NORTHAMPTON'S ambition to be promoted in successive seasons by way of the play-offs seemed an unlikely goal - until last night at Sixfields Stadium. Thanks to goals from Carl Heggs, Ian Clarkson and Ray Warburton, their recovery from a 3-1 defeat at Bristol was rapturously turned into another opportunity to go to Wembley, this time with the First Division in sight.
For the victorious Cobblers manager, Ian Atkins, it was "an awesome performance", a display of "power football" that Grimsby will not relish facing in the final on 24 May.
Back in March, Northampton had beaten Rovers 2-0 at this same neat, new stadium, but they needed to surpass that performance quickly and defiantly.
Rovers formed a barrier that for 13 minutes was solid enough, but then a cross from Heggs found John Gayle free of attention and his curling header clipped the post. At least Northampton had seen a route.
Persistent use of height eventually paid off. A corner from John Frain was turned back into the goalmouth by Christopher Freestone and Heggs rose to head down over the line.
The goal set Rovers a dilemma - whether to risk defending their 3-2 advantage, or go all out to restore their margin of comfort. Certainly they were uncomfortable and needed to defend further upfield. That involved width which Northampton might exploit. So the early part of the second half saw a much different trend with Rovers pushing forward more determinedly. Suddenly, Barry Hayles and Peter Beadle were fully occupying the three home central defenders.
Hugely supported by a 7,500 crowd, Northampton pressed again. It paid off after 61 minutes when Heggs drove the ball into the goalmouth and Clarkson carefully sidefooted home to draw level on aggregate.
A severely shaken Rovers had their Wembley dream finally dashed by a set piece. Hunt lifted a corner into a crowded area and Warburton brought the house down with a firm header.
Northampton Town (5-2-3): Woodman; Clarkson, Sampson, Hill, Warburton, Frain; Hunt, Peer; Gayle, Freestone (Brightwell, 85), Heggs. Substitutes not used: Gibb, Seal.
Bristol Rovers (4-4-2): Jones; Pritchard, Foster, Tilson, Lockwood; Bennett (Hayfield, 78), Penrice, Zabek, Ramasut (Power, 72); Beadle, Hayles. Substitute not used: Perry.
Referee: M Fletcher (Warley).