Northampton Town 3
Watson 7, Williams 21, 41
A DISAPPOINTING first-half display condemned Argyle to their second Sky Bet League Two defeat of the season away at Northampton Town.
The Pilgrims conceded three first-half goals, as many as they had in the entire league campaign up until that afternoon, in an uncharacteristically shaky opening period which ultimately left them with too much ground to make up.
Ryan Watson opened the Cobblers’ scoring with a dubious penalty seven minutes in, before Joe Riley equalised with a 10th minute free-kick. The Pilgrims' parity was short lived, as Andy Williams’ brace gave the hosts a critical, and insurmountable, advantage.
The half-time tactical introductions of Josh Grant and, in particular, Moore, gave the Greens added impetus in a much-improved second period, but it was not enough to rescue a result at the PTS Academy Stadium.
Argyle manager Ryan Lowe, although he might have been tempted otherwise based on his side’s performance against Reading in the Carabao Cup a few days earlier, kept faith with the eleven that saw off Walsall at Home Park a week ago.
Riley shook off an arm injury that saw him withdrawn against the Saddlers to reclaim his position at right wing-back, while Conor Grant won the competition to partner Danny Mayor in the heart of midfield, despite Jose Baxter’s mid-week 25-yard goal against the Royals, and the acquisition of George Cooper from the Cobblers’ rivals, Peterborough. Antoni Sarcevic was the unfortunate member of an abundant midfield that missed out on selection entirely, while Moore returned to the bench after a hamstring injury.
The Pilgrims went into the game with some confidence, having only lost once in the league since the beginning of the campaign. The Cobblers, in contrast, had won only once this season. It was the hosts, though, who were handed a huge boost by referee Seb Stockbridge with the game in its infancy.
A right-wing cross was charged down by a leaping Callum McFadzean, who turned his back on the fizzing delivery. Stockbridge, without hesitation, blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. McFadzean and his colleagues were livid, seemingly with evidence, as the wing-back had the nose-bleed to prove that the ball had at least struck his face with enough velocity to draw blood - perhaps indicating no foul play on his part. Stockbridge did not climb down from his position, though, and Watson accepted the gift by sending Palmer the wrong way from the spot.
The Pilgrims were behind for less than five minutes. Perhaps spurred on by the feeling of injustice, McFadzean marauded down the left wing, before offloading to Danny Mayor on the edge of the box. Mayor was felled, slightly softly, by a Cobblers player, within shooting range.
Riley, who had not netted a goal his previous 26 appearances in Pilgrim colours, stepped up to take it. Rather than attempting the David Beckham-esque curl around the wall, or the Roberto Carlos rasping drive, he instead went low, under the wall, and into the bottom corner. Two questionable decisions culminated in a goal apiece; they say things even themselves out over the course of a season, but at the PTS Academy Stadium, it took a mere three minutes.
There could be no argument about the Cobblers’ second. Released down the right, Sam Hoskins earned himself a yard of space to operate away from marker Gary Sawyer, and delivered an inviting, perfectly measured low cross for former Yeovil front-man Williams to turn home at the far post.
It felt as though both sides were far more comfortable going forward than sitting back, and the Greens should have been level again on 26 minutes. A short corner routine, straight from the training ground, saw Mayor turn his marker inside out, before teeing up Grant’s weighted far-post cross. Niall Canavan was waiting at the back stick to nod the ball across to centre-back partner Sawyer, who saw his point-blank header rise narrowly over the bar.
The skipper’s miss nearly probed doubly costly seconds later, as Nicky Adams, a former favourite of Lowe at Bury, struck the woodwork from a free-kick, having been felled by Scott Wootton on the edge of the area. The rebound fell kindly for Hoskins, who struck first time from a tight angle, but Palmer reacted quickly to smother the goal-bound effort.
Northampton nearly had a third on 33 minutes, Adams coming close again, after an attempt to play out from the back was thwarted from the first pass. Palmer’s short pass to Joe Edwards on the edge of his own area was telegraphed by Williams, who intercepted. From the resultant melee, Adams attempted a chip from the edge of the area, which looked to have beaten the Pilgrims’ keeper, but curled mercifully wide of the near post in front of the massed Green Army.
On 41 minutes, the luck that blessed the Greens minutes earlier swung violently in the other direction, granting Williams his second of the afternoon. A right-wing cross from Shaun McWilliams worked its way to the experienced forward at the far post, whose scuffed volley hit the ground and bounced wickedly over a wrong-footed Palmer for the hosts’ third.
As the half-time whistle arrived, Northampton nearly had a fourth, as a left-wing cross was half-cleared by Canavan, finding Hoskins unmarked on the edge of the area. The forward struck, clean and low, but too close to Palmer to get the better of the West Bromwich Albion loanee, who got down well to keep the game within sight.
Changes were required if the Greens were going to mount a fightback in Northamptonshire, and that was not lost on Lowe, who instructed striker Moore and Grant to prepare themselves for action. The pair were introduced before a ball was kicked in the second period, replacing Sawyer and Zak Rudden. Edwards emerged from the tunnel wearing the captain’s armband.
The opening stages of the second-half suggested that the game may not be totally beyond the Pilgrims, who foraged a couple of opportunities through better ball use. First, Mayor found McFadzean, whose delivery fell to Riley at the far post – but the Pilgrims’ right-back was caught in two minds, between shooting and crossing, and ended up doing neither.
Then, Mayor danced his way into the Cobblers’ box once again, twisting and turning his marker before tumbling over an outstretched leg. Stockbridge took a moment to consider the appeal, before booking the Pilgrims’ no.10 for simulation.
By the 55th minute, the Greens had cycled through their allotted reinforcements from the bench, as Lowe handed George Cooper a debut, coming on for Taylor, who was feeling a recurrence of the knock which forced him off at half-time in midweek. While primarily a midfielder, the Peterborough United loanee moved to operate alongside Moore up front.
The Cobblers seemed content to play the second-half far deeper than they had the first, inviting Argyle on to them. That, of course, suited the Pilgrims too, but despite a greater deal of territory and attacking impetus, they could not generate the clear-cut opportunity to haul themselves firmly back into a game that was becoming frequently punctuated by a number of niggly fouls in the central third of the pitch.
As the clocked ticked beyond 70 minutes, Argyle crowbarred themselves into the Cobblers’ area once more, through the tricky feet of Mayor. His reverse pass found McFadzean, whose cross was half-cleared Charlie Goode, into the vicinity of Cooper, who reacted well to make meaningful contact with the ball, but he was unable to keep it down.
By 75 minutes, Northampton seemed to have dropped entirely back into their territory, and Argyle players were queuing up to get on the end of McFadzean deliveries. The first of the wing-back’s deliveries was propped up to the far post – the one location where no Pilgrim was present. The second picked out Moore, who slipped between Cobblers defenders expertly, before somehow firing over the bar from three yards out.
As Moore defied physics to scoop the ball over the bar, you sensed that would be that.
And it was.
Northampton (4-2-3-1): 1 David Cornell (gk); 17 Shaun McWilliams, 5 Charlie Goode (capt), 6 Jordan Turnbull, 39 Joe Bunney; 14 Chris Lines, 8 Ryan Watson; 10 Nicky Adams (3 Joe Martin 77); 20 Matt Warburton (29 Billy Waters 53), 7 Sam Hoskins, 11 Andy Williams (19 Vadaine Oliver 81). Substitutes (not used): 9 Harry Smith, 12 Scott Pollock, 16 Scott Wharton, 33 Andy Fisher.
Booked: Warburton 47, Bunney 76, Goode 84
Argyle (3-5-2): 24 Alex Palmer (gk); 5 Scott Wootton, 6 Niall Canavan, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt) (25 Josh Grant 45); 2 Joe Riley, 15 Conor Grant, 8 Joe Edwards, 10 Danny Mayor, 21 Callum McFadzean; 39 Zak Rudden (17 Byron Moore 45), 9 Ryan Taylor (32 George Cooper 55). Substitutes (not used): 1 Mike Cooper (gk), 4 Will Aimson, 14 Jose Baxter, 20 Adam Randell.
Booked: Mayor 50, Edwards 67
Referee: Seb Stockbridge
Attendance: 5,535 (1,291 away)