Walking away from a Northampton game tinged with disappointment is something of a rarity this season but the fact that was the case following Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Cambridge is an indication of the unprecedented expectation levels which this team have set for themselves.
Even in a season that has confounded us all, there have been moments of frustration and James Spencer’s last-gasp strike ensured this would be one of those rueful afternoons for those of a Cobblers persuasion.
But whilst ultimately disappointing, there were many elements of this 1-1 draw against Cambridge that reflect why Northampton find themselves in such a commanding position at the top of League Two.
Not necessarily for the result, nor the performance which would have been viewed as satisfactory in any other season aside from this one, but for the fact they faced a side whose sole intention was to defend, frustrate and somehow get away from Sixfields with a point.
Shaun Derry and his players achieved that, too, but quite how they escaped with a draw is a mystery given how this game unfolded.
While the Cobblers were well short of their fluent best in the attacking third, they still managed to hold total control over their mid-table counterparts as they retained possession with patience, precision and purpose without ever really threatening to carve open a well-drilled Cambridge back line.
The final statistics suggest the home side had 58% possession but at times it felt more like 80% as Cambridge spent much of their time at Sixfields camped inside their own half.
You can’t blame Derry’s men for their antics, even if they did push the boundaries, but the fact that United even had to resort to such drastic tactics is a reflection of Northampton’s status as League Two’s most formidable team.
And then to walk away from this game frustrated despite having actually gone further clear at the top and despite having dominated yet another game is an indication of how high the bar has been set.
If you want to pick holes, you could argue that one win in four games represents somewhat of a ‘slump’ for a division-leading team chasing promotion but the manner of those performance and results hardly give cause for concern, and rivals’ inability to pounce on any stumbles turns those three draws into three points gained rather than six points dropped.
As for Saturday’s contest, describing what opportunities there were as half chances does an injustice to just how little either team threatened in the first 45 minutes.
It wasn’t for the want of trying, particularly from Northampton, but speculative pot shots from distance provided the most likely source of a goal as John-Joe O’Toole twice and James Collins and Lee Martin tried their luck, while Ryan Ledson and Zeli Ismail did likewise for the visitors.
The second half was more one-way traffic and at times resembled an attack versus defence training game as Northampton increasingly penned their visitors back.
The words ‘bus’ and ‘parked’ sprung to mind when watching Cambridge gradually retreat deeper and deeper in the face of Northampton’s growing pressure.
Though clear-cut chances remained at a premium, the sheer weight of pressure eventually became too much for United to handle as John Marquis forced home Joel Byrom’s corner with 18 minutes remaining.
That might have been that but such is the bewildering mental aspect of sport that instead of trying to consolidate their position and continue doing what had worked so well up until the goal, Northampton dropped off and gave Cambridge the encouragement they needed.
However, even when Cambridge suddenly switched a defensive mindset into an attacking one and launched some frantic last-ditch attacks that had more than a hint of desperation to them, they rarely caused much concern for a Cobblers defence who have become so adept at seeing games out this season.
As it happened, Northampton were architects of their own downfall.
First Lawson D’Ath spurned a glorious opportunity to put the game beyond United’s reach when shooting wide on the counter-attack before a dramatic finale ensued.
A hopeful ball over the top, a misjudged Zander Diamond header and a precise Spencer finish meant Cambridge left Sixfields with what they had come for – a point.
Even so, there was still time left for the Cobblers to launch one last desperate assault on United’s goal when O’Toole hit the post and Diamond had a shot cleared off the line, but it wasn’t to be.
With the way they are currently playing, this result temporarily felt like a missed opportunity but when attention turned to results elsewhere, any disappointment was quickly replaced by the realisation that the Cobblers have taken another step towards a fitting finale to end a glorious season.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Barely troubled for 89 minutes but was helpless to prevent Spencer’s fine finish... 7
Brendan Moloney - Unusually sloppy, particularly first half when he gifted possession away too often... 6
Zander Diamond - Was virtually error-free for 89 minutes but his poorly-judged header resulted in Spencer’s equaliser... 6
Luke Prosser - Largely quiet afternoon as Cambridge offered so little going forward but carried out what work he did have in assured fashion... 7
David Buchanan - One of his finest displays in a stellar debut season at the club. Barely put a foot wrong and deserved to keep a clean sheet... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Ricky Holmes - Never stopped trying to get on the ball and make things happen but this was one of those frustration afternoons where nothing came off for him... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Came as close to scoring as anyone with a couple of half chances, including hitting the post in the dying seconds, but strangely erratic with his passing... 7
Joel Byrom - Often played second fiddle to O’Toole but took centre stage against Cambridge with an excellent midfield performance during which he won crucial tackles, used the ball intelligently and set up Town’s goal with one of his many dangerous set-pieces... 8
Lee Martin - Stung the palms of Norris with a decent effort and produced a couple of teasing crosses that deserved better but in the main he was well marshalled by Cambridge... 6
John Marquis - Held the ball up exceptionally well and met Byrom’s corner perfectly, even if the finish was slightly fortunate... 8
James Collins - Had no more than half chances on a frustrating day but that didn’t stop him from putting in another terrific shift... 7
Lawson D’Ath - Should have put the game to bed with a golden chance on the counter-attack... 6
Danny Rose - 6