Sinclair 10, 16
IT has taken five weeks and three postponements to finally arrive but the Plainmoor bow for United manager Chris Hargreaves was ruined by a horrible first 16 minutes.
Northampton arrived at TQ1 lacking in form and confidence, but the Gulls started in sleepy fashion to allow Emile Sinclair two simple goals in difficult playing conditions.
Krystian Pearce gave United hope with a super finish just before the interval and half-chances were created for an equaliser, but this was not to be the homecoming Hargreaves deserved.
The boss made just one change from the side that defeated Portsmouth 10 days ago, restoring fit-again captain Lee Mansell to the team but in the less familiar role of right-back, which meant Dale Tonge dropped down to the bench.
Northampton manager Chris Wilder also made just one change after their weekend loss to Plymouth, with Gregor Robertson replacing Lee Collins. The former Gulls on the visiting bench included Ian Morris and new loan signing John Marquis, who enjoyed a brief spell at Plainmoor over Christmas.
After a pitch inspection five hours before kick-off and constant monitoring of the surface, referee Chris Sarginson was happy for the game to go ahead in stodgy, but totally playable, conditions.
The first glimpse of goal for United came after Shamir Goodwin displayed his express pace down the right wing and delivered an early cross for Jayden Stockley, who was crowded out by the Northampton defence before he could test Matt Duke in the visiting goal.
Seconds later, the Gulls were behind but it was a goal shrouded in mild controversy. Billy Bodin had burst down the left and his run was ended by a scything challenge from Ricky Ravenhill.
Sarginson waved play-on and with Bodin writhing on the floor, United went to sleep as Sinclair latched on to a threaded pass, skipped around Poke and steered the ball into an empty net for a frustratingly easy opener.
The irritation in Yellow ranks was typified by Joss Labadie snapping into a tackle on Alan Connell, another former Gull in the Northampton squad, but what happened next was simply inexcusable.
A hopeful hook over the top from Cobblers should have been meat and drink for the home defence but hesitation between Poke and Anthony O’Connor gifted Sinclair the room to slide in a second for the jubilant visitors.
Bodin, meanwhile, was unable to shake off his injury and Hargreaves moved to replace him with Jordan Chapell on the left flank, as the Popside simmered with annoyance after Labadie and Ravenhill exchanged handbags.
The Yellow Army were desperate for a lift after five weeks without home football to enjoy and it was clear the next goal would be pivotal to the match outcome, but there was understandable tension in United’s play.
The rain then started to fall on a pitch already suffering from sticky blemishes and Northampton were coping better in the conditions, pumping the ball clear every time the Gulls showed signs of attacking menace.
It took 40 minutes but Duke was finally tested when Chapell decided to have a pop from distance, spearing the ball toward the top corner and credit to the Northampton custodian for flinging himself to his right and turning the shot wide.
The lifeline arrived on the brink of half-time and it was a fine finish from Pearce, cushioning a whipped corner to the near post by Chapell with a controlled left-foot volley into the corner.
It was a potentially massive goal and gave Hargreaves’ half-time team-talk renewed impetus, although his main theme was surely stamping out the sleepy defending that almost allowed Darren Carter room to head home a corner seconds before the interval.
The Gulls emerged full of hope and enthusiasm after the break, and Stockley was the man leading the march with a strong performance in the vanguard.
Northampton were soon creaking at the back and Chapell was sniffing around for the loose ball after a Mansell cross, but Leon McSweeney was in the right place to make a desperate block. The subsequent corner found O’Connor at the back post but his stabbed effort was fumbled away by Duke.
Wilder responded to the pressure by introducing Marquis for Sinclair, while the second Yellow change saw Karl Hawley replace Elliot Benyon as a different striking option.
The new Gull was soon involved, exchanging passes with Stockley to find a pocket of space 30 yards from goal, but his attempted through-ball to the rampaging Chapell only picked out grateful Northampton left-back Joe Widdowson.
Goodwin was next to raise the temperature inside TQ1, as he picked up a short pass from Kevin Nicholson to spin sharply 25 yards from goal and lash a decent shot narrowly wide.
Yellow belief was gradually growing and Chapell displayed a terrific turn of pace to race clear of Widdowson on 73 minutes and his dinked cross to the near post was only headed a fraction wide by the stooping Hawley.
Antonio German then came on for Connell but United were the team driving forward, and Northampton responded by taking every opportunity to slow the game down. Frustrating but effective, and their next move was to remove Dickenson for Ben Tozer.
United won a corner after a surging run from Chapell and the Nicholson inswinger prompted an almighty scramble that only ended when Chapell sliced the ball well wide. The Cobblers earned a free-kick moments later and Poke did well to grasp a decent effort from Carter.
The final Yellow change saw Aidan O’Brien come on for Goodwin and United were launching everything at the visitors, including a fizzing drive from Labadie that almost sneaked through Duke, but to no avail.
Nothing more to be said on a disappointing night, other than the fact we have plenty of time and plenty of games to climb away from danger.
Bring on Chesterfield on Saturday.
United [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 5 Krystian Pearce, 29 Anthony O’Connor, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 17 Shamir Goodwin (25 Aidan O’Brien 86), 6 Damon Lathrope, 18 Joss Labadie, 10 Billy Bodin [12 Jordan Chapell 21]; 19 Jayden Stockley, 26 Elliot Benyon (9 Karl Hawley 59). Substitutes [not used]: 2 Dale Tonge, 4 Aaron Downes, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 21 Thomas Cruise, 25 Aidan O’Brien.
Booked:Labadie 29, Benyon 56, Pearce 79
Northampton [4-4-2]: 1 Matt Duke; 2 Leon McSweeney, 27 Mathias Doumbe, 29 Gregor Robertson, 3 Joe Widdowson; 11 Chris Hackett, 4 Darren Carter, 34 Ricky Ravenhill [capt], 35 Brennan Dickenson (12 Ben Tozer 81); 7 Emile Sinclair (9 John Marquis 59), 18 Alan Connell (25 Antonio German 76). Substitutes [not used]: 8 Ian Morris, 13 Dean Snedker [GK], 17 Gary Deegan, 24 Ivan Toney.
Referee: Chris Sarginson
Attendance:2,051 (69 away).