Torquay denied victory as Cobblers strike in stoppage time for a point
Long-serving defender Kevin Nicholson summed up the feelings of Torquay United players and supporters in one word – "crushing" – after Northampton Town snatched a stoppage-time equaliser at rain-lashed Plainmoor.
The reaction was understandable since United had been beaten after holding out until the 85th minute with ten men at Bradford City seven days before, but in many ways this was harder to take.
Against one of the biggest teams in npower League Two, Martin Ling's United produced a spirited performance and deservedly took the lead with just under half-an-hour to go when Ryan Jarvis finished a top-drawer move for his fifth goal of the season.
They could and should have scored a second goal that would almost have made the game safe, and in open play they more than matched the threat of a Cobblers' attack led by the considerable figures of former Torquay striker Adebayo Akinfenwa and Clive Platt, 6ft 1in and 6ft 3in respectively.
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Angus MacDonald, who marked Akinfenwa for most of the afternoon, and Aaron Downes both deserved to walk off with 'clean-sheets' to their names after robust, disciplined performances.
But open play was one thing, set-pieces were another. In the closing stages, with the wind and rain behind them, Northampton bombarded United's goal with free-kicks, corners and long-throws from full-back Ben Tozer.
And it was in the second of four minutes of stoppage-time that, despite a block by skipper Lee Mansell and a save from Michael Poke, Town defender Kelvin Langmead finally forced the ball in off the far post from Chris Hackett's left-wing corner.
One moment United were sitting in the play-offs, just ahead of Exeter City on goal difference before the two meet at Plainmoor next Saturday, and the next they were still eleventh. League Two is nothing if not tight this season.
The pattern of the match was clear from the start. Northampton aimed the ball at Akinfenwa and Platt with little ceremony, while United tried to pass their way through on a soft pitch which hardly encouraged it.
Akinfenwa is always good value, especially at Plainmoor, where Torquay fans see him as a sort of pantomime villain, and he certainly did his best to overpower MacDonald.
The 20-year-old on-loan Reading centre-back was having nothing of it. He came up with a goal-saving header over his own bar from a Hackett cross in the 26th minute and played a big part in Northampton taking 43 minutes before their first shot on goal, Poke tipping Ben Harding's 20-yard chip over.
Moments later Poke also parried a stinging drive by Hackett, but United could also point to near-misses by Joe Oastler, Nicholson and Jarvis before the interval.
Referee Chris Sarginson agreed that Northampton's lurid lime-green away strip did clash with United's all-yellow, so he asked the home side to switch to their all-dark blue away kit for the second half.
In a full-blooded contest, both teams went at it hammer-and-tong.
United, for whom Craig Easton beavered away well in midfield, failed to make the most of good crosses by Oastler and Danny Stevens. At the other end, Akinfenwa, November's League Two player of the month, fired over on the turn when he should have hit the target.
In the 58th minute Nathan Craig pinged a 30-yard snapshot just wide and, with the Gulls on top for the first time, they scored four minutes later.
Craig drilled a good pass to Stevens on the left, he beat Tozer on the outside, pulled back a low cross and there was Jarvis to shoot home with a first-time right-foot stab at the near-post.
Akinfenwa, increasingly frustrated, was booked for dissent, his mood not helped when Mr Sarginson insisted that he go off for treatment for a bloody nose.
Jarvis twice went close to a second, and Town boss Aidy Boothroyd finally summoned ex-Gulls forward Jake Robinson from the bench.
Ling also made two changes, an attacking one when winger Niall Thompson replaced Stevens and a more defensive switch when midfielder Damon Lathrope was introduced after Jarvis had to be helped off in the 86th minute. He was taken to hospital with a suspected cracked rib and a suspected punctured lung.
Mansell missed a chance to end all the arguments, firing wide, just before Northampton gathered themselves for a final assault. MacDonald, still putting his head and boot in where it hurt, bravely conceded two corners in quick succession, but it was from the second of them that Langmead ended that goalmouth scramble by forcing in the equaliser.
Sometimes goalmouths can simply be too packed, with too many players for anybody to do their jobs properly. Set-pieces become a lottery, and Northampton bought the winning ticket on Saturday.