Roy O’Donovan’s volley ensured the Cobblers drew first blood in their play-off semi-final against Cheltenham.
The Irishman produced a superb finish for the only goal of a tense 1-0 victory at Sixfields to give Town an advantage to take into Sunday’s second leg at Whaddon Road.
Although it is a positive position to be in, Northampton will believe they should have had a larger one, with Adebayo Akinfenwa spurning two very good goalscoring chances from headers.
Both managers deviated from their recent tactics, with the 4-5-1 systems being abandoned in favour of 4-4-2.
For the Cobblers, that meant a return to the starting line-up for Ishmel Demontagnac on the left, with O’Donovan partnering Adebayo Akinfenwa up front.
It was Akinfenwa who provided the game’s first excitement, causing Michael Hector some trouble and getting a shot away that was deflected wide for a corner.
The big man found space from Chris Hackett’s ball in, but could only head over the bar.
In fact, most of the early exchanges involved Akinfenwa, who seemed to strike fear into the heart of the home defence whenever the ball was anywhere in his vicinity.
On 15 minutes he controlled a ball in from Roy O’Donovan and his shot was deflected wide for a corner that he headed goalwards only for a defender to block at close range.
He started the move that led to the first goal, spinning a pass out wide to Hackett, whose cross was straight onto O’Donovan’s toe.
Still, the Irishman needed to produce an exquisite piece of technique to volley it past Scott Brown, who got a touch but could not keep it out.
Cheltenham should have scored immediately afterwards, with Paul Benson driving wide from no more than 15 yards out.
Ishmel Demontagnac then saw a tame free-kick saved and a shot blocked from O’Donovan’s cross as Town really turned the screw.
They failed to capitalise in the form of goals, though. Demontagnac perhaps should have gone to ground under contact early in the second half moments before Cheltenham went close when Benson narrowly failed to connect with a back-post header.
Akinfenwa was central throughout. His header from another excellent Hackett cross on 67 minutes required a superb, low, one-handed save from Brown to keep out.
Jermaine McGlashan then took a tumble in the box under pressure from Luke Guttridge as Cheltenham looked to find a way back into the game.
It was around that point that both teams made substitutions that changed their systems to 4-5-1 in what seemed a tacit acceptance of the scoreline at that point.
For most of the night, the best attacking play the home side could muster came through Hackett and it continued in that way right up until the final minutes.
The winger, rightly the sponsors’ man of the match, found space again down the right to spear in a cross the looked bound for Akinfenwa once more.
Instead, Guttridge met it, but while off balance and it drifted harmlessly over the bar.
And so while the Cobblers head to Whaddon Road with an advantage, it is only a slender lead when perhaps it should be more.
Cobblers: Nicholls, Tozer, Carlisle, Cameron, Collins, Hackett, Guttridge, Harding, Demontagnac, O’Donovan, Akinfenwa
Subs: Johnson (for Demontagnac 76)
Not used: Langmead, Platt, Snedker, Robinson, Moult, Hornby.
Cheltenham: Brown; Lowe, Hector, Elliott, Jombati, McGlashan, Pack, Penn, Mohamed, Benson, Harrison
Subs: Jones (for Hector 53), Taylor (for Harrison 71), Deering (for McGlashan 90)
Not used: Carter, Duffy, Roberts, Harrad
Away fans: 653