Northampton Town’s task of reaching League One became harder as they lost the first leg of their play-off with Cheltenham Town 2-0.
In a match played behind closed doors in the first leg of a two-legged meeting with the Robins, goals from each half by Charlie Raglan and Conor Thomas saw the visitors assume command of the tie ahead of a second leg on Monday.
Northampton saw Ryan Watson miss a penalty with the game at 0-0, and saw other chances also repelled by Cheltenham goalkeeper Owen Evans. But there was to be no way through for Keith Curle’s side, who will need to score at least 3 goals in Monday’s return fixture to progress.
The match was Northampton’s first since a home defeat by Mansfield Town on March 7th, in the weekend before the regular leagues were suspended, and was played directly after Colchester beat Exeter in the first tie earlier in the evening.
The game was played behind closed doors, although over 900 cardboard cut-outs paid for by Northampton fans were placed around the stadium, while some fans did attempt to watch the game from a hill overlooking the stadium. Various new measures of protocol were also used, with the teams emerging separately onto the pitch.
Before the game began, all of the players took part in a minute’s applause to pay respects to NHS workers, and took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The two sides played in a lively fashion as they looked to gain the upper hand in their first games in over 3 months, although there was one delay as an assistant referee suffered an injury.
An early chance would then fall for the home side as they were given a penalty. A challenge by Ryan Broom and Michael Harriman was penalised for a spot-kick, only for Watson’s strike to be denied by Evans.
Moments after a mid-half drink break, Cheltenham would then strike first as Raglan nipped in to head a corner past Steve Arnold at the near the post.
The visitors had a period of pressure, with Reuben Reid seeing a strike denied by Arnold with the closest chance.
But Northampton responded with pressure on their own, with Vadaine Oliver seeing one effort denied by Evans and another blocked, before Evans made a fine block to stop James Olayinka near the end of 7 minutes added.
Evans would also deny Oliver again in the opening moments of the second half, as the home side would also win a number of set-pieces and have half-chances.
Cheltenham still had a thread of their own, however, and would come close as Arnold kept out Reid.
Olayinka saw an effort just go over as the home side’s hopes began to fade in the second half of the second half, and in the final five minutes, it was Cheltenham who would grab the game’s second goal.
It came when a low shot fell for Thomas, who clipped in the rebound after a Sean Long effort saw the ball ricochet around the box, to give Cheltenham the advantage.