Northampton Town 2 Port Vale 0
PATCHED-UP Port Vale crashed to defeat after a first-half horror show at Sixfields Stadium.
The Valiants were up against it from the moment John McCombe was given a straight red card after only 20 minutes as Northampton took the lead. And, after falling further behind before the break, the visitors never recovered.
Defender McCombe lunged in as striker Alex Nicholls slid the ball into the net and there was no way back when former Stoke City striker Louis Moult doubled the home side's advantage three minutes before half-time.
Boss Micky Adams made four changes to the team which earned a 1-1 draw at Burton Albion in midweek.
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Striker Ben Williamson, who had scored in successive matches after coming off the bench, won a rare start at the expense of Louis Dodds, with Ryan Burge coming in for Chris Shuker in central midfield.
Gareth Owen replaced the suspended Clayton McDonald at centre-half, and Adam Yates was in at right-back for the injured Richard Duffy.
Injured-plagued Northampton handed a debut to youth player Lewis Hornby and it was the Cobblers, starting with five across the back, who pressed early on with Emyr Huws firing in a shot from distance that was deflected away from danger.
Owen, under pressure from man mountain Adebayo Akinfenwa, produced a timely block on the edge of the area, while at the other end, Sam Morsy blazed a shot high and wide.
But all that was just a precursor to a major flashpoint after 20 minutes.
Rob Taylor's back pass fell short of Chris Neal and Nicholls nipped in to take the ball around the keeper and slide it into the net, just before
being sent crashing to the ground by a tackle from McCombe.
Referee Richard Clark showed a straight red for McCombe's challenge and Nicholls was treated on the pitch for fully 10 minutes before being taken away in an ambulance. It was later confirmed he had broken his leg.
Joe Davis was thrown on to replace McCombe at centre-half, with Williamson the unlucky one chosen to make way.
Northampton thought they had doubled their lead after 40 minutes when Ben Tozer's long throw was headed home by Anthony Charles. But the referee consulted with his linesman before ruling it out, presumably for pushing.
It mattered little because the home side did make it 2-0 two minutes later. Former Stoke striker Louis Moult, who had replaced Nicholls, wriggled free on the right of the area before sliding his shot beneath the onrushing Neal.
If Vale thought that would be the end of their problems, they were wrong. Owen, having taken the captain's armband, produced an ugly lunge on Akinfenwa that not only earned him a yellow card, but also left him hobbling.
And there was still time for more controversy in first-half injury time when Ashley Vincent looked to have been scythed down by Joe Widdowson inside the Northampton area. But referee Clark somehow waived away claims for a penalty.
Owen failed to reappear for the second half, and midfielder Kingsley James was sent on as a makeshift central defender alongside Davis.
The patched-up visitors, now featuring Tom Pope as the team's third captain of the day, kept Northampton at arm's length for much of the
second half and went close to pulling one back when Vincent burst clear after 64 minutes.
The winger stretched away from trailing defenders, but couldn't quite beat goalkeeper Lee Nicholls at his near post, though at least Vale could at last claim to have had a shot on target.
Morsy picked up a soft booking for pulling back his marker in midfield and was almost immediately withdrawn, with Ryan Lloyd taking his place.
The visitors battled gamely, and did keep the Town defence on their toes. But there was to be no dramatic comeback this time.
Northampton Town: L Nicholls, East, Langmead, Charles, Widdowson, Wilson (Demontagnac, 60), Tozer, Huws, Hornby, A Nicholls (Moult, 30), Akinfenwa. Subs not used: Higgs, Platt, Mukendi, Dias, Moyo.
Port Vale: Neal, Yates, McCombe, Owen (James, 46), Taylor, Myrie-Williams, Morsy (Lloyd, 69), Burge, Vincent, Williamson (Davis, 31), Pope. Subs not used: Murphy, Dodds, Johnson, Shuker.
Referee: Richard Clark