AN HOUR before kick-off at the Sixfields Stadium former Wales international striker Ian Walsh told listeners to BBC Radio Wales he doubted whether Wrexham had the bottle to emerge victorious from what both they and Northampton recognised would be a crucial pointer to the final outcome of this season's battle to avoid relegation.
And, on paper at least, Walsh was proved right as the Dragons once again found themselves incapable of defending the lead they had taken midway through the first half.
But no-one, least of all Walsh, could have envisaged what was to unfold in the final quarter of a contest that had long had stalemate written all over it until referee Rob Styles took centre stage.
Within the space of four hectic minutes he awarded Northampton a penalty and sent off Wrexham defender, Kevin Sharp, both of them debatable decisions which tilted the balance in favour of the home side.
The straight red card for the former Wigan Athletic defender so enraged Wrexham coach Joey Jones that he too was banished from the touchline and within three minutes of that fracas the home side had taken advantage of their opponents' disarray to make it 3-1.
Further rubbing salt into the Dragons' wounds, there was a second sending off in the final minute, when substitute Dan Bennett was penalised for denying a goal-scoring opportunity, that produced a second penalty and the home side's fourth goal.
Watching from the sidelines, Wrexham's club captain Brian Carey was both dismayed and disappointed. "It was even up to the hour and it looked like two sides down there struggling to get out of it," he said.
"The lads said the first penalty was debatable, although sometimes they are given, but Sharp's sending-off was ludicrous. It was right in front of me and it was nonsense. There was no need for it and, while you have to be diplomatic about it, it was a poor decision.
"When we went down to 10 men, we seemed to lose our shape and it went downhill from there.
"The result makes things difficult for us but we'll continue to fight on. Everybody is frustrated but we have to keep hold of ourselves. We can't afford to have people suspended but everyone wants the best for the club and it seems that the gods conspired against us today."
Whether it was the gods or the referee's interventions makes little difference now and manager Denis Smith will not have failed to spot that Northampton's two goals from open play came from pretty much unforced errors at the back.
A lack of concentration was to blame for Northampton's first-half equaliser, three minutes before the break, at a time when Wrexham were on top. Paul Barrett, receiving a short free-kick from Darren Ferguson, drove his shot straight at goalkeeper Keith Welch, who turned defence into attack with his long clearance.
Jamie Forrester, hardly the biggest man on the field, got his head to the ball and turned it back for the unmarked James Hunt to beat Marius Rovde with a low shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Smith might be more forgiving about the home side's third goal, given that his depleted side were by then chasing the game and having to take risks, but substitute Derek Asamoah got past Lawrence with alarming ease before picking out Sam Parkin, again unmarked and in acres of space, who made up for a couple of earlier misses.
But what finished as a rout had for most of the afternoon been a keenly-fought contest between two sides who knew only too well what was at stake. There was not a lot of fluent football, given the circumstances, and anxiety levels were high, particularly in front of goal.
Parkin, Ian Sampson and Forrester all snatched at chances in front of Rovde and his opposite number, Welch, saved from Lee Trundle and Craig Faulconbridge, while Carlos Edwards drove another good effort just too high before Wrexham took the lead they probably just deserved after 21 minutes.
There didn't seem to be much on for Trundle when, with his back to goal, he took Barrett's pass but he turned quickly to wrong-foot Sampson and struck a low shot across Welch and into the bottom corner of the net for his fourth goal in six matches.
Northampton, though, deserve credit for the manner in which they dug in and refused to let heads drop. Paul McGregor and Christian Hargreaves drove things forward from midfield, eclipsing the efforts of Barrett and Wayne Phillips to win and hold the ball.
Too much responsibility was thrust upon the shoulders of Ferguson and, with Sharp and Jim Whitley being given little opportunity to get forward in support, Wrexham were unable to maintain any level of pressure on the home defence.
Hunt volleyed a good Northampton chance wide and Parkin got too much on a header from a set-piece before the visitors cleared their lines, but when the ball was in the opposing penalty area the back four switched off and were punished by the route one equaliser.
Neither side seemed willing to take too many chances from the restart and the game was going nowhere for the best part of half-an-hour, the lack of goalmouth action punctuated only by one wayward effort from Edwards and Wrexham's first and only corner of the game after 67 minutes.
But Northampton upped the tempo five minutes later when Hargreaves picked out Parkin, whose header was turned over the top by the alert Rovde, and Asamoah then outstripped Shaun Pejic to fire in a low cross. Dennis Lawrence's tackle on McGregor was certainly firm and, as the Northampton man hit the ground, referee Styles pointed to the spot and skipper Roy Hunter converted.
An unhappy and dissenting Ferguson was booked and the simmering resentment was reflected in Sharp's subsequent challenge on McGregor four minutes later that produced the first dismissal.
From that point on, it went from bad to worse for Wrexham with Parkin netting the third and being denied a fourth by Bennett's presence on the line, which brought another red card from the referee and gave Hunter the opportunity to wrap up the points.
And if this is the result that proves to be the point of no return for Wrexham, the irony of the situation will not be lost on those supporters who were at Northampton nine years ago when the club secured promotion to the second division.