Defeat for Cheltenham in this evening's semi-final first leg but they are certainly not out of it with a tight 1-0 scoreline.
Northampton were on the charge from the off this evening and it took 26 minutes for the hosts to break the deadlock through the Roy O'Donovan. Cheltenham had chances to equalise but couldn't capitalise in the first period. The Robins has chances in the second half, as did Northampton, but neither could make it count and the 1-0 scoreline would be taken back to Gloucestershire.
A home win for Mark Yates' Robins will now be required to maintain hopes of another Wembley final.
A formation change and two personnel switches were the order of the evening as Cheltenham prepared to take on Northampton in their play-off semi-final first leg here at Sixfields. Billy Jones and Jason Taylor made way for Keith Lowe and Paul Benson and with them a 4-4-2 formation. Northampton themselves made two changes with Adebayo Akinfenwa the clear threat as he always is against the Ruby Robins. This was of course the second consecutive play-off campaign for Cheltenham with Crewe Alexandra denying Mark Yates' side at the final hurdle of Wembley last season but much has been learnt since last May and there was real hope another trip to Wembley could be on the cards. Northampton would be no pushovers however and, as usual, ultimate respect was shown between both managers ahead of kick off.
You could almost predict the man who would be involved in the very first attack of the game as the hefty Akinfenwa bundled his way past Hector and used his strength to fire a shot in at goal but a deflection guided the ball wide. The big striker was at it again from the corner but header was high over the bar and Cheltenham avoided an early setback. Cheltenham settled into the game after Northampton's early openings but Bayo, once again, saw an effort go close on 8 minutes following a poor headed clearance from Jombati. Cheltenham were imposing themselves through the energetic Russ Penn who made sure Chris Hackett knew of his presence a couple of times with steaming tackles in the early stages of this match. He was a man Cheltenham needed on form tonight but he gave a away a freekick on 10 minutes when he went over the top of Demontagnac and the referee deemed it a foul but Hackett's effort was high, wide and not so pretty.
Cheltenham had conceded two by 15 minutes in this fixture earlier in the season but they were coping well with the power of Northampton's attack this time round although Northampton were looking the more dangerous in attack. The hosts really should have had the lead on 17 minutes when Akinfenwa rose highest for the corner but his header struck a defender and Brown pounced to claim the ball. 20 minutes in and Cheltenham hadn't carved out any meaningful opportunities although Russ Penn had a glancing header fly wide from Keith Lowe's distant cross. It was Northampton who proving to be the more dominant side as they pushed ever closer to grabbing an opener and they did so on 27 minutes when Chris Hackett burst down the right wing and delivered a wonderful cross which O'Donovan volleyed into the back of the net, even with a Brown glove in the way. That goal shook Cheltenham and they were soon under bombardment again when Keith Lowe committed a foul 20 yards from goal in a central area but the freekick was easy pickings for Brown.
Nervous times for Cheltenham fans and Keith Lowe made a good block past the half hour mark to deny Demontagnac a clean shot at goal with the eventual corner being caught well by Brown. Perhaps Cheltenham's most meaningful effort on goal up to this point fell to Mohamed after some individual skill from Russ Penn set the winger up ten yards from goal but he didn't catch his shot well and it was clipped wide of the near post. 41 minutes in and Lee Nicholls reacted well to deny a Benson header and an equaliser for Cheltenham following a deep cross from Keith Lowe. Cheltenham had made some progress when looking for a meaningful attack on Northampton's goal but they had to settle for being a goal down by the time the whistle was blown for half time.
Half Time: Northampton Town 1-0 Cheltenham Town
No changes at half time as Cheltenham began their attempt to find an equaliser in this game and the first effort of the half came courtesy of Keith Lowe but his ambitious volley was far wide of it's target. Scott Brown was called upon soon after when he had to cushion Hackett's low cross. It was a decent start to the half for the Robins and Jermaine McGlashan forced Nicholls into a very good save at his near post after he had sped past Collins on the right wing. Another blow for Cheltenham on 53 minutes when Michael Hector had to be withdrawn through a rib injury. A collision in mid-air took it's toll on the young defender and he was withdrawn much to his frustration and replaced by Jones with Lowe moving into the middle.
A long ranged effort from Russ Penn and a good save from Brown following Demontagnac's effort maintained the pace of this game before Hackett was shown a yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Mohamed. Cheltenham fans thought they may have scored 14 minutes into the second half when Marlon Pack picked up on a loose ball and fired a ball onto the head of Harrison and then Benson but the striker put the effort wide of the post. Perhaps one of Cheltenham's most important tasks in this game would be to deny Northampton a second goal and Brown was forced to produce a wonderful save from a point blank header from Akinfenwa. Still they attacked and Steve Elliott was shown a yellow card after taking out O'Donovan on the left inches away from the penalty area. The resulting freekick was pushed away by Brown with Penn quickly clearing but still the hosts pushed and pushed. Mark Yates countered Northampton's growing presence by introducing Jason Taylor at the expense of Byron Harrison and the Robins switched to their more traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. That change was designed to start winning the midfield battle but again Akinfenwa came close minutes later with a header over the bar.
76 minutes in and it may well have been a penalty for Cheltenham as McGlashan was dragged down inches into the area but the referee was having none of it much to the displeasure of the away fans and McGlashan, who was booked for arguing with the linesman. A goalmouth scramble (in Northampton's favour) later and Cheltenham needed something and, if they could grind something out, it would certainly deflate the home crowd but still they stood firm. Billy Jones' freekick five minutes from the 90 registered another shot on target for Cheltenham but the Robins were running out of time and looked as though they would need to turn things around at the Abbey Business Stadium come Sunday.
Luke Guttridge came close to handing Northampton a second goal on the 90th minute but again the header was over and Northampton, following the game, will perhaps kick themselves for missing most of their chances. Four additional minutes were added to the 90 and Sam Deering replaced the frustrated Jermaine McGlashan. A late strike from O'Donovan was all that remained of the game but it was a tame effort and not enough to stretch their lead. So it was 1-0 at the midway point of this semi-final and a win at the Abbey Business Stadium would be required of Cheltenham were to make it to Wembley.
Full Time: Northampton Town 1-0 Cheltenham Town
Northampton Town FC (4-4-2): Nicholls (GK); Tozer, Carlisle, Cameron, Collins; Hackett, Guttridge, Harding, Demontagnac (Johnson 77); O'Donovan, Akinfenwa
Subs not used: Snedker (GK), Langmead, Hornby, Robinson, Platt, Moult
Cheltenham Town FC (4-2-3-1): Brown (GK); Lowe, Hector (Jones 53), Elliott, Jombati; McGlashan (Deering 90), Pack, Penn, Mohamed; Benson, Harrison (Taylor 72)
Subs not used: Roberts (GK), Carter, Harrad, Duffy
Referee: Mr. Mick Russell
Attendance: 6,563 (653 from Cheltenham)
Robins Star Man: Russ Penn