Mansfield are strong favourites to reach the Millennium Stadium on 31 May after cashing in on poor Northampton finishing in the first leg of the Third Division play-off semi-final at Sixfields. To make matters worse for the home side Ashley Westwood will miss Thursday's second leg after being sent off in stoppage time.
Keith Curle's side, relegated last season, survived sustained pressure before Rhys Day put them in front after 41 minutes. Junior Mendes scored in the second half after Rob Ullathorne had squandered a golden chance to equalise.
Northampton had half a dozen chances before Day's goal stunned the home crowd. Martin Smith wasted the first, mis-kicking from Derek Asamoah's inviting cross. The Mansfield goalkeeper Kevin Pilkington saved twice from Marc Richards, who also went close with a spectacular overhead kick. Smith then failed by inches to convert a Paul Trollope cross, and Richards fired over from another Asamoah pass.
However, Northampton's defence were at fault for allowing the 21-year-old former Manchester City trainee Day to score with a free header from Liam Lawrence's free kick.
In the second half, Mansfield posed more of a threat and Mendes might have scored within moments of the restart but his chip cleared the bar. Harper then pulled off a good save to deny Craig Disley. Ullathorne's miss came on the hour. Picked out unmarked by Asamoah's cross, he headed straight at Pilkington and though the ball squeezed under the keeper's body, it failed to cross the line, defender Bobby Hassell hacking it to safety.
Then on 67 minutes Harper, having just saved well from Mendes, fumbled a low shot by Thomas Curtis, and Mendes pounced to force in the loose ball.
Substitute Colin Larkin had broken away in search of a third in stoppage time when Westwood pulled him down. A red card was the inevitable result. A delighted Curle said: "Before the game I asked the players to read and sign a piece of paper with the words 'when we have to work, we work; when we have to play, we play' and their response was terrific."
Goals: Day (41) 0-1; Mendes (67) 0-2.
Northampton Town (4-4-2): Harper; Westwood, Sampson (Reid, 75), Willmott, Ullathorne; Low, Hargreaves, Trollope, Smith (Taylor, 75); Richards (Youngs, 61), Asamoah. Substitutes not used: Thompson (gk), Reeves.
Mansfield Town (4-4-2): Pilkington; Hassell, Day, John-Baptiste (Mackenzie, 62), Eaton; Lawrence, Williamson, Curtis, Corden; Mendes (D'Jaffo, 83), Disley (Larkin, 77). Substitutes not used: J White (gk), Artell.
Referee: M Jones (Cheshire).
Bookings: Mansfield: Day, D'Jaffo. Northampton: Trollope.
Sending-off: Northampton: Westwood.
Man of the match: Mendes.
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