They say lightning never strikes twice but there was a strong sense of déjà vu for much of this entertaining, keenly-fought contest at Field Mill on Easter Monday, all it missed was a dose of late, Ricky Holmes inspired drama.
Just like nine days ago at Stevenage, Northampton encountered a team who went for the belligerent approach as League Two’s top team found themselves 2-0 down inside half an hour to two headers from two poorly-defended set-pieces.
Mansfield had followed Stevenage’s lead to great effect and their tenacious, physical, in-your-face style stifled the Cobblers whose usual swagger once again deserted them for the opening 45 minutes.
But on both occasions, the home side’s fast start was tempered somewhat by a key moment on the stroke of half-time.
On Monday, it was the decision to dismiss Mansfield’s Jamie McGuire for a second bookable offence, and that gave Northampton all the encouragement they needed to mount a second-half recovery, pegging Mansfield back to two apiece.
Ricky Holmes – who else – inspired the Cobblers fightback, only this time there was to be no late winner as the Stags managed to hold on and thwart the league leaders.
Drama and entertainment have become prerequisites for any game involving Northampton this season and neither were in short supply at Field Mill, even if the quality was lacking at times.
It was the third consecutive laboured, lethargic performance from the table-toppers who were fortunate not to be more than two behind at half-time.
The wind-swept conditions were hardly conducive to entertaining, free-flowing football but there was another mitigating factor at play which partly explained why Town were so off the pace in the opening 45 minutes.
Chris Wilder has worked wonders this season that any ill-judged decision can be quickly forgiven, but Monday was one of those rare occasions where he got it wrong.
Back in January, Wilder raised a few eyebrows when moving away from a fluent 4-2-3-1 system to a more direct 4-4-2 – and some still remain unconvinced – but you cannot argue with the results since.
On Monday, though, with the wretched conditions and poor playing surface in mind, he took it a step further and opted for an even more direct 4-3-3, with John Marquis, James Collins and Marc Richards all starting up front.
It was a decision which backfired and only played into the hands of Mansfield who easily coped with anything Northampton had to offer.
While the thinking made sense, the execution was lacking and instead it only served to rob Town of three qualities which have made them so successful this season: pace, width and cohesion in the final third.
That said, the system can’t excuse the lackadaisical defending which gifted Mansfield a 2-0 lead, although perhaps the free-kicks which led to both goals may have been avoided had they not been so hopelessly exposed in the wide areas.
Free-kicks and set-pieces have become something of an Achilles heel in recent weeks and the Stags – and Matt Green in particular – took maximum advantage.
Northampton’s timid response to falling two behind didn’t give much hope of a comeback, that was until McGuire saw red for an ill-advised lunge on Marquis having already been booked.
That visibly lifted the visitors and Wilder, to his credit, spotted and rectified the problem at half-time with a switch to 4-4-2 and the introduction of Holmes, and that paved the way for a very different second-half.
Holmes, unsurprisingly, spearheaded Cobblers’ fightback and should have pulled a goal back with another one of his trademark wonder goals when his left-footed 30-yard thunderbolt hit the underside of the crossbar, bounced down over the line and then away from danger.
No goal was awarded but that didn’t deter Holmes who got his goal when sending Scott Shearer the wrong way from 12 yards after James Collins had won a suspiciously soft penalty.
Tails now up and momentum firmly on side, Town were on the comeback trail once again and only five more minutes were needed to pull level when Marquis capitalised on Shearer’s failure to deal with a corner.
And it seemed there would only be one winner from that point on.
Town should have won it, too, only for substitute Sam Hoskins to spurn a glorious chance with his first touch following a wonderful interchange between Holmes and Collins.
As it happened, that proved to be the game’s final clear-cut chance for either side as the two had to be content with a point, which left both teams equally disappointed, but for Northampton, it’s a point which takes them another step closer.
The draw, coupled with results elsewhere, means promotion is mathematically possible with victory over Notts County this weekend when the new East Stand seats are used for the first time.
Football rarely does fairytale endings but this has been no normal season.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Not his finest day. Failed to claim the first free-kick and had a slice of luck when dropping another cross as Cobblers managed to smother clear... 5
Brendan Moloney - Another to endure a torrid afternoon. Passing and crossing was all over the place... 5
Zander Diamond - Will be disappointed with the manner of Mansfield’s goals, especially as he appeared at relative ease from open play... 6
Rod McDonald - Back in the team and produced another classy, assured performance despite a shaky start. Looked calm and composed as he always does... 7
David Buchanan - Fortunate to get away with one poor pass when Clements fired over in a sub-par display... 6
Jason Taylor - Raised an eyebrow when his name appeared on the team sheet but didn’t last long, hooked at half-time after an ineffective first-half... 6
Danny Rose - Surprise inclusion but repaid the manager’s faith with a fine performance, the only player to shine for the full 90. Broke up play superbly and retained possession simply but effectively... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
John-Joe O’Toole - Saw little of the ball in a laboured first-half but came into his own after half-time when, aided by having the extra man, he was able to get on the ball more and pull the strings... 7
Marc Richards - Had a header tipped over late in the first-half but his return from injury was cut short when replaced at half-time... 6
James Collins - Spent most of the first half chasing lost causes but continued to plug away and won the crucial penalty which got his side back into the game... 6
John Marquis - Typical predator’s goal for the equaliser and was the most effective of the front three who started... 7
Ricky Holmes - Different game once he was introduced. Scored one and should have had another when his thunderbolt crossed the line but went unnoticed. Also teed up Hoskins for what should have been the winner... 8
Lawson D’Ath - Lost possession too cheaply and too frequently having been brought on at half-time... 5
Sam Hoskins - Missed a sitter with his first touch... 5