Collins 38, Richards 58
by Rob McNichol
TWO goals from Northampton's front two gave the number two team in the division a victory on Tuesday night - but it did not give them the league leadership.
James Collins and Marc Richards struck important blows for the Cobblers, and they were ultimately enough to give them three points. However, a late goal, by substitute Gregg Wylde proved important, at least on the day.
Northampton knew that a two-goal win sent them to the top of the table on goal difference, so Wylde's goal saw Argyle cling on to leadership. The bigger picture, though, was that in-form Northampton picked up a major win against their promotion rivals. If Wylde's goal sent Argyle wild with happiness, Chris Wilder's team were feeling wilder.
The return of Reuben Reid was the big news prior to the game; Argyle's talisman had not started a game for almost three months, although he had appeared on the bench in the last three matches. Revitalised from a ten-day break between matches, Derek Adams felt Reid was his man to turn to against the team closest to the Pilgrims in the league.
Not that Argyle's form has been too shabby of late. Four consecutive wins has correlated with the goalscoring form of Ryan Brunt, and with top goalscorer Jake Jervis recovering from an injury sustained last time out, it looked as though Adams had a quandary. He solved this by picking all three front men and opting to take the game to the Cobblers.
Argyle's newest signing, Hibernian defender Jordon Forster, had failed to obtain international clearance in time to be included in the squad for this game.
Northampton are in serious form themselves - seven wins and a draw in their last eight in the league - and their notable acquisition this week was experienced forward James Collins, who has twice been part of Shrewsbury sides to get promoted from League 2, and he came straight into the side to partner the even-more-experienced Marc Richards.
It was Richards who showed up first, getting on the end of a Brendan Moloney cross in the fourth minute but heading over from eight yards.
At the other end, Argyle earned a corner, which Peter Hartley and Brunt got some of when Jervis delivered at pace, but somehow the ball stayed away from the Cobblers goal.
The best move of the first half saw the unflappable Carl McHugh saunter forward with the ball and play it wide to Gary Sawyer on the left. After a return to McHugh, the Irishman clipped a gorgeous return pass to Sawyer, who kept up the quality of the move with a blissful volley into the danger area. When Reid headed on target it looked as if it could be the team goal of the year, but Adam Smith made an excellent save in the Northampton goal to maintain parity.
A weak long range shot from John-Joe O'Toole was all Northampton seemed to be able to muster, having started brightly but having their heat cooled by a confident looking Argyle. However, the Pilgrims allowed their opponents to take a lead in soft circumstances.
Kelvin Mellor, retreating, played a backpass towards Luke McCormick, but it was a little on the soft side. McCormick got there first, but Collins was a very close second. The Argyle goalkeeper decided his best option was to power past Collins, but the debutant had read his mind, and stole the ball away. With the net unguarded, Collins merely stroked the ball into it. If he goes on to score 200 goals for his new club, few will come it quite such a facile manner.
The break came with Home Park feeling a little shell-shocked. Argyle had not exactly dominated, but probably felt comfortable enough before gifting a goal. The best thing to do, when faced with Cobblers, is to not shoot oneself in the foot.
After the break, it took twenty seconds for Argyle to get a ball fizzing across the area, but Northampton cleared, and before the 46th minute was out, Ricky Holmes had headed narrowly wide at the other end.
The Cobblers were not showing signs of any laurel-resting tendencies, and were the next side to register a shot on goal. Good work from Collins found substitute Nicky Adams, who evaded Mellor and shot on target, but McCormick made an excellent save with his feet.
It seemed a strange decision by Northampton to slow the game down - Moloney was cautioned for taking half an epoch to take a throw-in - as they had the best of the second half since the break, but they did get their second goal, again with a little fortune, but also via a smooth finishing sequence.
Peter Hartley probably had a lot more time than he thought when hooking a clearance from inside the area, and it fell to O'Toole. His first touch was smart, playing the ball into Collins, who laid back off into O'Toole's path. A ball switched across the area was dummied by Adams and stroked home by Richards. Argyle had somewhat presented Northampton the opportunity to add to their advantage, but there was plenty to be done to get the ball home.
Derek Adams decided to shuffle matters with first Craig Tanner, then Gregg Wylde introduced into proceedings. Threlkeld and Reid were the men withdrawn as the Pilgrims sought a way back in.
The effort was there, and oftentimes so was the territorial position, but Northampton defended...well, like Argyle usually do. They were resolute, winning headers to remove crosses, and if they did not get the first ball, they usually got the second.
As the game entered the last ten minutes, Argyle upped the pressure, and so the desperation enveloped the place. A high ball in saw Jervis go down under pressure. There were shouts of 'penalty', with suggestions Jervis' jersey was pulled. It probably was - but then the same thing probably happens multiple times each match in both areas.
The corner, then. Jervis' delivery was practically on the line, and neither nor goalkeeper dealt with it. The ball dropped, and there were cries that it crossed the line. It didn't.
A minute later it did - with force. Brunt escaped down the right, and his precise centre was blasted home by Wylde at the far post.
As time elapsed, so the game got more opened. Argyle hurled balls - and men - forward and goalmouth scrambles became commonplace. So did Cobblers breakaways, with Adams and Holmes going close.
Arguments broke out all over the pitch - O'Toole's clattering of McHugh and Holmes, when cautioned, fouling Wylde, did not help - but it merely underlined what the game mean to both teams.
Ultimately, Northampton saw it home.
But they are not top. Twenty to go.
Argyle (4-3-3): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 8 Josh Simpson, 4 Carl McHugh, 26 Oscar Threlkeld (27 Craig Tanner 64); 14 Jake Jervis, 9 Reuben Reid (11 Gregg Wylde 68), 17 Ryan Brunt. Substitutes (not used): 15 Tyler Harvey, 16 Ben Purrington, 18 Deane Smalley, 21 James Bittner (gk), 24 Louis Rooney.
Booked: Hartley 89, Brunt 90.
Northampton Town (4-4-2): 1 Adam Smith; Brendan Moloney, 5 Zander Diamond, 18 Rod McDonald, 16 David Buchanan; 11 Ricky Holmes (6 Ryan Cresswell 90), 21 John-Joe O'Toole, 8 Joel Byrom, 7 Lawson D'Ath (10 Nicky Adams 40); 9 Marc Richards (4 Jason Taylor 88), 19 James Collins. Substitutes (not used): 3 Evan Horwood, 12 Josh Lelan, 14 Sam Hoskins, 26 Ryan Clarke (gk).
Booked: Diamond 15, Moloney 57, Holmes 65, O'Toole 87, Smith 90.
Referee: Keith Stroud.
Attendance: 9,241 (269 away).