The frailties of a disjointed Plan B

Watson...second debut to forget

Watson…second debut to forget

Northampton Town 0-2 Plymouth Argyle

This wasn’t the Cobblers that everyone was raving about seven days ago. This wasn’t the free flowing, dangerous side that had started the season so brightly. And this definitely wasn’t the Cobblers that we hoped would turn up against one of the better sides in League Two this season. It was the Cobblers who we’ve seen far too often before – a team who, when all else failed, resulted to long ball tactics to absolutely no effect and handed the game to the visitors with terrifying ease.

I was intrigued by a fresh Town line up and looking forward to seeing how we would match up at home to another attack minded outfit. But after a decent enough start where the Cobblers were tidy but ultimately ineffective, a silly goal was given away before the Pilgrims happily scrambled in a second to seal a fully deserved three points.

With Marc Richards, Nicky Adams, Alfie Potter, the recovered Zander Diamond and, in his re-debut, Ryan Watson all coming in after the dismal defeat at Barnet on Tuesday night, hope was that it was just a blip and we started reasonably well. Reuben Reid, one of a few attacking danger men for Argyle, was taken off early on to be replaced by Ryan Brunt and we were playing some decent stuff without ever producing the penetration needed to break down a stubborn Plymouth rear guard.

Adams had our first effort on goal before Lawson D’Ath shot over from long range but there was never a sense that the killer pass or cross was coming. Still, getting to the break at 0-0 wouldn’t have been a bad return but the killer turning point came just second before the whistle.

It was a nightmare moment for Watson, who was looking to prove himself for a second time in place of the suspended (and missed) Jason Taylor. With no danger, the Leicester loan man slipped in the middle of the park and Graham Carey snapped the ball up, raced through and cooly slotted in the opening goal into the corner of a helpless Adam Smith’s net.

The goal led Wilder into panic mode and Dominic Calvert-Lewin was brought on to necessitate a change to a more open 4-4-2 formation. It was too soon and rather than form a route back into the game, it led only to Plymouth having access to a whole new plethora of space in the middle of the park. While they made use of it and kept their steely nerve in place, passing the ball with ease, the Cobblers reverted to lumping the ball up towards targets that were never going to make the ball stick.

Had we stuck to the original game plan we would have at least had some cohesion to the play. As it was, there was no direction and a complete lack of a game plan. Whether that’s down to the players on the pitch or the manager is up for debate but Wilder is experienced enough to spot when something isn’t working and get the message across to his charges.

Plymouth, inevitably, took advantage and were, to be fair, very good themselves and earnt the second goal, given to them by a scrambled Jake Jervis effort from a corner with twenty minutes to go. Sam Hoskins and Paul Corry were the other subs to be used by Town but if we’d been playing all night we wouldn’t have found a way back in. Josh Lelan’s late red card summed up a dire second half.

The plus point in all of this is that this type of performance highlighted some huge flaws in our plan b before the transfer window closes in just over a weeks’ time. It’s glaringly obvious that we need back up in central defence and a different option up front who will make the ball stick if we’re to change tack at times to go long ball. There’s no point in going direct with no target man. Rico can try all he might but he needs to be eating off scraps rather than trying to be something he’s not.

The only other positive is the goalkeeper Adam Smith, who was commanding as well as being a fine shot stopper. He’ll win and keep us points by himself this season, I’ve no doubt about it.

Other than that, reality has well and truly hit the dream start to the 2015/16 season.

Individual thoughts on the new look Cobblers…

Adam Smith: Already looking an outstanding acquisition and is doing all his talking on the pitch since his acrimonious departure from Leicester.

Josh Lelan: Still extremely raw and the red card was a product of getting caught out of position too often. Brendon Maloney won’t be too worried about getting his place back once he returns from injury on this viewing.

Ryan Cresswell: As dominating as ever in the air but will be challenged pace-wise by many forwards this season.

Zander Diamond: Glad he’s back but as with Cresswell could be beaten too easily in ground races. I worry about options here.

David Buchanen: Touches of class but not the attacking force he’s been early season.

Ryan Watson: A second debut to forget and not just for the slip for the goal. Hopefully just early nerves.

Joel Byrom: Went missing at times when we needed a calming influence at 1-0 down.

Nicky Adams: Signs are there of a terrier like striker but needed to grab the game by the throat more often and drive us forward.

Alfie Potter: Was performing well in the number ten role before his half-time substitution.

Lawson D’Ath: Moments of class but again not enough drive and creativity on this occasion.

Marc Richards: Not showing his usual presence so far but needs to be the poacher rather than the target man.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Sub): Ineffectual and not the option we needed from the bench. Would work better if we’re defending a lead and need energy.

Sam Hoskins (Sub): Not enough time to play to his strengths and seemed a desperation sub rather than anything else.

Paul Corry (Sub): Played for the last fifteen minutes. Apparently.

Elementary…

ryan watsonRyan Watson has made his triumphant return to Sixfields by signing a loan deal until January as more beef is added to an already impressive Cobblers midfield. With Jason Taylor’s red card at Barnet and a frantic Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday run of games through August Chris Wilder has moved to bring in a man who was just getting going in his first spell with us last season.

The 22-year-old played five times for the Cobblers a year ago but when a cruciate knee ligament injury hit the Leicester man returned to his parent club. But now back in full health, he’s back and should go straight into the squad for the visit of Plymouth Argyle on Saturday afternoon.

It’s a signing that makes complete sense given the solid start he made last season and the amount of games we’ve got coming up. Watson proved himself well in his short stay and will likely see plenty of action with injuries and suspensions already taking their toll on the Cobblers squad.

Don’t rule out more late signings in the next couple of weeks (Central defensive back up please!) as the transfer deadline rolls towards closure on September 1st.

 

Different venue, same outcome as Barnet sting Town again

Akinde...brace

Akinde…brace

Barnet 2-0 Northampton Town

The stadium and surroundings may have been different but it was the same old trip to Barnet last night as the Cobblers fell to a first defeat of the season. For the second successive season that the Bees have been in the league, their first win came against us and though last time out it was in October this will have meant just as much to get off the mark.

There’s undoubtedly feelings of revenge in the air for them too after Town relegated them in 2013 on a final day of the season that helped to spare AFC Wimbledon in the process. But the main point is that Chris Wilder has more thinking to do if he’s to get back to the positive feelings around the club by the time a dangerous Plymouth side arrive at Sixfields on Saturday afternoon.

Wilder made a big gamble by changing his successful starting eleven with key attacking options amended by choice (Marc Richards and Nicky Adams replaced by Sam Hoskins and Dominic Calvert-Lewin) and by necessity (Ricky Holmes injured in the warm up). Zander Diamond, taken off at half time against Exeter, was also missing through injury as Rod McDonald came in.

It was a gamble that the manager would eventually pay for as chances went begging in the first half and the home side came out with more intent to take the win after the break.

Hoskins and Calvert Lewin forced Bees keeper Graham Stack into a double save early on before Lawson D’Ath missed a golden opportunity from a spillage from the Barnet number one. The lack of a clinical touch would come back to haunt us as, despite good amounts of possession and intent, Town faded in the second half.

Luke Gambin’s introduction for the hosts on the hour sparked them into life and it was his run that set up John Akinde soon after with the striker going down under Jason Taylor’s challenge for a penalty. Taylor was swiftly shown red and the complexion of the game was turned completely on its head. Akinde slotted home the penalty and from then on it was all in Barnet’s hands.

Rico was introduced from the bench but couldn’t muster up anything as the Cobblers struggled with ten men. Adam Smith pulled off a top drawer double save from Andy Yiadom but couldn’t prevent the crucial second goal late on. Town had pushed Ryan Cresswell up front to try and nick an equaliser when the Bees broke away and Akinde rounded things off with a straight forward second, rounding Smith and passing the ball into the net.

So the dream start is over as Town come crashing back down to earth in true Barnet away day fashion! Plenty to ponder ahead of the visit of a Plymouth Argyle side that have also won two out of three games and come to Sixfields on the back of a crushing 4-1 defeat of Carlisle United on Tuesday night. With their own group of fine attacking talent, that one should see plenty of goals.

Less tinkering, more first team flair please Mr Wilder!

The perfect start

Taylor...first Cobblers goal

Taylor…first Cobblers goal

Northampton Town 3-0 Exeter City

Three win, seven goals, none conceded, six points, cup progress and a big name clash with Newcastle United drawn out of the hat. For the Cobblers in recent years, this represents nothing less than a dream start to the season. After years of false starts, new signings needing ‘time to gel’ and playing catch up with the rest of the division, we’ve finally begun with a flourish and it comes at, ironically, a time when everything off the field is at one of the most uncertain levels.

After a hard fought win at Bristol Rovers and easing past Blackpool this was another stern test and one in which the score line didn’t tell the whole story. Exeter have a fair bit about them this season and will no doubt be amongst the front runners in the playoff race so any time we can take three points and three goals from a side like this is fantastic. What’s so positive this season is that goals are coming from different places already and we’ve got even more energy going forwards than the decent side that finished the last campaign.

What the Cobblers finally seem to have (and I recognise the kiss of death potential here) is stability in a system, players who are making the it work and enough competition to really challenge each position whilst keeping a sense that we’re not overloaded with short term solutions. We’re playing without shackles, particularly at home, and there’s seems to be a real hunger around the squad.

For this one, Exeter will feel unlucky to lose as heavily as they did but the ruthless finishing that we’ve lacked in the past is now there with another three very different goals getting us over the line for a place in the very early leading pack in League Two.

The first was an absolute belter from Jason Taylor. Usually found breaking up attacks, providing the meat in the midfield sandwich and out muscling opposition, Taylor scored his first Cobblers goal, and what a beauty it was. The ball broke to the former Cheltenham man around twenty five yards out and the volley that he produced was heading into the top corner from the moment it left his boot.

That set the tide and soon it was two with Ryan Cresswell popping up with a trademark header before half time to put Town in control. There were some concerns at the break when Zander Diamond was taken off to be replaced by Rod McDonald but after the match it was confirmed that it was as a precaution with so many games coming up and McDonald would go on to play his part in a third straight clean sheet for the Cobblers.

After Alfie Potter missed a sitter following up from Lawson D’Ath’ s shot, Will Hoskins came close to halving the deficit for City but Adam Smith, returning in goal after being rested on Tuesday night, made a top drawer save. Had that gone in, the end result may well have looked different but it was the Cobblers who sealed the points in the final knockings.

Marc Richards, who had seen a couple of good chances go begging at Bristol and in this game, must be hugely relieved to be off the mark as he looks to top his goal scoring efforts from last season. It was a breakaway goal that closed the game out with Ricky Holmes racing down the right and crossing for Richards to calmly slot home.

It meant that the perfect week was completed in style and sends us to Barnet with spirit levels rocketing.

The Cobblers are in the groove.

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Travelling to Barnet on Tuesday night provides its own challenge with the Bees having lost both of their opening league games. They’ll be chomping at the bit to get off the mark and Martin Allen will have them hungry to get it right at the third attempt. It’s a shame we can’t bask in the glory of being fourth for a whole week…dare we dream of it getting even better?!

Wycombe, Leyton Orient, Portsmouth and Hartlepool join the Cobblers on six points with League Two boasting more teams with 100% records than the Championship and League One put together. All will be put to the test on Tuesday night with a full set of fixtures scheduled. Wycombe go to Morecambe, Orient are at home to Stevenage, Portsmouth are at Crawley and Hartlepool host Newport County.

The list grows again!

Capital-One-Cup-1-1It feels as though more should be made of the Cobblers’ recent exploits in the League Cup. It’s becoming an annual tradition to come up against a higher league opponent and knock them for six in this competition and though we never seem to go on to a monumental and historical run in the cup this early humbling of a ‘giant’ is getting more and more regular.

Blackpool, admittedly, don’t fall in the same class as the likes of the Bolton, Reading, Ipswich, Wolves and Liverpool teams of past campaigns but it’s still a notable scalp especially with a 3-0 score line that illustrates both the disappointing demise of the Tangerines and the solid base of a Cobblers squad that Chris Wilder has put together.

Apart from the back four, that was unchanged from Saturday, there were changes across the pitch with Ryan Clarke staking his first official claim for the keeper’s jersey and Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Sam Hoskins given their first chance to shine in competitive action. Also included was Chris Hackett, and the winger did exactly what fellow transfer listed midfield John-Joe O’Toole did on Saturday by scoring the opening goal, no doubt giving Wilder more to think about.

In a stunning spell of ten minutes, Town went 3-0 up and all but ended the game as a contest by the half hour mark. Calvert-Lewin cleverly turned and shot into the corner for the second and Hoskins’ tenacity and will power gave him the Cobblers’ third as the striker battled his way through and finished left footed at the second attempt.

There could well have been more as well with Ryan Cresswell firing over when well positioned in the second half and Calvert-Lewin doing well to force another chance for himself that was saved by Tangerines keeper Kyle Letheren.

Blackpool were limited to a couple of good chances that they would have converted with a more ruthless front line. We’ll arguably come up against plenty more effective and trickier attacks back in League Two and anyone with a bit of pace could hurt us at the back but there seems to be a real fluidity to how we’re going forwards so far this season.

The new signings have bedded in well and early with the old heads giving us a good balance. You can’t get too carried away by two wins but from what I’ve seen so far highlights wise there’s a lot to be positive about as we head into another busy few days.

The Second Round draw takes place on Thursday evening so we wait to see what sort of reward we’ll get for this latest League Cup success story.

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Exeter City come to town on Saturday afternoon looking to build on their own terrific start to the season. The Grecians saw off relegated Yeovil 3-2 last week and then impressively won away 2-1 at League One promotion hopefuls Swindon Town on Tuesday night. That win at the County Ground saw former Cobbler Alex Nicholls net a top drawer opening goal and he’ll be desperate to impress once again in his first game back at Sixfields since leaving the Cobblers last season.

Speaking of ex Cobblers, check out former loanee Kemar Roofe’s strike at Brentford on Tuesday night during the U’s 4-0 hammering of the Bees. Goal of the cup candidate already…

Channel Five experiment fails to hit the mark

150810-football-leagueIt was with great delight that I discovered over the summer of Channel Five’s plans to bring us the Football League goals at the pre-snooze time of 9pm of a Saturday evening from this season. But like we’ve become accustomed to over the years watching the Cobblers, anticipation in pre-season can quickly be dissolved once the season actually starts. In this case, Football League Tonight was the highlight show equivalent of Norwich City losing 7-1 at home to Colchester United on the opening day of the 2009/10 season.

It’s typical of a ‘trendy’ new show these days to go with the set-up of including a live audience with the Wimbledon highlights show over the summer trying out the same format before phasing out the crowd members until they were being chased up Henman Hill with their tails between their legs. Until someone convinces Jeema to go on, there’s no need.

I did feel for the presenters, particularly Kelly Cates, a hugely knowledgeable and decent front woman, who were doing their best to accentuate the positives of what became a real cluster mess of a show.

Firstly, I like order. I’m weird like that, I like to see one division after the other all the way through. On Saturday we were given Sheffield Wednesday’s highlights and then for no reason other than being in the same city (but, crucially, different divisions!) we were then shown Sheffield United’s. For casual fans trying to get into the Football League for the first time, no explanation was offered before we headed back to see more Championship action, the rest of League One, quickly through League Two and then back to more Championship at the end. Now I’m all for mixing it up and changing the order of the league’s appearances but at least show every game in that division. Please.

Finally, the league tables were presented in the ‘league ladder’ format that I swear I used to produce when planning a season with Shoot magazine as a young whipper snapper:

shoot

When you start thinking that an appearance by Martin Allen rescues some credibility of a show then you know you’re onto a bad thing but that’s what happened here. Allen at least seemed to know what he was talking about and brought some insight into Barnet’s promotion before being sent on his way, presumably in utter bemusement.

There is, of course, time to rescue the format. I’ve not seen reviews as yet but with the season just a week old I hope for their sake as much as ours that some re-evaluating is done in the coming weeks. Our clubs and fans deserve better and deserve a show that gives us a rare platform for the nation and Channel Five have a big opportunity to draw in a previously unreached audience.

Just keep that audience in their homes, not smiling nervously in the background wondering where on earth they are.

Foot on the Gas

john-joe-otoole-northampton_3334877

Bristol Rovers 0-1 Northampton Town

League Two

Saturday, August 8th 2015

After a summer of unanswered questions, transfer sagas and takeover mysteries it felt like the Cobblers were going into the start of the season on Saturday not entirely ready. With Ivan Toney’s expected move to Newcastle United finally done earlier in the week and a hasty replacement found in loanee Dominic Calvert-Lewin from Sheffield United there was an uncertain air about the set up as we headed to what was a big early test at the Memorial Stadium.

Facing a newly promoted side on their own patch just after their elevation is never the first match you’d put down on your preferred opposition list for opening day but Chris Wilder had the boys ready to go and three vital points were bagged on the first weekend for the second season in a row. Mansfield Town were beaten 1-0 at Sixfields a year ago and this one followed a similar pattern with a tight game decided by the single goal.

In the goal scorer, we have another strange old dilemma. John-Joe O’Toole is currently on the transfer list but seemed to have a decent pre-season and was a surprise starter against his former club. The move could have gone either way but turned out to be a master stroke by Wilder as O’Toole rose to head home a magnificently volleyed cross from new boy David Buchanen. The midfielder, who had a bit of momentum in mid-season last time out before fading, is clearly motivated by either a possible change of situation here or to be noticed but either way it worked in our favour as the Gas were put to the sword.

Just as important was the clean sheet that will give confidence to the back four and goalkeeper Adam Smith, who beat Ryan Clarke to the gloves. It can only be a good thing that we’ve got two keepers on a pretty level setting going for the jersey every week and the competition for the spot will be one to watch in the coming weeks.

There wasn’t a complete onslaught that you might expect from Rovers after we took the lead but Smith had to be on his toes to stop Ellis Harrison after Ryan Cresswell had forced Smith’s opposite number Steve Mildenhall into action at the other end.

Celebrations, then, for nearly 600 travelling fans and a relieving three points to kick off the season in the West Country. There’s more to come from both sides this season but getting away from the Memorial Stadium with maximum points is something that I can’t see many teams doing in the coming months.

Let the claret surge, version 2.0 begin!

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Chris Wilder has hinted at changes for the League Cup tie with Blackpool on Tuesday night but believes that the side won’t see any reduction in quality. The Tangerines have had a tumultuous couple of years but started their League One season with a 2-2 draw at Colchester United on Saturday. I don’t believe some doom mongers who think a second successive relegation is on the cards for Blackpool and this will be a big tester and similar to a pre-season game with both sides looking to take shape.

Speaking of Colchester, the Cobblers have drawn the U’s at home in the First Round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy which takes place in the week beginning 31st August. Any home tie at this stage is a good draw and it’ll be another chance for Wilder to assess some different options.