Reds suffered only their third home League 2 defeat of the season on a frustrating afternoon at the Broadfield Stadium.
Panutche Camara hit the bar in a low-key first half before referee Craig Hicks began to incur the wrath of the home side in the second period.
In the space of two minutes he awarded Northampton a soft penalty for a foul by Ollie Palmer on Aaron Pierre. Kevin van Veen converted from the spot and Palmer was shown a straight red shortly afterwards, seemingly on the say-so of his West Stand side assistant after another Palmer-Pierre clash.
But the volume levels really rose six minutes from time when Dannie Bulman got through only to be hauled down on the 18-yard line by Ashton Taylor. Mr Hicks merely waved play to a mixture of anger and bemusement from the home fans.
In truth it was a scrappy affair with little to choose between the teams. Sadly, it was the officials’ performance that would have been the main talking point as Crawley fans made their way home.
Palmer had returned to the line-up after suspension as Gabriele Cioffi paired Reds’ top scorer with Dominic Poleon for only the second time. Ashley Nathaniel-George dropped to the bench while Romain Vincelot returned after three games out with an ankle injury. Mark Connolly (hamstring) and Filipe Morais (hand) remained on the sidelines.
The start was pretty cagey as both sides struggled to get going on a wintry afternoon of intermittent rain and a gusty wind blowing across the pitch.
The first moment of alarm at either end came on 13 minutes. Mr Hicks booked Josh Payne for bringing down van Veen on the left-hand edge of the box. The free kick was rolled to the Dutchman on the edge of the box but his shot was a yard wide.
Three minutes later Reds went desperately close to scoring. Poleon won the ball back, Reds built nicely down the left and when the ball fell to Camara on the edge of the box he beat David Cornell with a curling right-foot shot but it came back off the corner of post and bar.
It was the only time Crawley seriously threatened in the first half but the Cobblers didn’t offer a great deal either in a messy, frustrating half although skipper David Buchanan’s on-target volley in the 39thminute was well blocked by George Francomb. Reds often got themselves into decent positions but neither keeper had been seriously tested.
The goal the game needed came in the 52ndminute. Ollie Palmer and Aaron Pierre contested a loose ball inside the box and Mr Hicks deemed Palmer had made sufficient contact into Pierre’s back to point to the spot and van Veen made it 1-0, sending Glenn Morris the wrong way.
It got worse for Crawley two minutes later. Palmer again challenged Pierre on the touchline this time and, seemingly on the advice of his assistant, the referee flashed a red card and Crawley were down to ten men. Whether the foul was worthy of a straight red is open to doubt and, in the aftermath, a furious Gabriele Cioffi was also shown a yellow card for his protests.
“1-0 to the referee” was the cry from the home fans as Reds began to rouse themselves against perceived injustices. Poleon was replaced by Reece Grego-Cox just after the hour and the former QPR man dragged a right-foot shot just wide in the 65thminute. Luke Gambin then made his way to the line and nearly surprised Cornell, who grabbed his cross-shot at the second attempt.
Then came the main talking point as Bulman went down after Grego-Cox had played him in. No penalty and no points for the Reds.
Reds: Morris; Francomb, McNerney, N’Gala, Garner; Bulman, Payne (sub: Nathaniel-George 78); Camara, Gambin; Poleon (Grego-Cox 61), Palmer. Subs: Mersin, Young, Doherty, Vincelot.
Attendance: 2389 (499 Northampton)
Picture: Luke Gambin challenges for the ball during the first half. Photo by James Boardman