Gary Johnson’s return to Sixfields proved to be a miserable one as his relegation-haunted Cheltenham Town team were swept aside by a dominant Cobblers.
Second-half goals from Ivan Toney and Marc Richards, on his 100th appearance for the club, sealed a comfortable 2-0 win that leaves former Cobblers boss Johnson’s Robins in serious trouble at the foot of Sky Bet League Two.
The win also keeps the Cobblers’ very unlikely, but still mathematical chance of reaching the promotion play-offs alive, as they are now 10th and four points adrift of the top seven with two matches to play.
The Cobblers named an unchanged team from the one that started Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw at Oxford United, with leading scorer Richards again named on the substitute’s bench.
Cheltenham included two former Cobblers players in their team, with Shaun Harrad leading the line and Kane Ferdinand lining up on the right of midfield.
It was a very slow start to the game, with both sides struggling to settle, and the only thing grabbing the attention of the home fans was the chance to boo former boss Johnson whenever the ball went near him in the technical area.
The first chance of note didn’t arrive until the 19th minute, with Evan Horwood clipping a free-kick from just outside the penalty area over the bar.
The free-kick had been awarded for a foul by Durrell Berry on Toney, who was receiving some harsh treatment from the Robins defenders.
Three minutes later Diego De Girolamo turned smartly in the area and fired off a snapshot from 15 yards, but it was straight at Cheltenham goalkeeper Trevor Carson.
Cheltenham began to get into the game as an attacking force, with forward Mathieu Manset proving a handful, although he didn’t endear himself to the home fans with some theatrical histrionics - one display of which earned Joel Byrom a booking he didn’t deserve.
Shwan Jalal, making his home debut in the Cobblers goal, did well to gather a Zachary Kotwica free-kick from 25 yards, keeping his eye on the ball as it flew through a crowd of players.
The half ended 0-0, with neither side doing enough to deserve a lead.
The Cobblers started the second half sharply and on 49 minutes Ricky Holmes did brilliantly down the left to work his way to the dead ball line.
He drilled a low cross into the path of De Girolamo, but there was a little too much pace on it and the Sheffield United man failed to get a proper connection on the ball and the chance was wasted.
On 53 minutes Cheltenham almost broke the deadlock against the run of play, but Joe Hanks’ thumping shot from 20 yards smashed against the bar, the Robins man picking up the ball after John-Joe O’Toole lost possession on the edge of his own area.
A few minutes later Cheltenham were to rue their misfortune as the Cobblers took the lead with a lovely goal.
Holmes showed neat footwork and good awareness to send D’Ath scampering down the left wing, and the youngster took his time before picking out the run of Toney in the penalty area and the striker prodded home from eight yards.
The Cobblers were in the ascendancy now, and D’Ath went close to doubling the lead after being sent clear in the box by a lovely touch from Toney, but his curling effort drifted wide.
With 20 minutes left, Town did double their lead, with substitute Richards, who had only been on the field for four minutes, hammering home a right-foot shot from the right side of the penalty area after being teed up by D’Ath, who had broke from his own half.
It was the kind of emphatic finish we have come to expect from Richards, and was his 18th goal of a productive season.
The Cobblers were comfortable now, but on 88 minutes Cheltenham had the chance of a lifeline through Menset, but he volleyed his close-range shot straight at Jalal, who held on to the ball.
Cobblers: Jalal, Moloney, Diamond, Collins, Horwood (86 mins, Carter), D’Ath, Byrom, O’Toole, Holmes, De Girolamo (66 mins, Richards), Toney (75 mins, Gray). Subs not used: Duke, Hackett, Tozer, Perry
Cheltenham: Carson, Braham-Barrett, Taylor (44mins Deaman), Brown, Ferdinand (29 mins Hanks), Richards, Kotwica (85 mins, Williams), Sparrow, Berry, Harrad, Manset. Subs not used: Mills, Gould, Sterling-James, McDonald
Referee: Darren Sheldrake
Goals: 57 mins: Toney 1-0; 70 mins: Richards 2-0
Cheltenham fans: 459