FOOTBALL can be a very hard game to love at times.
When things are going well, it is incomparable. When they are going bad, gallows humour takes centre-stage. When you lose in the last five minutes, it just hurts.
The Gulls performed manfully at high-flying Northampton and were denied at least one clear penalty, but eventually succumbed to a late header from Roy O’Donovan.
United manager Alan Knill made one change from the side that battled to a crucial 2-1 win over York last weekend. A late dismissal for Tom Cruise in that game forced him out through suspension but Kevin Nicholson was the readymade replacement at left-back.
Billy Bodin had to settle for a place on the bench after being unavailable as a starter six days ago because of his involvement with the Wales under-21 side. Ashley Yeoman was named as a substitute after scoring twice in the Devon Bowl on Tuesday night.
Northampton boss Aidy Boothroyd was also forced into one defensive change, with club-captain Kelvin Langmead absent with a knee injury picked up in the 1-0 victory over Oxford on Saturday. Lee Collins started at centre-back and new loan signing from Coventry, Nathan Cameron, was among the substitutes.
The other switch for the Cobblers saw former Gull Adebayo Akinfenwa dropped in favour of young Irish forward O’Donovan. Akinfenwa joined Jake Robinson in a mini Yellow reunion on the home bench.
Northampton were the first side to muster, breaking down the left for a whipped cross by Chris Hackett and United were grateful to Nicholson for a rushed clearance as the heavy artillery arrived.
The home side then had a decent shout for a penalty when Angus MacDonald appeared to tug giant forward Clive Platt and the Gulls were very relieved to see referee Darren Sheldrake wave away vociferous shouts from the Sixfields’ faithful.
Sheldrake made amends for the Cobblers moments later by inexcusably ignoring a blatant pull on Elliot Benyon after he raced clear of Collins, who was the last man for Northampton. The incident was outside of the box but was surely a red card candidate, if the foul had been given.
Platt sought to immediately take advantage by using his bulk to hold off MacDonald and lash a shot narrowly over. It was already a big test for the young defender against the imposing former Coventry and Colchester forward.
Proceedings then settled into gentle sparring on a bitter night but Benyon did have a scuffed shot comfortably saved by Lee Nicholls in the Northampton goal. The next chance was an inviting free-kick just a couple of yards outside the box.
Joss Labadie grabbed the ball for a strike at goal from an inviting central position but the home wall stood firm, and when Nicholson looped it back into the area, Rene Howe was punished with a booking for shoving Nicholls.
Chances remained scarce for both sides, despite the impressive noise inside Sixfields suggesting a better game, but the Gulls were standing firm in the face of an expected aerial bombardment from the Cobblers.
Benyon continued to be the main Yellow threat, weaving his way into space on the left to deliver a cross for Jordan Chapell, who was muscled off the ball and then Howe saw his attempt brilliantly thwarted by Clarke Carlisle.
Moments later, Ryan Jarvis, still brimming with confidence from a wonder-strike against York, found room just outside the area and rifled another stinging drive toward goal, and Nicholls was relieved to see the ball fizz inches wide.
Half-time arrived and United deserved praise for withstanding the physical barrage and especially for committing men forward in an expansive attacking performance against the side lying fourth in League 2.
Boothroyd reacted to a decent Yellow display by introducing Akinfenwa for Platt in the second-half and the new man took just a couple of minutes to cushion a header for Ben Tozer to rifle a drive against the post in the closest attempt on goal for either side.
The tension inside Sixfields was growing, with the Gulls looking to ease lingering relegation concerns and Northampton seeking a win to take them ahead of Burton in the automatic promotion places.
Sheldrake incurred further Yellow wrath in what was turning out to be a poor performance from the referee, as he turned down strong penalty claims after Benyon was hauled down in the box by Collins.
The Gulls were breathing a massive sigh of relief moments later after a fabulous cross from the Northampton full-back picked out Akinfenwa, who finished in style but was denied the first goal by a very welcome offside flag.
Northampton were gradually cranking up the pressure and Knill responded by withdrawing the quiet Jordan Chapell for Bodin on the left wing. The attention, however, turned to the assured Brian Saah once again producing a composed performance at the back in denying Akinfenwa a run on goal.
As the game entered its final 15 minutes, neither team seemed happy with the officials and the pressure of football at the end of a long season. Ishmel Demontagnac took the situation too far with a horrible tackle on the outstanding Benyon that only received a yellow card, when a red looked very possible.
Boothroyd turned to Robinson for the final push, replacing Demontagnac but it was again Benyon causing problems with a dinked cross to the back post and Bodin was unlucky to see his header drop inches wide.
Yellow hearts were then broken by the vital goal of the night. The Gulls were unable to clear a flurry of crosses and the final ball picked out O’Donovan for a decent header past Poke. A sickening blow for United on a night when the outcome could have been so very different.
If any man deserved to rescue the point, it was the hardworking Benyon but he was denied a dramatic equaliser by a fine Nicholls save after stretching to meet a cross from Howe.
The Gulls won a couple more corners in the dying seconds but the Cobblers held on for a scarcely deserved victory, although Howe did briefly get the juices flowing by hitting the net until the offside flag intervened.
Bradford visit Plainmoor on Easter Monday and it will be another massively important match for the Yellows.
Northampton [4-4-2]: 21 Lee Nicholls; 2 John Johnson, 6 Lee Collins, 30 Clarke Carlisle, 3 Joe Widdowson; 7 Ishmel Demontagnac [17 Jake Robinson 82], 12 Ben Tozer, 8 Ben Harding, 11 Chris Hackett [15 Nathan Cameron 86]; 9 Clive Platt [10 Adebayo Akinfenwa H-T], 28 Roy O’Donovan. Substitutes [not used]: 4 Luke Guttridge, 13 Dean Snedker [GK], 22 Lewis Hornby, 25 Claudio Dias.
Booked: O’Donovan 77, Deomtagnac 78
Gulls [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 16 Angus MacDonald, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 8 Ryan Jarvis, 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 24 Joss Labadie, 25 Jordan Chapell [15 Billy Bodin 69]; 9 Rene Howe, 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 4 Aaron Downes, 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 14 Lloyd Macklin, 20 Nathan Craig, 23 Ashley Yeoman.
Booked: Howe 29, Benyon 42, Labadie 73, Bodin 75
Referee: Darren Sheldrake
Attendance: 5,166 [261 away].