One last chance?!

lastchanceThe fairy tale ending to a strange old season is fading by the game as the Cobblers now look odds on for another season in League Two. It’s the strength in depth (or lack of) that’s killing the optimism of early 2015 with Marc Richard’s injury coming at completely the wrong time. Though it’s true that we shouldn’t be reliant on one man to get us above and beyond our targets set at Christmas we have come a long way with still that outside chance of breaking the top seven.

The Carlisle and Bury defeats were reminiscent of darker days and if we’re to mount a serious challenge, either this season or next, then old habits need to be halted. Chris Wilder seems to know just what he’s doing with long term deals and permanent signings but short term loans seem to be his undoing from what I’ve seen in the last twelve months. More stop gap signings to try and fill the boots of the top scorer aren’t necessarily the answer and it may just be that we don’t have enough this time around.

But where there’s time and mathematical hope there’s a chance and this Saturday’s game at home to Luton Town could well turn out to be do or die. The Hatters are coming in off a run of five defeats in a row and seven losses in their last eight so if ever there’s a time to catch them it’s now. On the other hand, we know that Cobblers Law could rear its ugly head again and turn another team’s form completely on its head.

Either way, it seems in many ways like a visit to Last Chance Saloon on Saturday and the Cobblers, in front of a near ‘sell out’ crowd whatever that figure is these days, have to put every psychological reason why it looks too big a task behind them and find the clinical touch that we have actually managed to conjure before without Rico.

Three points on Saturday would, at the very least, keep the window ajar for just a little bit longer.

Walking the line…

Rico...majotr loss

Rico…majotr loss

So it’s been a while since my last post thanks to what’s looking like my busiest year in a long time but since my last musings on these here pages the Cobblers had gone from strength to strength and royally involved themselves into the playoff race up to Saturday’s defeat at Plymouth. That reverse alone halted a superb run of form that had blipped a little on a cold Tuesday night in Hartlepool but picked up with a stunning win at Shrewsbury and a home success over Portsmouth. All in all, the loss at Home Park wasn’t a disaster but how we bounce back now with a home double against struggling sides will more or less define the season.

We stand five points off the top seven – a position that at Christmas looked impossible – and a point away from the 51 targeted by Chris Wilder at our lowest point of the campaign. Town have been impressing with the football being played through energetic and gritty performances coupled with goals from all over the park and now we’re heading into a critical stage where keeping up that standard will be that bit more difficult now injuries and suspensions have started to affect our smaller squad.

The main loss, obviously, is Marc Richards’ Achilles problem that’s likely to keep him out until the end of the league season and only a successful entry into the playoffs will see him return to the squad if that. With ten yellow cards for the season threatening over the likes of John-Joe O’Toole and Jason Taylor and Joel Byrom already serving a ban we’re treading a very thin line and if we are to end the season with a shot at the playoffs then it will be how we cope with the break-up of the eleven that were bringing home the points week after week that will ultimately decide it.

Such was the form of that side that you just never thought of it changing but Wilder now has a new challenge to instill that confidence in the players who come in. Darren Carter suddenly sees his chance again while Ivan Toney will have the goal scoring pressure piled onto him despite the arrival of on loan forward James Gray. Replacing the league’s top scorer is asking a lot, though, and only time will tell as to whether this turns out to be the crucial blow to a crazy old season.

Back to back home games bring hue possibilities and though Tranmere and Carlisle will bring players fighting for their futures Town will hopefully get on the front foot and work on both of their vulnerabilities.

The carrot is dangling ahead and the Cobblers’ season is hanging by the tightest of threads – thankfully this time around if we don’t reach the lofty goals set there’s no trap door to fall in to apart from those in that land called mid-table obscurity. If you’d given me that back at Christmas time I would have been well happy so this is a final furlong to embrace rather than to fear.

Up the Cobblers!

Playoffs in sight as Town win fifth in a row!

Rico...another winner

Rico…another winner

The Cobblers’ claret surge goes on and on! A fifth win in a row is in itself a rarity for battle hardened Cobblers fans in recent years but combined with performances to match the increasingly secure points total this run turns into something that’s more and more impressive.

Saturday saw Morecambe give us one of the tougher run arounds of the five game winner streak amd the visitors could well have taken something from a game that on another day (perhaps when we were struggling) would have gone against us. But Town stood strong as well as producing another flowing display that was set into life after just twenty seven seconds by Joel Byrom’s close range effort.

The Shrimps, though, didn’t come to lie down and were perhaps boosted by the fact that they had no choice as to how to play with attack their only option. The equaliser was not a great surprise despite some more hard graft from a Cobblers side that have learnt to play in a number of different ways. Morecambe levelled when the lively as ever Jack Redshaw forced Matt Duke to palm the ball into the path of Jamie Devitt who took his chance to send us in all square at the break.

But with a newly instilled will to win and to keep the run going, the Cobblers weren’t to be denied and Evan Horwood’s scuffed shot was turned in by Marc Richards for his sixteenth goal of the season. Rico is now clear in the League Two scoring charts and we could well have our first Golden Boot winner in years on our hands. Considering he also missed a chunk of games early on, it’s a terrific return and one that doesn’t seem like it’s stopping any time soon.

Rico could even have added to it as well with a spot kick that smashed the post and in the process gave us a nervy old finish but despite the visitors hitting the woodwork themselves we held out for a victory that leaves us staring directly upwards rather than peering over our shoulders.

Just how far we can go is the big question – suddenly the playoffs are in sight with the Cobblers just five points shy of Bury in seventh. It’s now about keeping up this momentum and bouncing back quickly when the run ends. We will be beaten eventually of course but if the same belief that’s running through the club at the moment is still there then there’s no reason why we can’t still make something out of a season that was dead in the water at the end of 2014.

It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if, having won five in a row, we come up against bottom club Hartlepool on Tuesday night only to lose and get put back a step but perhaps that’s my years of being a Cobblers fan giving me a cynicism that’s not at all healthy!

All eyes north, then, for a long haul Tuesday night trip that may actually provide the biggest test of our resolve so far…

The Best yet…

D'Ath...more goals from one of the signings of the season.

D’Ath…more goals from one of the signings of the season.

What more can be said at the moment about the Cobblers and their extraordinary transformation from relegation threatened in late December to the side that’s now the highest scorers in the league, comfortable in mid-table and well and truly firing on all cylinders. After a resounding home win over Newport County came a showcase of how far we’ve come in just one month as a Town side playing for over fifty minutes with ten men produced a staggering 5-1 away win at Accrington Stanley.

It was without doubt the most rounded, confident and dominating win of the season so far and it was made all that bit more impressive by the fact that Ryan Cresswell was given his marching orders in the first half with the Cobblers starting to lose grip on what was a 2-0 lead, halved by the penalty that was converted via a rebound as a result of the dismissal.

I was all set for a backs to the walls performance from there on in and Stanley did make us work for a short period after the break but Town dug in and got a tremendous reward thanks to three more goals, partly handed to us on a plate but partly brilliantly crafted. It was a stunning effort from all involved and means that we’ve gone from being two points from the bottom two on December 28th (after a 2-1 defeat at Tranmere Rovers) to being just seven away from the playoffs by January 31st.

Once again, as has been the case through this whole run, Town relied on bottle at the back, battling midfield displays and goals from a number of different positions and situations. Rico is leading the way and could become the first Cobbler to net the League Two golden boot in years if he carries on this way. Two more at the Crown Ground were added to by the outstanding Lawson D’Ath who also scored twice, and Ricky Holmes.

D’Ath and Holmes have been revelations since cementing their first team places this month and the news that Holmes has signed a permanent deal is a huge bit of business. I can’t remember one game when D’Ath has underperformed and he won’t be with us for long if he carries on the eye catching form he’s currently on.

Everything is really looking up and though we know all too well that things can go to pot as soon as you start to feel that way in football but as we head into deadline day there’s not a lot I can think of that needs changing. Billy Bodin is a decent addition as a squad player who can play in a couple of positions but unless there’s any big injuries – the lack of which also adds to the momentum at the moment – I don’t see a lot changing from a starting eleven that’s not been changed in five games.

It’s still early enough for us to get genuinely interested in the playoffs though it will take an effort just as high as this month’s in the next few weeks for us to register more than just a dream like finale to a season that looked like it was going to the dogs. I have to admit (and can’t hide from it because my words are etched onto this blog!) that I was one of those questioning Chris Wilder a month ago but thankfully he’s proved a lot of people wrong with that huge winter clearance and signings that added heart and desire to a flagging squad.

By the time the home game with Morecambe comes around next week, Wilder may even have the Manager of the Month award threatening to curse him and his rejuvenated players. A month is a long, long time in football!

The cull goes on as Town claim another Daggers win…

Sinclair...Cobblers exit

Sinclair…Cobblers exit

Every time the Cobblers play Dagenham and Redbridge I think that it surely must be this time when the incredible run of results against them comes to an end. Nine wins and a draw from our ten meetings with them paint the picture of dominance against one club that we’ve not had for years. But once again, on Saturday, we put them to the sword (ok, ok, the knife perhaps) and a 1-0 win took us further into the zones of comfort in league standing terms.

It’s as good a run of form as we’ve had for months and saw the ever popular loanee Ricky Holmes net the winner with a fine finish that further endeared himself to the claret faithful. Holmes has been outstanding since joining on loan from Pompey and one of the next orders of business for Chris Wilder needs to be getting him tied down to a longer deal. The difference that he, along with Lawson D’Ath on the opposite flank, is making takes a huge pressure off a defence that’s finally found some stability.

So on we march towards another home game but the squad numbers are getting smaller by the minute thanks to Emile Sinclair and Gregor Robertson suffering the wrath of Wilder’s January Cobblers detox. Sinclair wasn’t a great surprise to me but Robertson, a man who can cover at left back or central defence, could have still been handy back up. Wilder does seem to know what he’s doing now – something that I very much questioned a month ago – and will likely bring in at least two more new faces by the end of the month. Could we be in for yet another action packed deadline day in a couple of weeks?!

Either way, it’s all looking a lot brighter once again and with Newport County coming to Sixfields on the back of a 4-0 trouncing by Cambridge United on Saturday hopefully we can put more and more distance between ourselves and the scramble below.

Keep it up boys!

4 Years. 43 Days. 22 Hours

faithexeterExeter City 0-2 Northampton Town

League Two

Saturday, January 10th 2015

It’s all about the timing. As soon as I found out I was becoming a father back in 2010, one of the first things (after panic, nappies and putting Ikea cots together) that came into my mind was the moment when I would walk through a football turnstile for the first time with my child, introducing them to all the wonders that following the Cobblers brings. Wembley, thankfully, seemed too early. Some games were discounted because of the emotions involved (E.g. Dagenham, Oxford). But for some reason, a blank Saturday last weekend coupled with the Cobblers being within a couple of hours away from my exiled location in Exeter it just felt like the right time for an adventure. Faith Brothers would be introduced to Northampton Town Football Club on January 10th 2015 – 4 years, 43 days and 22 hours after coming into the world.

After preparing her for a couple of days in advance, Faith had begun Saturday by excitedly making a flag from an old paintbrush and tissue paper and we were ready to go – an adventure to cold Devon via a couple of trains and endless games of “I Spy.”

There were other reasons for choosing Exeter as the venue for Faith’s first game – Martha lived in the city for six months in our ‘courting’ days and memories of a commute to travel down to see her came flooding back as the train pulled in to Exeter Central. What would usually be a pub stop turned out to be a cup of juice and a bacon sandwich at a local café and we were into St. James’ Park by 2:30 (looking back it was a little too early!). The feeling was a bizarre one but definitely felt like it was the right time in the father-daughter bonding experience to make the step from Sunday morning TV highlights to the big stage of a live League Two battle.

Anyone who’s taken their kids to the football for the first time will tell you that certain things are very different from any match you’ve ever been to before. You start looking for other families to sit near rather than taking up a place next to the loony/drunk fan that’s starting all the songs. Luckily City had a family seating section available for away fans which, despite a few pillars, provided a good vantage point and a friendly atmosphere. You also find yourself much more relaxed because of you have to change your language from “Get into him” to “Uh oh, that was a close one” or “Go OOOOON” to “Ooooh what’s going to happen?!” The whole thing brought me back to my own innocent eyes watching the Cobblers for the first time and was a healthy return to the things that made me fall in love with the game in the first place.

So this is what Faith’s match report would look like:

“We wanted yellows to win. Reds nearly score three times. Yellows score! Yellow score again! I don’t like the sudden loud cheers. Oooh crisps! Want to break my flag now. Yum, sandwich. Something else happened. Bit bored now. Time to go.”

In the interest of people who clicked this blog to read a more ‘grown up’ report, here’s how I saw it:

The Cobblers started shakily and the home side were producing some good chances with through balls over the top of the Town defence. A Lee Collins slip let in Tom Nichols early on but the City striker shot tamely at Matt Duke who palmed the ball wide. The Cobblers were taking time to settle and could have been a couple of goals down by the half way mark of the first 45. Nichols went close again after racing through and lobbing Duke before Aaron Davies almost broke the deadlock with an effort from range that Duke did well to palm over the bar.

Seemingly out of nowhere, though, Town found a breakthrough against the run of play. It was that man Marc Richards once again who set us on the way by stopping low to nod in John-Joe O’Toole’s flick for the opening goal. City keeper James Hamon presented Richards with a golden opportunity to quickly double his tally for the afternoon moments later but Rico uncharacteristically shot wide.

It was left to O’Toole to make it 2-0 as he finally got off the mark for the club. His was an overall performance that was arguably his best since signing in the summer and with a greater focus on acting as a forward target rather than a drifting midfielder he seemed to flourish. Some good work on the right from Lawson D’Ath, a man who has impressed me every time I’ve seen him play, O’Toole latched onto a through ball to beat Hamon to the ball and slid it in to give us an unexpected control of the game.

O’Toole could have had a second early in the second half but headed wide before Alex Nicholls entered the fray to applause from both sets of fans. He had a good chance to halve the deficit but headed straight into Duke’s arms. The Cobblers were holding firm and it was always going to be a different second half as we protected a precious lead.

There was no real intent from Exeter to get back into the game and Town saw the game out very well indeed. If last Saturday’s draw with Southend wasn’t a turning point then this result and gritty performance could well be.

After a winter detox of players leaving the club and loans going back we seem to be in a much more positive position with an unchanged side for the first time this season. The Cobblers were wonderfully balanced with the graft of Jason Taylor in the middle of the park complimented by Joel Byrom’s clever play ahead of him and new winger Rickie Holmes producing some terrific bursts of pace opposite the always hearty and battling D’Ath.

Defensively there were one or two slips but just having solid full backs and a central partnership with decent understanding is a good start. Rico is always going to put in chances for us and may be the difference between a relegation battle and mid-table security. O’Toole is hopefully starting to turn things around and if we can get more from him then the possibility of losing Ivan Toney becomes a little easier to bear.

All in all, then, Faith’s first game won’t be one that she’ll always remember barring my wistful reminisces in years to come but no-one can take away from her the fact that her debut saw us win, keep a clean sheet and go home very happy.

As for the effects, two home games coming up makes this a big, big win and if we can back it up with a couple more positive results then the bleak midwinter blues will be fully swept away. The road to recovery has been found – now it’s all about following it through to the end.

One small step for man…

D'Ath...equaliser

D’Ath…equaliser

2015 has started with a freshness that was so vitally needed from the whole of Northampton Town Football Club. The rot was only partially stopped on Saturday with a draw but the fact that it came against a strong and much fancied Southend side and, perhaps more importantly, with a much improved performance meant that for the first weekend in what seems like months we could see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The Shrimpers are veterans at coming to Sixfields and nicking three points so when they took the lead following a Matt Duke clanger it was looking like more doom and gloom despite a positive first half that had seen new loan signings Brendan Maloney, Rickie Holmes and Jason Taylor bedding in very well. They all sounded like strong additions in their own way and the whole team felt a lot more balanced from the word go.

Credit to the side for having the spirit to bounce back – many teams on such a barren run of results would have folded but Town stepped up and one of the few stand out players of the season, Lawson D’Ath rose to nod in what could be the most crucial goal of Chris Wilder’s tenure since Ivan Toney set Dagenham alight in April last year.

So what next? It’s hard to fully explode with optimism but the performance and appreciation of it by the home support is key – if we can just get more of this type of result and move away slowly from the clutches of the bottom two then some of the bleak midwinter will be eased. Exeter away up next is a big test for version two of this season’s littered squad and to convince us all that those darker days are behind us will require more of the same.