A STOPPAGE time winner from Brett Williams decided a dramatic game at Sixfields as ten-man Oxford United suffered a damaging defeat at Northampton.
The substitute chased down a lost cause before cutting in off the left flank to fire a low shot into the corner.
It was harsh on the U’s, who responded well after an awful start which saw them concede inside the opening minute and then lose Peter Leven to what looked a serious leg injury.
Cristian Montano levelled the scores early in the second half before Adam Chapman had a penalty saved.
United controlled much of the second half, but could not find a winner before Williams netted and the visitors finished with ten men, with Michael Duberry picking up a second booking in the final minute.
U’s boss Chris Wilder surprisingly made just one change to the starting line-up from the 2-1 defeat to Morecambe last Saturday, which he described as the worst display of the season.
Duberry returned at centre half after three games out with a groin injury, replacing Andy Whing, who was named among the substitutes.
Following on from the Morecambe display, a solid start would have been top of United’s priorities, but instead they made a nightmare opening.
Just 45 seconds were on the clock when Luke Guttridge ran onto Adebayo Akinfenwa’s ball over the top and curled a shot over U’s goalkeeper Ryan Clarke and into the net.
It began a torrid opening 20 minutes for the visitors, who looked unsteady defensively.
Clarke was the busiest player on the pitch, forced to make a smart save to turn a volley from Michael Jacobs round the post.
Akinfenwa also had two efforts stopped, the second of which – a prodded shot from eight yards – should really have been the big striker’s 18th goal of the season.
United’s frazzled minds were illustrated by Clarke in the 14th minute, when he dropped a routine cross behind for a corner.
The gloom darkened for the visitors when Peter Leven was stretchered off with what looked a serious injury following a 50/50 challenge with Toni Silva.
The Scot’s scream could be heard over the boisterous atmosphere at Sixfields, which was briefly silenced in concern for the midfielder.
Whing replaced the stricken Leven and the more defensive-minded player helped United gain a foothold in the game.
With the ship steadied the visitors looked far brighter in possession than against Morecambe.
Wingers Dean Morgan and Cristian Montano appeared revitalised and the pair were involved in United’s best moment of the half, on 34 minutes.
Morgan spun into space before picking out a flying Damian Batt on the right flank, who found Montano to jink into the box and test Cobblers goalkeeper Neal Kitson.
United came close to an equaliser on the stroke of half-time, when Morgan’s deflected cross was palmed away by Kitson, agonisingly just out of Montano’s reach.
The visitors got on the front foot early in the second half and Duberry almost levelled with a header from Montano’s 49th-minute cross, which Kitson blocked with his leg on the line.
The disappointment was short-lived, as Montano found the net a minute later to send the 1,631 travelling fans wild.
Scott Rendell got in down the right and crossed for the West Ham loanee, who showed great composure to skip away from a challenge and fire low into the far corner.
United had a perfect chance to go in front just before the hour mark, when Chapman was tripped by Adams in the penalty area.
With Leven off the pitch, Chapman took on the duties, but saw his shot saved by Kitson.
The game boiled over with 20 minutes remaining, when Guttridge reacted to a firm challenge from Liam Davis.
An unsightly melee followed, but after a lengthy discussion with his assistants, referee Mark Brown declined to send anyone off, booking Guttridge and Montano.
The visitors looked the more likely scorers in the closing stages, with James Constable immediately into the action after coming off the bench.
The striker had a glorious chance to make it 2-1 on 82 minutes, but he lost his footing on the edge of the area with only Kitson to beat.
But the decisive blow came at the other end in stoppage time, when Williams fired in a low shot to inflict a defeat on United.
It got worse for the visitors, when a rash challenge earned Duberry his second booking of the night.
Oxford Utd (4-3-3): Clarke, Batt, Duberry, Wright, Davis, Hall, Chapman, Leven (Whing 20), Montano (Pittman 87), Rendell (Constable 78), Morgan.
Substitutes: Brown, Tonkin.
Booked: Duberry, Wright, Hall, Montano.
Sent off: Duberry.
Northampton (4-4-1-1): Kitson, Johnson, Langmead, Carlisle, Adams, Silva (Young 65), Tozer, Harding, Jacobs, Guttridge (Williams 80), Akinfenwa (Charles 87).
Substitutes: Webster, Hall.
Booked: Adams, Guttridge, Akinfenwa.
Referee: Mark Brown.
Attendance: 6,860 (1,631 visitors).