Marc Richards’ second-half penalty fired the Cobblers eight points clear at the top of Sky Bet League Two as they took another giant stride towards promotion with a tense but deserved 1-0 win over Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium on Tuesday evening.
It was a evenly-matched encounter throughout and both sides had their chances but Richards’ emphatically taken spot-kick was enough to earn Northampton an eighth straight league win and also complete the double over the U’s.
Oxford had shaded a cagey and intriguing first half that was short of goalmouth action, although Northampton grew into the game and came closest to scoring when Marc Richards’ looping header had to be tipped over by Benji Buchel.
The Cobblers continued their improvement into the second half and after striking the woodwork, they made the crucial breakthrough through Richards, who powered his penalty down the middle on the hour-mark.
Oxford rallied and created a couple of decent chances to equalise but Adam Smith barely had a save to make as the Cobblers held on to maintain their extraordinary run of form which will surely in culminate promotion to League Two.
The three points means Town lie eight clear of Plymouth, 12 clear of Oxford and a mammoth 18 ahead of fourth place.
Prior to the game, Oxford’s top scorer Kemar Roofe was passed fit for the home side but Joel Byrom missed out for Northampton after failing to recover from a neck injury.
That meant Danny Rose started against his former club in a team that contained just one change from Saturday’s 4-0 win at Leyton Orient as Lawson D’Ath came in for Lee Martin.
Both sides signalled their intent early in a lively start to the game with Oxford testing Adam Smith inside the first minute when the visiting keeper gathered Danny Hylton’s header before a a spell of Northampton possession almost saw D’Ath get on the end of a teasing cross.
After an intriguing opening 20 minutes short of major incident, Oxford carved out the game’s first clear-cut chance when, on 19 minutes, Roofe got in behind down the right hand side and squared for Jordan Bowery, who somehow scooped over the crossbar from yards outs.
James Collins led the response for Northampton, collecting D’Ath’s flick and shooting too close to U’s goalkeeper Buchel, as the game began to open up.
Oxford looked the more threatening side and on a couple of occasions the Cobblers had to resort to some frantic last-ditch defending with David Buchanan getting his body in the way of a Hylton shot.
But Northampton were far from being outplayed and posed a danger themselves, D’Ath’s pull-back cleared before Collins lifted the subsequent corner over the crossbar in Town’s best chance of the opening half-hour.
The pendulum then swung back Oxford’s way in what was a to-and-fro half and only a scrambled clearance from Buchanan prevented Bowery from latching onto Roofe’s cross-shot.
Back came Northampton, though, and the visitors strung together some neat passages of play in a strong end to the first half and they almost found the opener when Buchel had to be at full stretch to tip over Richards’ looping header.
But there was to be no breakthrough before half-time, instead tempers boiled over on the stroke of the interval when Rose’s strong challenge on Liam Sercombe sparked handbags which saw John-Joe O’Toole, Johnny Mullins and Rose all yellow carded.
After Oxford had began the first half well, this time it was Northampton who made a lightening start and they twice came close to making the breakthrough within four minutes of the restart.
Buchel first parried away Rose’s header from Buchanan’s cross before from the resultant corner, O’Toole crashed an effort back off the crossbar.
The game then seemed to have settled back down but it quickly burst back into life on 58 minutes when Northampton won a penalty after Mullins needlessly handled in the area.
Richards stepped up and made no mistake, hammering into the roof of the net to earn Town a vital lead.
Instead of sitting back, the Cobblers remained in the ascendency and Holmes threatened a second but his volley was blocked behind for a corner.
Oxford had struggled to find their groove since half-time but they were inches away from levelling midway through the second half when Chris Maguire’s curling effort struck the outside of the post.
That led to the home side applying a period of pressure on Northampton’s goal and they were again so close to getting back on level terms but after being teed up by Hylton inside the penalty area, Sercombe’s weak shot rolled a whisker wide.
As time ticked away, the tension built and Oxford ramped up the pressure with Rod McDonald positioned in the right place at the right time to scramble clear Sercombe’s dangerous low cross before the subsequent corner was cleared after momentarily causing panic in the visiting penalty area.
Northampton were living dangerously but they carried a threat on the break and almost bagged the killer goal five minutes from time when an exquisite flick from O’Toole found Brendan Moloney who in turn fed substitute Sam Hoskins but the striker’s shot hit the side-netting.
The five minutes of stoppage time must have felt an eternity to the noisy travelling fans but Northampton clung on to record yet another victory.
Oxford: Büchel, Kenny, Mullins, Wright (Dunkley 75), Skarz, Roofe, Lundstram, Sercombe, Maguire (Ismail 85), Hylton (O’Dowda 73), Bowery
Subs not used: Slocombe, MacDonald, Ruffels, Long
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Diamond, McDonald, Buchanan, Holmes (Hoskins 75), O’Toole, Rose, D’Ath, Collins (Taylor 90), Richards (c) (Martin 66)
Subs not used: Clarke, Cresswell, Prosser, Adams
Referee: Keith Hill
Cobblers fans: 1,943