THE Gulls were left shattered by a last-minute equaliser from Northampton after a pulsating game of winter football at Plainmoor.
Rain had drenched the South-West and it made for saturated playing conditions, but the football remained a compelling battle between United’s passing game and the physical bombardment adopted by the Cobblers.
An intriguing tussled remained even until just after the hour, when Ryan Jarvis struck for the Yellows but the points were shared as Northampton skipper Kelvin Langmead forced home a dramatic leveller in injury time.
United manager Martin Ling made three changes from the side beaten by a late goal at Bradford last weekend, all of which were enforced. The red card received by Brian Saah at Valley Parade led to a start in central defence for young Angus MacDonald, on loan from Reading.
Captain Lee Mansell returned from his three-match ban to assume a place in midfield, bumping Nathan Craig forward to fill the slot vacated by Billy Bodin, who failed to recover from a whack on the ankle last weekend.
Also back from suspension, Joe Oastler was preferred to Daniel Leadbitter at right-back. On the bench, Saul Halpin made way for Kirtys MacKenzie to come in as extra defensive cover.
Northampton boss Aidy Boothroyd made two changes after the 3-2 home loss to Cheltenham last weekend. Joe Widdowson was replaced by Anthony Charles in defence and big forward Clive Platt came in for the suspended Ishmel Demontagnac.
The former Gulls sporting the Clobbler Claret included cult hero Adebayo Akinfenwa, who started up front, and Jake Robinson was the familiar face on the bench after his loan spell at Plainmoor two seasons ago.
The expected aerial onslaught from Northampton started in the first minute as two incredible long throws from Ben Tozer tested the new-look United defence, and the second launched monster was glanced on to the roof of Michael Poke’s net by the head of Akinfenwa.
After that initial excitement, the swirling wind took control of setting the game’s pattern, as United failed to find any rhythm in their passing, while the mountainous strike-duo of Platt and Akinfenwa looked ominous.
Gradually, the Gulls started to find their range, with Jarvis spreading the ball nicely from his position in the hole behind main forward Rene Howe. One such pass allowed Oastler to embark on a barnstorming 40-yard run that ended with a poked shot into Lee Nicholls’ side-netting.
United’s attempt to keep the ball on the deck was all the more admirable on a surface churning up with every stud in the mud, as another sweeping move defied the conditions for Kevin Nicholson to unleash a trademark rocket that was well held by Nicholls.
The Cobblers persisted with their agricultural approach at the other end and one surge down the right from Chris Hackett ended with a superb clearance from under his own bar by the head of Craig Easton.
United then showed their prowess from a set-piece, as Nicholson’s perfectly-flighted corner was met by Jarvis, who was denied the opening goal when his powerful downward header was hacked off the line by Langmead. The excellent Jarvis next attempted a long-range skidder with his left peg that was comfortable for Nicholls.
The Gulls piled forward again on 40 minutes, with Mansell breaking through the middle to feed Danny Stevens on the left, who immediately returned the pass for his captain, but Clarke Carlisle produced a fine block-tackle to prevent the final shot threatening Nicholls’ goal.
Ben Harding then showed a marvellous deft touch with an attempted chip to force Poke into his first meaningful save of the afternoon and the subsequent corner was shepherded to safety by United’s well-marshalled backline.
The first period ended with the scores blank and huge Yellow credit went to Downes and MacDonald for matching the physicality of the Northampton forwards, although Poke was the final hero of the half, as he fisted away a drive from Hackett.
The half-time surprise was a change of strip for the Gulls to their away navy, as referee Chris Sarginson deemed the clash between bright Yellow and Northampton’s even brighter fluorescent green was just too shocking for the senses.
United soon forgot about fashion, however, as the twin towers of Platt and Akinfenwa threatened to bundle the ball home until the brave intervention of Poke and Mansell. Stevens then broke down the right but his fizzing low cross just missed the onrushing forwards. Straight up the other end, and a brilliant last-ditch tackle from Easton stopped a clear shot on goal.
Every Yellow (navy) back was against the wall and pinned on 56 minutes, as another bomb from Tozer was scrambled to Akinfenwa, who scooped the loose ball mercifully over from six yards. It was turning into a cracking encounter, as a fierce low shot from Craig had Nicholls staring in hope while the ball arrowed inches past his far corner.
A super match got the goal it deserved on the hour and it came from two fine passes across the greasy surface. The first came from Craig, spreading the ball to Stevens on the left, after the Welshman had wrestled for space in midfield.
United’s impish winger took one touch before delivering an equally incisive pass for the determined run of Jarvis, who finished in terrific style with an assured first-time shot.
The former Norwich forward almost had his second four minutes later, racing into the middle to reach the square-ball from the hardworking Howe, but the final shot was deflected off the outstretched leg of Langmead and into Nicholls’ grateful arms.
Plainmoor was jumping and everything was falling to Jarvis. This time, a Stevens pass intended for Howe found the main man, who forced yet another save from Nicholls with his instant left-foot shot from a difficult angle.
Northampton were struggling and Boothroyd understandably turned to the pace and skill of Robinson for the final push, sacrificing midfielder Lewis Hornby in a move that showed clear attacking intent.
The Cobblers were slowly applying more pressure and the last 10 minutes would be a huge test for MacDonald and Downes, both of whom had been imperious in the first 80, ably assisted by the selfless industry of Easton and Mansell as their midfield protectors.
There was no secret to Northampton’s strategy and yet another long throw landed at the feet of Langmead, who swivelled neatly enough but the shot was skewed way wide of the far post.
Ling decided the time had arrived to keep the visitors under pressure at the other end, as the blistering pace of Niall Thompson replaced Stevens, with Craig switching to the left flank.
The rain also returned to TQ1 for the closing minutes and it was torrential, possibly playing a role in Tozer’s slide challenge on Jarvis resulting in a painful blow for United’s hero, who was swiftly exchanged for the more defensively-minded Damon Lathrope.
The conditions were playing havoc and a half-clearance from Northampton skidded to Mansell on the edge of the box, but his fizzing shot was a fraction off target. Moments later, MacDonald made the clearance of the match, somehow lifting the ball over his own bar after a Langmead header had the Gulls in panic-mode.
Massive frustration arrived from the next set-play, as a deep corner found Langmead again, who forced home the equaliser at his third attempt. It was a devastating blow for United after playing with huge courage for 90 minutes.
United (4-4-1-1): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 16 Angus MacDonald, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 20 Nathan Craig, 18 Craig Easton, 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 19 Danny Stevens (29 Niall Thompson 82); 8 Ryan Jarvis (6 Damon Lathrope 86), 9 Rene Howe. Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 21 Thomas Cruise, 23 Ashley Yeoman, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Northampton (4-4-2): 21 Lee Nicholls; 12 Ben Tozer, 5 Kelvin Langmead (capt), 30 Clarke Carlisle, 6 Anthony Charles; 11 Chris Hackett, 8 Ben Harding, 22 Lewis Hornby (17 Jake Robinson 71), 28 Emyr Huws; 9 Clive Platt, 10 Adebayo Akinfenwa. Substitutes (not used): 13 Dean Snedker, 15 Henoc Mukendi, 19 Louis Moult, 23 Daniel East, 25 Claudio Dias.
Booked: Langmead 36, Akinfenwa 64, Carlisle 66
Referee: Christopher Sarginson
Attendance: 2,302 (140 away).