The first chinks of light

Alex RevellIt’s been a pretty slow, concerning pre-season so far truth be told with the Cobblers squad being slowly chipped away at and poor old Rob Page trying to appease the situation with hopeful interviews and calming messages. So it was with a bit of relief that Page’s latest test, a friendly against QPR that in other pre-seasons wouldn’t have come under half as much scrutiny, was somewhat overcome thanks to a solid rear guard showing and a well taken goal from one of his new recruits.

It’s always a bit of a funny period in the build up to the big kick off but if we’re going to despair in the 4-2 defeat to Brackley then surely we should herald the merits of a draw with a decent Championship side. At the same time, if we don’t care too much that we shipped four goals on Saturday, we shouldn’t be getting overly excited by a strong defensive showing on Tuesday.

Either way you look at it, the QPR performance was an improvement and two new signings – at each end of the pitch – look decent acquisitions based on the feedback so far. Gabriel Zakuani has settled well at the back and Alex Revell continued a decent run in front of goal with an eye catching finish in front of the home crowd for the first time.

In the middle of the park, 17-year-old Shaun McWilliams provides a hope for a piece of home grown talent in the build up to the season. Having signed his first professional deal in May, McWilliams is now fully involved and by all accounts didn’t look out of place on Tuesday night. If his development kicks on it’ll be a massive bonus in a season when every place in the squad counts.

There are still questions on attacking intent with the obvious Ricky Holmes shaped hole just begging to be filled. Anyone looking for a direct replacement in terms of flair, creativity and style will likely be disappointed but if Page can pull a rabbit out of the hat in the form of a winger even close to Holmes’ ability then the first eleven will start to look more than capable of holding their own.

Port Vale’s player of the year Anthony Grant is the only target officially rotating around the Cobblers rumour mill as things stand with the midfielder the subject of an offer from his former boss that was described by Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite as one that wouldn’t fuel his car for a year. Until we know what kind of motor Smurthwaite rolls around Burslem with we won’t know the true value of our offer but the point is that it was far beneath what Vale would require.

There’s surely plenty bubbling along under the surface but credit to Page for not rushing out and signing any old Tom, Dick or Harry just to appease the impatient among us (myself included!).

On the pitch, Tuesday night was a welcome relief and hopefully now that we’re well into the pre-season campaign some of the niggles will begin to iron out.

The final furlong – two weeks to go until the season starts – is upon us this weekend!

Ten years down!

stock-photo-25724593-number-ten-10-chocolate-birthday-cakeA couple of days late this may be but this here blog has just passed its TENTH ANNIVERSARY!

In the absence of the ability to share cake and party hats with you all, instead I’ll celebrate by bringing you a retrospective of sorts with some hopes and dreams for the future of Northampton Town Football Club for the next ten years.

We head into 2016/17 going back into League One off the back of a majestic promotion winning season, one of scintillating football at times, battling qualities at others and uncertainties about the very future of the club at extreme. But the summer has begun in not so celebratory mood with the departures of a highly rated manager and a star player amongst others. As I started this blog ahead of the 2006/07 season things looked pretty similar, barring the title win and off the pitch shenanigans, with promotion followed by Colin Calderwood leaving for Nottingham Forest and Martin Smith leaving a giant football genius shaped hole in the Sixfields turf. John Gorman was brought in to steady the ship but ended up leaving by December with Stuart Gray picking up the reins and the form to steer us to mid-table.

So what’s changed in the ensuing ten years since I first put fingers to keys in an attempt to chronicle the fortunes of my beloved Cobblers? On paper, not a lot – we’re back where we started, about to make an assault on League One with uncertainties abound over what the squad will look like. Away from the simple league placing, though, this club has certainly been through the ringer – takeovers, dodgy owners, seven full time managers, many flirtations with our very existence (through league position and incompetence at the top) and Leon Constantine.

My favourite Cobblers related moment of those ten years? Without a doubt, THAT night at Anfield. How a group of League Two players could not just go to one of the most famous arenas in the world and come away victorious but also look like they completely belong alongside full internationals still gives me goose bumps. I’ve never had a feeling at a football match quite like that night and the fact that a true Cobblers legend like Sammo could lead us through it as manager just made it that bit sweeter.

There have, of course, been numerous moments that would attempt to make us all forget that incredible night but what you learn in following your team across the country is that any collection of disappointments become completely worth it once something historical happens once in a while.

‘Off the pitch’ so to speak, I was just coming out of university when this blog began. Ten years later I’m a husband, a father to two and as much of a Cobbler in exile as I was all those years ago, albeit now living in beautiful Somerset. Has being distant in miles made me distant in thought? Never. Has it meant that I can’t get to as many games as I’d like to? Of course. But what many who follow the Cobblers (or any team for that matter) from afar will tell you, you feel every kick, header, booking, tackle, goal and moment just as hard as if you were live watching your heroes do their thing.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought of stopping the blog a few times over the last few months. Ten would be a nice number to end on, a nice chronology in a neat package to look back on. But something about that thought niggled away at me. What if something extraordinary happens again? What if the Cobblers (unlikely as it may be) propel themselves up the leagues? What if indeed we ended up going the other way? And all of that with only my brain to rely on? I don’t think I could justify it to myself. What I love about having this is occasionally being able to look back on how I felt during certain matches or time periods and I’m not quite ready to stop trying to put words to this crazy journey of ours.

The blogs may be getting more sparse and there are others around the great Interweb who can likely give much more of an up to the minute account of proceedings but while I’m still able to and while I’m not getting comments telling me to quietly disappear into cyber space, I want to keep this going.

So where do Northampton Town go from here?

There’s plenty of work to be done in the close season. Ricky Holmes has by no measure been replaced and we arguably need an additional winger to give us confidence at League One level. Defensively I still don’t feel 100% comfortable and another younger striker would be nice. That’s the short term, though, and it’s vital that we at least stay up this season.

From there it’s a case of establishing ourselves outside the basement division as a club that players want to come to and a place where young talent wants to stay rather than being linked to supposed ‘bigger’ sides. We must get issues with Sixfields sorted, a proper East Stand back in place and a long term plan for not just surviving but for taking ourselves to the next level.

Of course, football is never that easy and I could end up being back here in ten more years in exactly the same place again. But however it works out, we’ll enjoy the moments, the joy, the laughter and the tears together. I love every one of you who continues to read this blog and thank you for your thoughts, comments and support over the years.

Onwards to another ten!

Papering over the cracks as Town return!

Ricky HolmesIt’s been a summer of uncertainty for The Cobblers so far – one that started just days after the final whistle was blown and the last bus on the celebration parade turned off its engine. Chris Wilder’s departure can only, at this point, be seen as the catalyst for what’s been a concerning pattern of key players deciding that their own futures also lay elsewhere.

Ricky Holmes was always going to be the most high profile negotiator and once the mercurial winger had put his cards on the table and handed in a transfer request there was no stopping him making the move to Charlton Athletic. Coming after Danny Rose joined Portsmouth and Nicky Adams also dropped back to League Two with Carlisle United, it meant that three big components of the team spirit forged by the outgoing Wilder gave Rob Page his first headaches since joining the club.

You have to feel sympathy for the tough job that Page now faces so soon after making a leap of faith by leaving relative comfort at Port Vale for Sixfields. But the rebuilding has begun and while new signings haven’t been ‘household names’ there’s plenty of reasoning behind each new addition that means we should have a great shout of at least a season of consolidation back in League One.

Alex Revell, while never a 20-goal-a-season striker, brings huge experience and knowhow of this level and beyond while Gabriel Zakuani will do the same at the other end of the pitch. Admittedly I don’t know a lot about Jak McCourt or Raheem Hanley – both in their early twenties – but both appear to be squad players who’ll look to give competition to the established first team that are left of the championship winning side.

David Cornell rounds off the summer incomings so far with the keeper joining from Oldham Athletic. Ryan Clarke’s departure was perhaps the least damaging to Page’s plans and the instant swoop for Cornell tidied that problem up pretty quickly. He’ll need to do a lot to dislodge Adam Smith of course, a man who gives us hope (as long as he stays) that our rear guard will be in good shape come the start of festivities in August.

The season will kick off against Fleetwood Town at Sixfields on August 6 and without meaning any disrespect to the Cod Army you couldn’t have asked for much better a start to the season than a home game against a side who just survived the drop last season. It remains to be seen where each side will be at come that day but it should be an opener to at least give us a bit of hope for a positive start to what could be a challenging season. Looking down the fixtures list makes you realise just how big a step up this could be but with the right replacements for Holmes, Adams and the like there’s no reason why we can’t compete.

The holes that remain, from what I can see, is a rough and ready central midfield leader who’ll ruffle feathers in the middle of the park and compete with John-Joe and Joel Byrom, a couple of high quality wingers and a younger striker with a proven record of goal getting at this level. The latter is something that, of course, every League One side will be looking for but could well be the difference of a few league places. Rico and Revell will knock in a good number but both may struggle to complete the full season.

There’s still plenty of time to form the team that will hopefully establish the Cobblers back as a competitive force in League One and the contracts up and down the country that end today should mean a bit more movement in the transfer market. Watch this space, and keep that faith!

Page unveiled as the new man for Cobblers

523390419TM00005_PORT_VALE_The usual time scale for naming a new manager – particularly at the end of a season and before playoffs are complete – is pretty lengthy and drawn out but Kelvin Thomas and the Cobblers have worked fast to get their man as Port Vale’s Rob Page was unveiled this afternoon at a Sixfields news conference. It was clear from the start of the process last week that Thomas had some ideas in mind as to the type of profile he wants for the new boss and Page is likely to have been one of the candidates identified early on.

He’s by no means a high profile appointment but after plenty of recent appointments before Chris Wilder that have flattered to deceive in terms of coming with a load of hype and expectation it’s maybe for the best that we’ve gone for a young manager who has already done a decent job at League One level. Vale was Page’s first managerial position and having led them to safety in his first few months in charge at Vale Park, it’s notable that he helped them to defy last season’s relegation odds (Vale were second favourites for the drop at the start of the campaign) to finish in the top half of the table.

To me, that’s a key point of the whole appointment. He’s worked on limited resources to stabilise Vale and has worked above and beyond the goals that would have been set for him a year ago. Though his experience as a manager isn’t as vast as many on the list, he’s preferable to me to the likes of Gary Bowyer for his knowledge of the division both as a player and during his couple of years as a manager. He’s proved to be a good communicator and man manager and obviously has motivational skills to get players to play above their potential – particularly the likes of JJ Hooper who the Cobblers released in 2014 but reappeared for the Valiants with goals and performances of some maturity this season.

Vale fans were disappointed at the news of Page leaving too, which is a pretty good indicator, though some of their reasons for why he shouldn’t choose Northampton are questionable to say the least!

The appointment is early enough now for the Cobblers to move on and Page will have the entire summer to prepare for life in League One with his new charges. The key tasks will be retaining the likes of Adam Smith, Ricky Holmes and John-Joe O’Toole and dipping into his contact book to bring in the right players that won’t disrupt the team spirit of a club that went through every emotion possible together this season.

With all of this in mind, here are a couple of key points from this afternoon’s press conference where Page was formerly announced as the new Cobblers boss..

Kelvin Thomas welcomes his man…

Thomas welcomed Page to the club and emphasised his delight at bringing in an “outstanding young manager” who is “energetic,  young and ambitious.” He was looking for a manager to come in and continue the work done by Chris Wilder and Alan Knill.

John Harbin joins as Performance Coach…

Joining Page at the club is Performance Coach John Harbin who has a background in Rugby League and football and has previously held similar posts at Oldham, Crystal Palace, Charlton, Coventry, QPR, Swansea, Plymouth and with Page at Port Vale.

Further announcements to come…

More backroom staff appointments will be made “in due course” with the assistant manager position still open at the time of writing. Rumours of Marc Richards agreeing to become a player/assistant are rife but that’s yet to be confirmed.

The first words…

Page was immediately interviewed by Sky Sports News this afternoon and gave a steady, confident interview and emphasised the need to manage expectations. He mentioned that he’s not met the players because they’ve already gone off on their holidays but is already looking forward to pre-season. Page acknowledged Chris Wilder’s work and said that he’s spoken to the former Town boss, who was hugely complimentary about the squad.

He also gave his first Cobblers Player interview and said it was a “no brainer” to join the Cobblers after speaking with Kelvin Thomas, who he seems to credit a lot to in terms of the decision to leave Vale Park for Sixfields. He again praised the efforts of the players last season and expressed it as a “great opportunity” to work with them.

Overall, Page seems in a very calm mood on his first day in the job.

Let the new era officially begin!

Blades calling for Wilder – what now for Cobblers?

wilderAfter talks broke down with Charlton Athletic on Monday, Chris Wilder’s head was immediately turned in a northern direction and today the man who led the Cobblers to the League Two title has agreed terms with his boyhood club Sheffield United. The Blades, who will be one of the strong favourites for promotion to the Championship from League One next season, acted quickly on sacking Nigel Adkins and Wilder signed a three year deal this afternoon.

It puts the Cobblers back in a sticky situation ahead of a summer that could now be disrupted in terms of players following Wilder out of the Sixfields door. Kelvin Thomas does, though, seem to want it all resolved as soon as possible so that planning can begin right away for what’s a hugely important first season back in League One.

I’m pretty torn on feelings towards Wilder at this stage. What he’s done for this club is nigh on miraculous having picked us up from the brink of relegation, steadied the ship and then come through this incredible season as champions. His dedication to the club over the last year can’t be questioned in the slightest and there will always be a fond memory of his and Alan Knill’s time in charge. But at the back of my mind there’s a small niggle at him not following the job on having made so many bold statements of team spirit and togetherness. In time I think the latter feeling will fade as we reflect on how we made it to winning the title but all may depend on how strong the follow up regime kicks in. He’ll be forgiven a lot more by Town fans, I’m sure, if the next in line to the top job takes us on that next step further.

That ambition isn’t necessarily unfounded – there’s plenty of history of upwardly mobile clubs continuing on their trajectory after a manager leaves for pastures new having built something successful and with the right leader in place now there’s no reason why we can’t hold onto this special atmosphere. The new manager has a lot to do to hold onto that but in his favour is the long deals for key players put in place by Wilder, meaning that the bulk of the squad is at least tied down for another year.

As for who that new man is, well, names are already being bandied about by bookmakers and here’s the first set of odds:

http://www.thesackrace.com/teams/northampton-town

Out of those, Steve Cotterill’s name stands out immediately to me. He’s got bags of experience, plenty of character and his last shot at League One ended with him delivering Bristol City’s first league title for sixty years alongside a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win in the same season. Cotterill would be one with a long list of contacts and his knowledge of the football league makes him a prime candidate.

Another on that list to perk the interest is Chris Powell, another to boast of a League One title having won the division with Charlton in 2012 whilst the likes of Gary Bowyer and Uwe Rosler might be looking to continue to cut their teeth in top jobs.

Whoever comes out on top in the race for the Town job, there’s plenty for them to get stuck into and at least gives us a big story to follow over the next few weeks!

Thanks do have to go to Chris Wilder and Alan Knill for all of their work, no matter what the circumstance of their departure. They were the lynchpins of the club during a crisis and took us to an unbelievable title. Now it’s time to move on as yet another new chapter in the story of our beloved club begins…

Oh go on then, one more for the road…

After the lord mayor’s show come crucial questions…

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This glorious, unbelievable, wonderful season is over. A campaign that saw Northampton Town Football Club dragged to hell and back ends with a points haul of 99 points, an unbeaten run of 24 games and a highlight reel that will be replayed for generations to come.

The celebrations and outpouring of emotions came to a head on Sunday when the town came out in force to welcome its heroes on the open top bus parade and if ever you need to be reminded what this football club means to its town then look no further than the feelings expressed over the past few months and in the scenes in the town centre on Sunday. Players, staff and officials were rightly given heroes welcomes in a fitting finale with victory at Portsmouth on the final day the icing on the cake before the party could begin.

But as the dust settled, Monday saw disturbing news that could threaten to halt the momentum of promotion and the championship win. Chris Wilder and Alan Knill have been approached by Charlton Athletic and Kelvin Thomas contractually had to agree to the pair going to London for talks in a twist that not many would have seen coming.

Wilder and Knill, of course, have every right to go and talk to Charlton with both of them at a stage in their career where chances to manage at a club with such a pedigree at a minimum. But with the Addicks’ problems well documented is there really a whole lot of difference between the two clubs going into the 2016/17 season? I understand the history, the recent heights that Charlton have been playing at and the fact that theoretically they’ll be amongst the favourites for League One next season if they sort their off the pitch problems out but this still seems a little bit of an odd one to me. The momentum that the Cobblers have surely can’t be matched by many teams at the start of next season should the squad remain together and I’d argue that at this point in time we’re a much more stable place to be than at The Valley.

Things can change though and perhaps promises are being made to the duo that this is a bright new start for Charlton rather than the continuation of a downward spiral. If the powers that be manage to persuade Wilder and Knill to move then we could be facing not only the loss of the management team that have been the pillars of this incredible season but also that loss of the togetherness that they spoke of so often in the last few months.

There surely has to be part of them that wants to finish this job, whatever that entails, with a crack at League One. If they do move then there’s a massive chance that the job becomes a completely different one and the place instantly becomes restless. Will the players that were led so defiantly by Wilder up sticks as well for pastures new? Not necessarily following him to Charlton but looking elsewhere now that the heads of the operation have been taken off? Whoever would come in as replacements would face a massive task of keeping that spirit alive and convincing the key figures to hang around and really have a go with the group that fought tooth and nail together to earn promotion in the first place.

It’s all ifs and buts at the moment but it’s a situation that could put a bit of a downer on the celebrations and lead to a summer of uncertainty. The season may be only just over but we’ve certainly wasted no time in creating headlines within days of the final whistle!

Michael Appleton created a headline of his own on Saturday when he ridiculously claimed that his Oxford United side were the best in League Two just seconds after they clinched promotion. Instead of just enjoying his side’s achievements – which are impressive, don’t get me wrong – he decided to ignore the fact that the side above his not only finished on 99 POINTS but also did the double over his side. He claimed that his comments might upset some people in Northampton…Mr Appleton, it’s such a laughable comment that it becomes mere humour rather than anything that would disturb a championship parade. See you next season Mr A!

Champions! So what now?

sky-bet-league-two-trophy-4x3528-2737037_478x359The title is won and Northampton Town are CHAMPIONS of League Two. Many of us never thought they would live to tell a tale of a championship winning Cobblers side but after a goalless draw at Exeter City we’ve done it and can spend a summer in the sun as a returning force to League One. Although the four draws in a row that sealed promotion and top spot weren’t a showcase of our collective powers, it really doesn’t matter with the joy that followed the final whistles at Sixfields last week and at St. James’ Park on Saturday overflowing across Town fans across the country.

Last night, the Cobblers did get back to winning ways and saw off Crawley Town in a homecoming fit for champions. Again it wasn’t a score line that blows anyone away but it was important to get back to winning ways and to keep this extraordinary unbeaten run going. The proud nature of Chris Wilder and this phenomenal group of players should mean that there’s still plenty to write home about in the final three games of the season. So here’s just a few things to keep us interested as those below us battle to join us in League One…

The 100 point dream

Last night’s victory over Crawley keeps alive the one final dream of this season – for the Cobblers to reach the magical 100 point mark. With nine points to play for, it’s tantalisingly poised with Town eight points away from reaching that particular target. Yeovil Town, Luton Town and Portsmouth stand in our way – Yeovil is certainly winnable with their safety now secure, Luton will bring with them a crowd baying for our blood that should lift the atmosphere on the day when we’ll lift the trophy whilst Portsmouth away on the final day will guarantee a party on the south coast. Pompey may still need points to secure a playoff place on that day as well so if we go into it with 98 points on the board it makes for a fascinating afternoon. First, though, to get there!

The battle for 2nd and 3rd

Just two points separate second and fifth in League Two with Accrington, Oxford, Plymouth and Bristol Rovers battling it out for the final two automatic promotion places. What a great position we’re in to be able to watch that fight unfold in the next couple of weeks and it’s a position we’ve truly earned. The fact that none of the four play each other in the final three games means it’s a case of who holds their nerve best in their own games and it’s becoming a titanic battle to avoid dropping into the end of season lottery. Speaking of which…

The Playoffs

One of the biggest reliefs about sealing promotion is that we’re not going to be involved in the playoffs. With two of the aforementioned sides guaranteed to be in that mix likely along with Portsmouth and a resurgent Wimbledon (who both still have a game in hand) it’s looking like one of the strongest line ups for League Two playoffs in years. Exciting games ahead!

The fringe

We saw glimpses last night of fringe players coming back in to attempt to persuade Chris Wilder that they have the nouse to stay in his plans for League One. The likes of Josh Lelan may be given a big chance to impress before the summer and maybe we’ll even see some younger talent pop up in the last three games.

The crowning of champions

Finally, the Luton game gives Cobblers fans the chance to herald their heroes at Sixfields one last time before the summer and we should be ready for a send-off like no other. It’s looking like we’ll lift the League Two trophy on that day and images from the end of that game will go into the annuls of history alongside the Wembley Heroes.

So there are just a few things to keep us interest in this remarkable season. It’s a chance to properly enjoy our football and enjoy our wonderful club before the summer.

Up the Cobblers!