Welcome back Mr Nicholls!

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Sileby Rangers 0-9 Northampton Town

Pre-Season Friendly

On any other day, this first pre-season friendly of 2014 for the Cobblers would have created just a passing interest for Town fans – be it those who made up a healthy attendance at Fernie Fields this afternoon or those checking the progress from beaches and holidays. But what would usually be a low key run out turned into a significant and emotional game because of one man’s official return to the football pitch after twenty months out.

Alex Nicholls came off the bench to a fantastic reception a few minutes into the second half to cap what has been a gutsy and inspirational fight back to fitness following that horror tackle from John McCombe of Port Vale back in October 2012. You get the sense from interviews and tweets that Nicholls never imagined that he wouldn’t be back and it’s a testament to a character that we saw on the pitch for a couple of months at the start of the 2012/13 season that he’s not given in where plenty would have called it quits.

The fact that he’s even kicking a ball again is almost miraculous so to score a hat-trick inside eleven second half minutes of your first half of football back – no matter who the opposition – is outstanding. It wasn’t just the goals either as the striker put himself about like his old self. There’s only one thing left for him to do now and that’s to earn the contract that’s been held back for him by Chris Wilder.He surely cannot have done any more so far.

It was a perfect start to pre-season all round with new man John-Joe O’Toole also netting a hat-trick and Lee Collins, Ivan Toney and Chris Hackett getting on the score sheet while Kelvin Langmead and Collins led the defence to a clean sheet they’ll be more than happy with. It was never going to be a result to shout from the rooftop whatever happened but you can do no more than bag a load of goals and shut the door at the other end.

A trip to Scotland for a training camp and a match at Alloa Athletic on Thursday is next before a couple of home friendlies hopefully provide Nicholls the chance to really put the old ghosts to bed. A superb moment to kick off the countdown to the season…now get that man a contract!

Cobblers closed for business as full backs complete the squad

horwoodIt’s July 2nd are the Cobblers have apparently already finished their transfer business after completing the signings of Evan Horwood (two year deal) and Danny Alfei (season long loan) this morning. With over a month to go until the start of the season Chris Wilder is now happy enough with his squad that, barring another striker becoming available, he’s ready to roll. It seems unprecedented that we have all of our targets and signings in place before the rush of the last minute in August but it can only help with the togetherness of the squad to have a few weeks of bonding knowing that the group won’t be changing all that much before the big kick off.

We all know about Horwood, of course, after his performances in the eight games he played in at the end of last season enough to persuade Wilder to give him a longer deal this summer. His attacking play as well as his ability to defend was key in our survival and it’s also hard to find a better deliverer of the ball into the box in the sqiad than the former Tranmere man. It’s been the worst kept secret for the last few weeks but that doesn’t make it any less of a positive signing.

Alfei is another attacking full back, this time on the right hand side, who debuted for Swansea in January 2011 but who has spent most of his time on loan with spells at Wrexham and, more recently, Portsmouth, in the last couple of years. He signed a new contract with the Swans in 2013 and that should say enough about expectations for the twenty two year old.

The double signing says a lot about Wilder’s plans for the formation and it looks set to be a vibrant and attacking side that takes to the field to kick off the season at home to Mansfield Town on August 9th. Added to John-Joe O’Toole, Marc Richards and Zander Diamond these two make it an excellent summer of recruitment. There’s still an outside chance of a big forward coming in but with O’Toole’s addition this week there’s less urgency around that one as initially felt.

Pre-season is in full swing and we’ve entered July – the countdown has officially begun!

A master stroke or a risk too far? Analysing the signing of John-Joe O’Toole…

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The Cobblers’ summer recruitment took a drastic turn yesterday afternoon when John-Joe O’Toole completed his move to Sixfields with the signing providing plenty of food for thought and debate. In footballing terms, it’s a fantastic move for the club on the pitch to bring in a player on a free transfer who hit fifteen goals from midfield for a relegated side last season but when you get directed to past interviews taken from the end of last season, for example, you see that there’s an element of risk involved.

O’Toole clearly believes that he’s below his level of talent given that interview whilst at the end of his time at Bristol Rovers but that can be interpreted in two ways – either he’s a desperately passionate player who just wants to play at the highest level he can or he’s a disruptive influence that will be more trouble than he’s worth. There’s also a rebute here that shows the midfielder in a better light and in one that he argues that his statement was out of context.

What I do think is that any problems O’Toole does have in being a team player and positively influencing team mates need harnessing and Chris Wilder should be a good enough character to do just that. At twenty five, O’Toole still has time to develop as a player on and off the pitch and it’s one of those situations where you just hope that Wilder uses his experience to get the very best out of his big summer signing.

It’s another three year contract so there’s an immediate trust placed in the player by the Town boss. That in itself should speak to O’Toole and hopefully mean that he starts off with a clean slate. The new environment can only help his desire on the pitch and if the Cobblers are riding high in the league in the early months there should be no problems with him reaching his full potential.

The signing may now put a halt to any more bids for strikers by the Cobblers management with Wilder apparently cooling on bringing in a big front man. Instead, he’s likely to wait on the summer progress of Alex Nicholls and place trust in O’Toole’s ability in adding goals from midfield whilst also continuing to work on how to link up experience and youth in Marc Richards and Ivan Toney.

A right back and a left back (Evan Horwood is close to confirming his signing) are all that’s left to finish off a summer shopping list that Wilder hopes to have finished by the time the first friendly takes place on July 12th.

On paper, things are looking pretty good…now to put it all together.

World Cup Blog #4 – It’s all over

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The ‘Brothers Terrace’ were left devastated by Thursday’s events…

England…Oh, England. The four-yearly cries of agony have come much earlier this time around with the World Cup now offering just a consolation game against Costa Rica for England to run through before boarding the plane home. The team once again gave us brief, glorious hope when Wayne Rooney broke his World Cup duck on Thursday evening by equalising Luis Suarez’s opener and for a few minutes breathed fresh life into the campaign.

But that man Suarez wasn’t finished yet and the goal that we’ll see over and over again – alongside Beckham’s kick, Ronaldo’s wink and Ronaldinho’s free kick that baffled David Seaman – was the bullet heard around the country. Uruguay had come back from a threat that looked like we may even nick a win and to send us into despair.

England were not close to the standard of the Italy defeat with a nervy start leading to Suarez’s first goal and not enough going forward to suggest that we could break down their stubborn resistence. You once again got the feeling that we were susceptible to the incredible talents of the man who is so much more than a pantomime villain on these shores. Suarez’s gifting sets him apart on the football pitch…if only it stretched to a grounded personality that complemented it. Had Lionel Messi been the one to use his extra yard of pace and thought to beat us there I wouldn’t have thought there would be half as much frustration come Friday morning.

As it is, though, we are left to lick our considerable wounds. No matter how many people have played with or against Suarez you just can’t plan completely for dealing with him and the England defence were simply not good enough to handle him for ninety minutes. At the back is where many of our problems remain and this system needs a little adjustment to ensure that we go into (hopefully!) the next major competition with practiced and competent shielding for our biggest Achilles heel.

Costa Rica becomes a game where we could really do with giving “the kids” a fair crack of the whip. There’s nothing to play for and nothing at stake for us and this is surely as good a time as any to unleash a Ross Barkley or to blood a Luke Shaw at the top level. If any good can come from a game like this then setting ground work for the upcoming qualifying campaign for France 2016 is it.

Keeping Roy Hodgson in the top job is best for all parties despite this exit. We’ve been placed in a treacherous group and had we been lucky enough to be slotted into the type of group that we’ve had before I’m almost certain we’d all be sat here singing the praises of our vibrant national side. Roy deserves a chance to bring these young lads through the next qualifying campaign and the European Championships themselves.

Standing in our way in that respect are Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino. With more teams qualifying this time it means that the first, second and some third placed finished qualify direct to the finals and the next best eight teams go to the playoffs so if we don’t end up doing this all again in France then something has gone horribly wrong!

I didn’t think I’d be looking towards that so soon and before we’d even played our third group game but that’s how we stand with plenty of questions to be answered in the coming months. Now all we can do is enjoy this magnificent competition which is throwing up results that we can only be envious of.

After that, we can start to worry about the Cobblers again…whisper is quietly but we play our first friendly even before the World Cup Final takes place…

Stag day to kick off the season!

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Get those planners out…book those hotels…the fixtures are out! And it’s not worked out too bad for the Cobblers (on paper anyway) with home games to start AND finish the season. Town will host Mansfield Town for the big kick off on Saturday, August 9th and will finish with the visit of Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday, May 2nd.

If I were to publish all of the fixtures then I’d be banned from the Internet by someone in a higher power but what I think I’m allowed to do, as is the norm, is run through some key dates and give you the link to the full fixtures list which you’ve probably already dissected yourselves already:

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The start to the season has us travelling to Wolves in the League Cup on the first Tuesday night and then making jaunts to York City (Sat 16th August) and Portsmouth (Tuesday 19th) before closing out the first month with home games against Shrewsbury Town (Saturday 23rd) and Exeter City (Saturday 30th).

Other stand out fixtures on first glance see Town remaking the acquaintance with Luton Town by visiting the lovely Kenilworth Road on Saturday, October 25th and Cambridge United who we play away three weeks later on Saturday, November 15th. We’ve been given a nice Boxing Day home game with Bury (who won’t be very happy with that journey I assume!) but away games at Carlisle and Tranmere in December will tighten everyone’s purse strings in the holiday season.

There’s a local feel to the end of the season with the home games with Luton (Saturday, March 28th) and Cambridge (Easter Monday, April 6th) and the trip to Oxford (Tuesday, April 14th) all coming within a couple of weeks of one another. The final away game is Burton Albion on Saturday, April 25th.

It’s always a fun day on the summer calendar is fixtures day…let’s get planning (and tie up those last few deals!)

In Other news…

The Cobblers, as mentioned above, were once again drawn against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup. It’s the third time in four seasons we’ve met Wolves but at least this time we can be knocked out away from home rather than at Sixfields. Saying that, Clive Platt scored in one of the last meetings between the sides, so anything can happen. It’s just that it probably won’t.

Connor Roberts made it four out of four contract offers to be accepted yesterday by agreeing terms on his first professional deal. I can’t remember a time when all contract offers to players we want to hold on to were accepted over the summer so this is good news for Chris Wilder’s school of persuasion.

David Cardoza has revealed in an interview that we have three transfer deals already tied up – he just can’t tell us about them yet. Evan Horwood, the marauding left back/winger who helped us to safety last season, is widely touted to be one of those – that’s been the worst kept secret since the season ended so expect that to be confirmed soon.

World Cup Blog #3 – Reflections on a very different defeat…

sterlingLosing the first game in a World Cup is generally considered to be terminal when it comes to bids to qualify from the group stages and England’s defeat to Italy last night may well be the first stamp on a return trip home but the weird thing is that I’ve seen England teams win group games before and felt much more negative about the overall outlook.

How refreshing too is it that, on first glance anyway, the Sunday papers and match reports aren’t photo shopping vegetables in place of players and managers’ heads but instead bringing up plenty of positives from a showing that was enough to soften the blow of defeat. This England side has a fantastic vibrancy about it and actually looking forward to games is in itself a welcome detour from the usual dread that fills the veins of World Cups and European Championships.

I’m sure there’s plenty out there who don’t agree and think that only wins matter but, as this excellent article on the evolution of the Belgian side, sometimes you just have to accept that results may not go our way when we’re blooding these exciting youngsters.

Raheem Sterling was the shining star on this occasion – he simply has no fear of reputation, he gets his head down and he just runs at defences. That’s all we’ve asked of others who have come through in the last few years and failed to carry through club form into the national side partly thanks to this dreadful complex our media sometimes has that it’s either win or we’re failures. The general outlook this morning is as refreshing as last night’s efforts were and perhaps we are on the cusp of re-evaluating our position in world football.

Italy were a lot stronger than I’d envisaged and were clever in possession. It was so crucial that we got back into the game thanks to Daniel Sturridge’s well taken equaliser – the Italians are brought up on possession football and making the opposition work for it and that was key to their eventual victory here. The heat was playing its part by the later stages and after a maturing Mario Balotelli header put Italy back in front just after the break they made no more mistakes in letting us back in.

That meant chasing the game and with substitutions having to be made Sterling’s influence diminished as his energy sapped following a rejig that pushed him wider late in the game. Contrary to past England teams, though, we actually looked threatening and capable of breaking down the stubborn resistence of the Italian wall. They were more interested in keeping what they had the tactic was a testament to England’s attacking threat.

A few misplaced crosses and corners made up the final throws of our dice late on but we were at least getting into those positions. All of this sounds like a hard luck story and like a misunderstanding non-football fan saying “ah well, it’s just a game” but I’m genuinely excited about our national side again and if we come out of the competition all feeling that way then surely that’s actually better than scraping through the group playing poorly and crashing out as soon as we meet a big nation in Round Two?

The few negatives this morning all centre around Wayne Rooney and his showing on the left side of the attacking three that sat behind Sturridge. I’m torn on his involvement – on the one hand it’s clearly not his strongest position and Italy caused us problems time after time on that side of the pitch but on the other he’s still a clearly talented individual. I don’t think his performance was as bad as some are making out – many look for a scapegoat no matter what – but Roy Hodgson does have a headache going into the huge game with Uruguay on Thursday evening as to what to do with him.

That game could ultimately decide whether we make it to the Second Round but Costa Rica’s victory opens things up a little bit more. Even a draw with Uruguay keeps us in the mix so long as the Costa Ricans don’t pull another surprise on Italy earlier in the day. That being a 5pm kick off means we’ll know exactly what we’re heading into stakes wise come 8pm in our game. Should Costa Rica lose then a draw would mean that we could yet go into the final game knowing that a big win would still take us through.

All of those permutations are likely to come second to practicality and experience this time out but if we can have both progress AND some exciting play that would be very nice too!

Mohamed signing keeps one eye on Sixfields…

kaidmohamedAs all eyes turn towards Brazil, back home the Cobblers have completed their latest transfer to remind us that hard work is still being done on home shores to shape our beloved club ready for our own big kick off in August. That all seems a long time away at the moment with all the fanfare across the seas and on our TV screens reaching fever pitch over the next few days but it doesn’t take away from the excitement of another solid signing for Town this afternoon.

Kaid Mohamed arrives on a season long loan deal from Port Vale with the winger, who can play on either flank, coming in to fill in one of Chris Wilder’s key target positions having already tied Chris Hackett down to a fresh contract earlier in the summer. Mohammed’s experience in the lower leagues reached its peak at Cheltenham Town when he signed in 2011 and hit eleven goals in his debut season to tie with Darryl Duffy as the club’s leading scorer. The following season saw him net seven times and ended when the Cobblers knocked the Rubies out of the League Two playoffs at the semi-final stage.

Mohamed left Whaddon Road that summer to sign a two year deal with Port Vale who had just won automatic promotion to League One. He struggled to break into the first team, though, and was farmed out to AFC Wimbledon (one of his former clubs) between November and January. Towards the end of January, he joined Bristol Rovers on another loan deal and played 21 times but couldn’t prevent the Gas from relegation.

The first thing that strikes me here is the length of the loan deal – I’ve always been an advocate of long term loans rather than quick month long deals and it’s great to see Chris Wilder and co going with a full season deal for this one. It suits both parties with Vale obviously not interested in putting their faith in Mohamed in their first team and the Cobblers not tied down to a full contract should things not work out.

Despite not making too much of a mark in League One there’s no doubting his quality at this level based on those couple of seasons as one of the stars of Cheltenham’s runs to successive top seven finishes. If he can inspire the Cobblers to something of that ilk then he can probably stay for longer!

Wilder now moves on to his other targets which now sit, by my maths, a right back, a left back, a central midfielder and a target man. With the fixtures for next season out next week and the League Cup draw coming up on Tuesday there’s still plenty of things to keep some of our focus at least on the many changing scenes at Sixfields.