Whilst a defeat to a side from two tiers higher is hardly a disgrace, it’s the manner in which this one was suffered that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for Northampton fans.
For the most part, this was an evenly-contested, intriguingly-balanced FA Cup clash between two fairly well-matched sides, but the tie turned on two key refereeing decisions in the space of 90 seconds
First, with 50 minutes played and with Northampton in ascendency, the visitors seemed to have taken the lead when David Martin carried the ball into his own net and the linesman flagged furiously to signal a goal.
The referee thought otherwise, however, and instead opted to award a free-kick to the home side for an apparent foul on Martin despite minimal contact between him and Sam Hoskins.
Then, with the Cobblers still smarting from the injustice of that decision, their frustration was compounded when Dons broke up the other end and won themselves a hotly-disputed penalty despite Zander Diamond clearly tripping Dean Bowditch outside the box, with Ben Reeves duly slotting home the subsequent spot-kick.
It was the 90 seconds which altered the entire complexion of the game.
Prior to that, for all Dons’ possession and patient build-up play, they had struggled to overly trouble Adam Smith in the away goal, and if anything, it was Northampton who were the superior team when the controversy arose.
On top of that, the Cobblers have repeatedly proven themselves to be a devastating team when playing on the counter-attack this season and had they gone in front at stadiummk, Dons would have been forced to push more men forward, resulting in more gaps for Northampton to exploit and perhaps a very different outcome.
But it wasn’t to be and with their tails up following Reeves’ spot-kick, Dons enjoyed a rampant 10-minute spell in which they could have scored three or four times before the excellent Josh Murphy latched onto a through ball, outpaced the visiting defence and bided his time before coolly slotting past Smith.
It was the moment which effectively sealed Dons’ place in round four but, to their credit, Northampton responded well to going two behind and they were unfortunate not to pull at least one goal back during a dominant spell which yielded several half chances but no clear sight of Martin’s goal.
And then, just to rub salt into the wounds, referee Harrington popped up again with perhaps his worst decision of the night, awarding Dons a second spot-kick after Smith had clearly won the ball from the feet of Rob Hall.
This time Simon Church stepped up and rolled home to complete a scoreline which flattered the Championship side.
It has to be said, though, that for all the talk of refereeing decisions, Dons were worthy winners on the night.
Karl Robinson’s side were an altogether different proposition from the team which was fortunate to escape Sixfields with a draw 10 days earlier.
Their passing was crisper and sharper and at times had Town chasing shadows as the visitors were ran ragged, particularly during a 10-minute spell in the second half during which Murphy could have had a hat-trick.
Northampton did have their moments, Sam Hoskins and Ricky Holmes both lively, while there was that ‘goal’ that wasn’t, but in the end, it was a great shame that the players couldn’t give their magnificent fans something to shout about after over 7,000 Cobblers supporters – more than the current capacity at Sixfields – had descended on Milton Keynes.
Despite all the ups and downs this season, the fans have been there every step of the way and that was only emphasised on Tuesday by the immense army of travelling fans who out-sung and almost outnumbered the home contingent.
Their disappointment at full-time was understandable but – and it may not feel like it right now – the defeat could, in some ways, be a blessing in disguise.
Missing the chance to get one over a rival will always hurt, of course, as will the squandered opportunity of facing the Premier League champions, but going out of the competition does at least give Northampton a free weekend as the focus switches back to the league.
While others, such as rivals Oxford and Portsmouth, will be expending both energy and effort on the FA Cup, the Cobblers can regroup, recharge the batteries and look to go again as they continue in their quest for what is and always has been the ultimate goal this season: promotion.
It comes at a good time, too. Having just played four games in 10 days with another one to come this weekend, and with a packed February forthcoming – six games in 19 days – a chance to recoup and refocus can be no bad thing.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Not called into action a great deal aside from the goals, all of which he could have done little about. Terrible decision to award a penalty against him for the third... 7
Brendan Moloney - Brilliant block denied Bowditch a certain goal early on and got forward well but struggled against the dangerous Murphy who turned the game with a 10-minute blitz having been introduced shortly after half-time...7
Zander Diamond - Harsh to have a penalty given against him but nevertheless it was a needless, clumsy challenge... 6
Rod McDonald - Again didn’t look out of place against quality opposition as he coped well with most of what Dons could chuck at him... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
David Buchanan - Had Hall in his pocket after the winger started brightly. Also offered an attacking threat when the visitors were pushing forward in the closing stages... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Can never be accused of hiding, at least this season. Got about the pitch and threw himself into challenges but quality was lacking a touch. Bit wasteful in possession... 6
Joel Byrom - Spent most of the first half chasing shadows but came more into the game in the second when he was able to get on the ball more... 6
Sam Hoskins - Bright first half with a couple of long-range attempts but tailed off... 7
Ricky Holmes - Northampton’s most likely source of a goal came from one of his bursts in the first half but was another who seemed to tire... 7
Nicky Adams - Apart from the corner which should have brought a goal, his delivery from set-pieces was disappointing... 6
Marc Richards - Barely had a sniff on a very quiet night for the skipper. Looked shattered towards the end... 6
Ryan Cresswell - 6