Richards strike sinks Stags as Cobblers go third

GREAT START - Marc Richards celebrates heading the Cobblers into a fourth-minute lead against Mansfield (Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)

GREAT START - Marc Richards celebrates heading the Cobblers into a fourth-minute lead against Mansfield (Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)

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Marc Richards’ fourth-minute goal was enough to earn Northampton Town another three points as they moved up to third in League Two with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Mansfield in front of their biggest home crowd of the season at Sixfields.

It was a far from vintage Northampton performance and the slippery conditions hardly helped matters in a scrappy and disjointed first half, but Richards’ early header had the Cobblers in front at half-time.

A first half which lacked much goalmouth action then made way for a more open and end-to-end second half as chances came at both ends with Joel Byrom going close three times for Northampton while Matt Green and Adi Yussuf threatened for the Stags but they couldn’t break down another resilient Cobblers defensive display as the home side continued their excellent form.

The result means Northampton have now lost just once in their last 10 league games, all of which have come under mounting off-field problems.

More than 5,400 fans were packed into Sixfields - the most this season to date - amid fears this could be the club’s final match in their current form with an appearance in the High Court on Monday, and those fans weren’t disappointed as Chris Wilder’s men maintained their march up the League Two table.

Wilder made just the one change from the team that beat Coventry City in the FA Cup with Joel Byrom returning from injury to replace Jason Taylor in midfield.

Northampton have made a habit of scoring early this season, and once again that was the case with less than four minutes on the clock when the hosts struck first.

Richards was the scorer with an expertly-guided header but he owed much to the sterling work of Alfie Potter, who scythed through the Mansfield defensive before delivering an inch-perfect cross from the left wing for Town’s talismanic striker to head in his 11th goal of the campaign.

Despite that setback, Mansfield had settled well and they almost pulled level when the ball fell kindly to Craig Westcarr 20 yards out but the striker could only bend an effort narrowly wide.

Matt Green’s pace was causing a few problems for the home defence and his good work won a corner, from which Ryan Tafazolli headed just wide in another reminder of Mansfield’s offensive threat.

Green’s looping header then landed on the roof of Adam Smith’s net as Mansfield continued to make much of the running against a Cobblers side who seemed to be struggling to adapt to the slippery and blustery conditions.

But they did come close to adding to their slender lead shortly before half-time when some high pressing won the ball back in a good position and space opened up for Nicky Adams but his shot was palmed away by Brian Jenson.

Aside from the early goal, neither keeper had much to do in a scrappy first half, but Mansfield came within inches of levelling right on half-time when former Cobblers loanee Blair Adams’ free-kick was headed onto the crossbar by Green in the last action of the first half.

Wilder switched things up at half-time and went to a more straightforward 4-4-2 with Dominic Calvert-Lewin partnering Richards up front having replaced Potter at half-time.

Much like the first, the Cobblers made a bright start to the second half and they came close to doubling their lead when Richards, Lawson D’Ath and Adams linked up in a slick counter-attacking move but a trip on Adams brought the attack to an end, with Byrom seeing his shot blocked from the resulting free-kick.

The switch to 4-4-2 had certainly made a difference in the early stages of the second half and Northampton were a whisker away from a second when Adams’ first-time cross was flicked onto the crossbar by Calvert-Lewin after a free-flowing Cobblers move.

Byrom then had a shot blocked from a tight angle as Town maintained their fast start to the second half.

But Mansfield then turned the tables on their hosts and had a good spell of their own as only a diving Smith prevented Green from having a simple tap-in at the back post.

The momentum had suddenly switched to the visitors who sensed an equaliser and piled on the pressure with corner after corner.

But Northampton withstood the pressure and had a glorious chance themselves to put the game beyond doubt as Adams delivered in a free-kick which found Rod McDonald but despite having acres of space inside the Mansfield penalty area, the centre-back failed to connect and the ball drifted wide.

Back at the other end, Mansfield substitute Adi Yussuf was played through on goal but under pressure from McDonald, he skewed his shot well wide.

In what was now an end-to-end affair, the Cobblers came straight back at the visitors and were again denied by Jenson, who produced a fine save from Byrom after the midfielder had been played through on goal by a smart flick from Richards.

Given their failure to score a second, it was inevitable that Northampton would come under some late pressure as Mansfield flooded men forward, but the home side remained resolute with McDonald producing one goal-saving challenge in the final minute of stoppage time to preserve the points.

Match facts

Cobblers: Smith, Moloney, Diamond, McDonald, Buchanan, D’Ath (Taylor 65), O’Toole, Byrom, Potter (Calvert-Lewin 45), Adams (Cresswell 90), Richards (c)

Subs not used: Clarke, Watson, Furlong, Hoskins

Mansfield: Jensen, Hunt (c), Collins, Tafazolli, Adams, Chapman, Clements, Rose (Yussuf 70), Lambe (Pearce 89), Westcarr (Blair 45), Green

Subs not used: Shearer, McGuire, N Thomas, J Thomas

Referee: Darren Bond

Attendance: 5,454

Mansfield fans: 892