Three goals in four extraordinary second half minutes saw Northampton Town keep their FA Cup dream alive as they survived a huge scare when coming from 2-0 down to beat Northwich Victoria 3-2 in a thrilling second round tie at Sixfields.
With eight minutes remaining, the Evo-Stik League Division One North side looked on course for a memorable giant-killing as goals from Jimmy Ball and Richard Bennett saw them deservedly lead 2-0 after an excellent display against an out-of-sorts Cobblers side.
Northampton looked down and out but they pulled off a stunning fightback, started by Sam Hoskins who scrambled home a shot with just under eight minutes to go.
That sparked renewed hope around Sixfields and just 60 seconds later Jason Taylor flicked in Nicky Adams’ free-kick to pull level against all the odds and put the tie on course for a replay.
But the momentum was now all with the Cobblers, who then clinched the most dramatic of victories when Dominic Calvert-Lewin nodded home Ricky Holmes’ pinpoint cross three minutes from time.
It capped off a quite extraordinary game that ultimately saw Northampton reach the third round for the first time since 2006.
The final score was harsh on Northwich who, despite lying four leagues and 91 places below Northampton, equipped themselves well in the blustery conditions as they outplayed their hosts for large spells and deserved at least a replay.
But Northampton displayed the same spirit and resolve that’s been on show so often this season and just when all hope looked lost, they somehow conjured up a sensational fightback to book their place in Monday’s third round draw.
As expected, Chris Wilder kept to his word and played close to a full-strength team as he made three changes to the side that beat Yeovil last weekend with Brendan Moloney, Jason Taylor and Dominic Calvert-Lewin replacing Josh Lelan, the suspended John-Joe O’Toole and Marc Richards.
Northampton kicked with the wind in the first half and the blustery conditions made for a sloppy start as the home side gave away three cheap free-kicks in the opening moments.
But Town did create the first clear-cut chance of the game when, on eight minutes, neat build-up play involving Nicky Adams and Joel Byrom set Calvert-Lewin through on goal but visiting keeper Mason Springthorpe palmed away the young striker’s tame effort.
Northwich certainly weren’t lacking in confidence as some well-worked moves had the Town defence back-peddling on more than one occasion, and Ryan Cresswell was somewhat fortunate to escape a straight red card when he handled the ball as the last defender.
Jordan Williams flicked an attempt not far wide from the subsequent free-kick before Joel Byrom’s long-range effort was comfortably held by Springthorpe.
The opening quarter gave little indication of the 91 places which separate these two sides in the football league ladder as Northampton struggled to retain possession while Northwich’s lively forward Richard Bennett was proving a handful for the home defence.
And the visitors should have been ahead on 28 minutes when they won a free-kick in a dangerous position on the right and Brian Summerskill whipped in an inviting cross but Iain Howard put his free header from five out over the crossbar.
Attacks at the other end were sporadic as Lawson D’Ath’s looping header comfortably cleared the crossbar but if anything it was Northwich who looked the League Two side.
Bennett’s pace was causing all sorts of problems and his scything run right through the middle of the pitch was brought to an illegal end by a strong challenge from Cresswell, who somehow avoided a second yellow card.
Summerskill curled the resulting free-kick just over in another warning of Northwich’s attacking threat.
As the first half came towards an end, Northampton finally built up a head of steam and only a magnificent save from Springthorpe kept the game level at the break as he reacted brilliantly to keep out Cresswell’s close-range header.
But that spell of Town pressure was only a brief one as Northwich continued to pose the greater threat, and they got their reward on the stroke of half-time.
Adam Smith tipped over Alex Byrne’s cross-shot for a corner, from which Zander Diamond pulled off a superb block but the ball rebounded out to the edge of the penalty area where Ball fired in a low effort that found the bottom corner of Smith’s net to give the visitors a shock lead and leave Sixfields stunned at half-time.
It was no more than the visitors had deserved and in response, Wilder brought Marc Richards on for the second half in place of Alfie Potter.
But that failed to have the desired effect and it was more of the same right after half-time as another wicked delivery from the impressive Summerskill was almost turned in by Bennett.
With Northampton unable to build any momentum, the visitors remained firmly in the ascendency as Ball ballooned a wild effort well over before Diamond blocked well following a weak header from Cresswell.
The introduction of Ricky Holmes on the hour-mark gave Northampton some much-needed impetus and immediately he had an impact; his driving run bringing a corner from which Richards had a header cleared off the line.
However, much like in the first half, just as Northampton appeared to be getting on top, they were hit by the sucker punch at the other end as Northwich took a sensational two-goal lead.
It all stemmed from a mistake by David Buchanan, who dilly-dallied on the ball and Summerskill nipped in to find himself one-on-one with Smith and though his chipped effort hit the crossbar, Bennet was on hand to coolly head home the rebound.
It left Sixfields silenced and Town were starring down the barrel of an almighty upset with Wilder then bringing on Sam Hoskins for Cresswell in a desperate last roll of the dice.
It did result in a better spell for the home side, who were agonisingly close to pulling a goal back but Springthorpe got down brilliantly to tip away Richards’ effort.
Up to this point, it had been a Cobblers performance that was very much out of character with their season as they looked certain to blow a golden opportunity to reach the third round of the FA Cup for the first time in nine years.
But then came the dramatic fightback as Hoskins scrambled home Adams’ shot to resurrect hope, and that hope was seized upon immediately by the Cobblers, who were level within 60 seconds as Taylor’s header looped over Springthorpe and into the bottom corner.
It was an amazing couple of minutes and a replay now looked certain but Northampton weren’t done there as they capped off a thrilling comeback with the winning goal three minutes from time.
Holmes had been excellent since his introduction and it was his good work which created the goal. Having worked his way into a crossing position, the winger curled in a pinpoint delivery and Calvert-Lewin was perfectly-placed to guide a header into the bottom corner, sparking wild scenes of jubilation around Sixfields, a sharp contrast to the mood just moments earlier.
There was still time left for Northwich to have one great chance to force a replay but Smith pulled off a fabulous save from point-blank range to deny Byrne, and then, with seconds remaining, Calvert-Lewin found himself through one-on-one but he spooned his effort well over, though it mattered not as Northampton held on to seal their spot in round three.
Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Cresswell (Hoskins 68), Diamond, Buchanan (c), Potter (Richards 45), Taylor, Byrom, D’Ath (Holmes 59), Adams, Calvert-Lewin
Subs not used: Clarke, McDonald, Lelan, Watson
Northwich: Springthorpe, Byrne, Astles, Clarke (c), Duxbury, Krou, Summerskill, Ball (Ali 82), Bennett (Amis 75), Howard, Williams (Sanogo 75)
Subs not used: Smith, Roddy, Cook, Burnett
Referee: Paul Tierney
Northwich fans: 359