormack won two tackles and the ball fell to Nicky Adams, whose cross deflected out to Goode and he picked out the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
The Exeter reply was swift, however, and Town's defence will not be happy with the simplicity of their equaliser. Williams received the ball on the right from a quick free-kick and was allowed to cut inside unchallenged before drilling a low shot into the bottom corner.
Bowman and Goode couldn't make the most of half chances at either end and the teams went into half-time locked at one apiece.
Exeter were first to threaten in the second-half and they were a lick of paint away from taking the lead through Jack Sparkes' free-kick, which might have been touched onto the post by Cornell.
Cobblers were struggling to regain a foothold and had to weather an intense Exeter storm, the home side going close on two more occasions with Nicky Law heading wide and Fisher unable smother the ball in.
Eventually City's pressure told and Martin made Town pay for switching off at another set-pieces, this time a short corner corner, when nodding in Williams' cross.
And within 90 seconds the home side gave their visitors a mountain to climb, Sparkes whipping in a super cross and Fisher nodding home to make it 3-1 and put Exeter in total control.
Bowman curled just wide as Exeter continued to push forward, and the afternoon was threatening to descend into a nightmare for the Cobblers when McCormack limped off with a leg problem.
But Cobblers gave themselves a lifeline with 12 minutes to thanks to a fine individual goal from Hoskins, who weaved past two defenders and stroked into the bottom corner.
The visitors had nearly all of the ball in the remaining time but Scott Wharton's speculative long-range effort and an overhead kick from Oliver was all they had to show for their pressure and ultimately Exeter were worthy winners.
Exeter: Maxted, Sweeney, Atangana, A Martin, Law, Bowman, Fisher (Seymour 79), Moxey (c), Sparkes (Parkes 79), Collins (Taylor 87)
Subs not used: Visser, Jay, Richardson, L Martin
Cobblers: Cornell, Goode (c), Turnbull, Wharton, McCormack (Kaja 73), Lines, Anderson (Watson 58), Hoskins, Adams, Williams (Smith 58), Oliver.
Subs not used: Arnold, Martin, Harriman, McWilliams
Referee: Neil Hair
Cobblers fans: 247