ALTHOUGH Northampton courteously toed the party line on Saturday, Walsall, Wigan and Stoke gatecrashed Cherries' leaving do from afar.

The O'Driscoll's Kids brought the curtain down on Dean Court with a comfortable victory over the cordial Cobblers, who rarely looked likely to cause any trouble.

But the post-match celebrations were somewhat subdued as news filtered through that Cherries' three rivals for a play-off place had also triumphed.

After Wade Elliott had given Cherries a 35th-minute lead with another magnificent solo effort, everything was going to plan for the home side.

In fact, at half-time, O'Driscoll's side were on course to move into fifth place in Division Two, leapfrogging both Wigan and Stoke.

Steve Bruce's Latics had gone behind at Cambridge to a Paul Wanless goal after 25 minutes before drawing level through Lee McCulloch on the half-hour.

The Potters were faring even worse at Oldham where Sam Parkin had fired the home side into a first-half lead they preserved until 17 minutes from time.

But after Claus Jorgensen had secured the points at Dean Court seven minutes after the interval, results elsewhere started to conspire against Cherries.

Carl Bradshaw's 59th-minute penalty at the Abbey Stadium proved decisive for Wigan and saw Cherries drop from fifth to sixth in the constantly updating league table.

Then, the wheels also came off at Boundary Park where late goals from Brynar Gunnarsson and Rikki Dadason helped Stoke snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And after Walsall had withstood a late flurry from Bristol Rovers to hold on to a 2-1 win, it meant Cherries' flirtations with the top six were all purely hypothetical.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Dean Court faithful and particularly hard on O'Driscoll's troops who have performed a minor miracle to sustain a play-off bid.

Less than six months ago, Cherries were firmly embroiled in a relegation battle and three places off the bottom after collecting just 13 points from their opening 16 games.

The pessimists were suggesting Cherries might even be doomed well before the end of the season, while the optimists still felt a mid-table finish was an outside possibility.

But nobody in their right mind ever pondered the prospect of Cherries going to Reading on the final day of the season with the slightest chance of making the top six. Nobody except perhaps O'Driscoll, his right-hand man Peter Grant and physio John Cooper who have instilled unwavering self-belief in their squad.

And it was that steely resolve which carried Cherries through the opening 34 minutes against the Cobblers as O'Driscoll's side continued to pepper Keith Welch in the visitors' goal without success.

Welch denied both Warren Feeney and James Hayter inside the opening 20 minutes, while Hayter again and Carl Fletcher saw thumping efforts clear the woodwork.

Carl Fletcher, in arguably one of the best performances of his fledgling career, was again thwarted when Welch blocked his close-range shot in the 23rd minute as Cherries' relentless pursuit of a breakthrough gathered momentum.

Steve Fletcher also got in on the act when he side-footed an Elliott cross straight into the grateful arms of Welch after Marco Gabbiadini had headed a Paul Dempsey centre wide for the Cobblers.

But, seconds after Steve Fletcher had been denied, Elliott finally breached Welch's goal when he ended a mesmerising run past three bemused defenders by planting a delightful left-foot shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

Elliott's goal, his ninth of the season, settled the nerves of the Dean Court crowd and also signalled the start of the end for the Cobblers who looked to be heading for a hiding.

Their frustrations grew as Jim Whitley was booked for a revenge tackle on Richard Hughes - who had received a caution for an earlier challenge on the Cobblers midfielder - and Dave Savage, yellow carded for scything down Hayter.

Cherries enjoyed a purple patch for the first 15 minutes of the second half and looked likely to score every time they ventured forward.

However, when they did manage to find the target, they received a huge slice of good fortune courtesy of Cobblers defender Ian Sampson who inadvertently deflected Jorgensen's fierce right-foot drive past a wrong-footed Welch.

But it was no more than Cherries had deserved and Jorgensen's goal was sandwiched between further chances for Steve Fletcher, Carl Fletcher and Feeney.

As the onslaught continued, Feeney slipped the ball through to a rampant Carl Fletcher who was denied a goal his impressive display merited when Welch saved his with his legs.

Eddie Howe then headed narrowly wide following a Richard Hughes corner before Elliott embarked on another electrifying run and threaded the ball into the path of Hayter who fired inches wide of the post.

On the hour, Cherries were awarded a penalty when Dempsey clearly held down Steve Fletcher as he attempted to meet Elliott's cross from the right.

But for the sixth time this season - and the fifth in their last 14 games - Cherries were found wanting from the spot kick when Steve Fletcher's effort clipped the base of the post.

Captain Fletcher had assumed responsibility for penalties after his predecessor Hughes had decided to step down following a succession of costly misses.

But it is likely Fletcher will now pass the baton to one of his team-mates, with Jason Tindall apparently champing at the bit.

O'Driscoll, however, is probably hoping Cherries can see off Reading in open play, while the prospect of a penalty shoot-out in any potential play-off decider doesn't bear thinking about.

Jermain Defoe, fresh from his exertions with England under-18s less than 48 hours earlier, was unleashed by O'Driscoll as a 69th-minute substitute for "sign-him-on" Feeney and almost grabbed an outrageous third goal on the stroke of full-time.