Friendlies, countdowns and takeover mysteries…

10-days-to-goThe countdown is officially on – we’re on the home straight for the start of the 2015/16 season with just one friendly to go this Friday in Sheffield and the final pieces of Chris Wilder’s newest jigsaw still being sought.

On the pitch, we seem to be putting together something solid with an emphasis on a small but fit squad and the friendlies have been raced through without any real problems barring an injury to talisman Ricky Holmes. Even that’s been placated by the fact that flying wingers are now arguably the strongest area of the squad with Alfie Potter and Nicky Adams performing well in pre-season and Lawson D’Ath looking to build on a terrific first season with us.

The problem, as things currently stand, lie elsewhere with back up options to key positions still to be filled and questions still abound over the future of Ivan Toney. With or without the young man who is still attracting a lot of attention, we still need at least one more option up top, if not two. Something different, in the target man mould, would be helpful and if Toney does depart then a pacy option and high quality alternative will be imperative.

Central midfield needs a bit of added meat as well with one more in there probably enough for now for competition and the inevitable injury / suspension issues that will come up mid-season. Joel Byrom and Jason Taylor have forged a good relationship in the middle of the park and will take some moving but there’s definitely a need for something else in there.

Rod McDonald’s signing at the back means that we’re near enough done there with a few of the new signings able to fill in at different positions across the defence and so there’s just those couple of gaps now to fill before the assembling is done.

Some of that could well hinge on any developments on the takeover front and the nervous wait goes on to see who/what/where/when and why the deal is taking place. We’ve heard of a positive meeting with the council but still nothing has been made clear to the supporters who are inevitably theorizing their way through the summer. With such sensitivities behind it, though, it needs to be done right and Wilder is unlikely to be waiting for the resolution before pushing on with signing targets. You just hope that any rumours or disruption that’ happening in the board room doesn’t affect the big kick off and the opening month of the season that sees us tackle some stern early tests.

Bristol Rovers and Barnet away in the early part of the season won’t be easy with momentum and the wind behind their sails still blowing away from promotion in May. Home games in August against Exeter and Plymouth could be crucial in getting a foot hold in the season and getting off to the kind of start that’s eluded us on plenty of occasions in recent times.

There’s around 15-20 clubs that are thinking the same as us in that playoffs are a realistic target this season and that’s what makes League Two so unpredictable once again. With just TEN DAYS to go now, the only certainty is that the fun and games are about to begin all over again!

Changing of the guard…

Northampton-Town-chairman-David-Cardoza_2550286We interrupt this pre-season for a blockbuster piece of news.

You’ll all know by now about the biggest summer bulletin in years that David Cardoza has begun the process of selling his controlling share of Northampton Town Football Club. What’s been agreed is a ‘Heads of Terms Agreement’ which admittedly I needed my friend Google for:

“Heads of terms are a set of agreed principles which precede the signing of a negotiated contract, and which the parties intend to be reflected in the written contract. They set out the basis of the deal in broad terms.”

So basically it’s a deal in principle and no i’s have been started to be dotted or t’s crossed as yet. But it’s still an announcement that’s knocked us all a bit for six and I don’t know what to think of it without seeing a statement of intent or interview with the potential new owners. We know nothing of who the Indian Consortium comprises of or where their interest in our club comes from. What’s key for me is that ANYONE taking overall control needs to understand who we are, where we’ve come from and will need to reassure us that the history that we’re built on will form the foundations of the new era.

It’s a strange position changing complete ownership of a club, especially when we’re in pretty solid condition in comparison to when the Cardoza’s initially took over. Back then we were praying for simply anyone at all to take us on and move us forward but this time (and this is testament to some of the work done by Mr Chairman) it’s more of a nervous changing of the guard from comfortable groundings to the complete unknown.

If this was a new manager coming in, I’d be asking potential candidates what they know about the football club – who dived into the snow in a dramatic celebration in front of the North Stand? Who are ‘Razor’ ‘Sammo’ and ‘Big John’? What on earth WAS Ian Clarkson doing that far forward to score against Bristol Rovers? OK, maybe Mr Clarkson is the only one who really knows that last one but you get my gist. We can’t ask incoming owners the same questions but that’s the type of things I’d want to know before signing over everything I’ve worked on for twelve years.

It’s all about the identity of the club and that’s what I worry most about in this situation. We’ve seen plenty of clubs struggle after initial periods of joy from a takeover under owners who just don’t seem to have a clue about the rich history of the ‘business’ they’re taking over. I can honestly say that I don’t care a jot about the size of any potential new owner’s bank balance – but if they can reel off the 1997 Wembley team at a second’s notice… that’s when we can start talking!

What cannot be allowed to happen is for Northampton Town Football Club to become another club who sell out to a group who just want to build a business for personal gain and not something that serves its community, keeps a powerful connection between players, staff and fans and is transparent in its intentions.

Time will tell and the next few weeks will be huge to the future of the football club once we’ve discovered more.

What also should be acknowledged is Cardoza’s work and investment over the last twelve years. We were almost at death’s door as I remember it twelve years ago and while there’s been a few slip ups, the majority of the time we’ve been a well-run club at this level. Managerial appointments have all looked very good on paper and it would have been very difficult to find better options around than Gary Johnson and Aidy Boothroyd at the times of appointment. Though it took time, the stadium is slowly getting there and, in sometimes difficult positions, he’s come out and given as much information as possible barring some bits and pieces in the last few months.

There will undoubtedly be some who disagree, some who worry, some who welcome the news with open arms. But what we’re all united in is a love for the Cobblers. A love that for some stretches back 60, 70, 80+ years and for others is in its youthful development. It’s a love that simply has to be matched, in some parts at least, by anyone coming in to take over at the helm.

Let the fun begin…

A mid-summer reflection…

shutterstock_58829962It’s the time of year that, as football fans, we try to grab any sense of the new season starting so this week’s Capital One Cup draw and fixtures release were welcomed with open arms. Now with the players due back in training tomorrow and the first friendly in just two weeks’ time, the process begins again.

The fixtures machine threw up a tasty trip to a celebrating Bristol Rovers on the opening day with the Gas likely to be still on a huge high after their dramatic playoff final win and promotion whilst the campaign ends with a trip to a Portsmouth side who surely have to get it right this season and challenge for promotion.

The cup draw at home to Blackpool is a decent one and it should get the juices flowing on the home front against a side who will likely still be wounded from a disastrous season last time out. The Cobblers’ record in the competition against higher league opposition is impressive and it’s a very attractive tie and an early test of Chris Wilder’s new look outfit.

What the team will look like by then is still up in the air with still no news on one goalkeeper, let alone the two that we need. The thing that’s been impressive about the signings so far is that they either show a bit of guile and/or what appears to be a fighting spirit that’s so crucial to League Two football. Still needed is another Jason Taylor type in the middle of the park for back up and competition and a couple of out and out strikers. I’d love to see us go for another goal scorer in the Rico mould because of last season’s problems when he was injured. The coming days, as we report back, should see a bit more progress on new faces with contracts officially running down at this point in the summer.

It’s been great to have a summer focus on other competitions to keep the appetite going in the meantime and the England Women’s team have been doing a great job with their chance in the spotlight in a year with no major competition from the men’s side of things. Progression further and further in the World Cup could prove to be huge for the women’s game in this country with international exposure hopefully turning in to an increased interest in the national women’s game.

I couldn’t resist dipping into the Under 21s championship and Copa America (go on Peru!) but it’s the fixtures that begin on August 8th that by far hold the key to reigniting the football fuel for good. Won’t be long now…

Early deals show signs of flair and competition…

nickyadamsI’m always a fan of the early check in when it comes to summer signings and am of the opinion that an early gathering of most of the squad that’s going to take you hurtling into the following season should be in place before pre-season to allow maximum gelling time. So this past week’s double whammy of Alfie Potter and Nicky Adams was more than welcome and the signs are that more talks are ongoing.

Both signings show signs of added flair and would have been very good additions even before you consider the players they realistically have to battle past to feature in the first team – Lawson D’Ath and Rickie Holmes. It’s been clear in the petering out period between March and May this year that more strength in depth was needed as the Cobblers battled hard but couldn’t quite keep up with the top seven. So having this much talent in those positions is a huge start to the summer with both players not only able to play out wide but also across most attacking positions. The likes of Rico and Ivan Toney will be licking their lips at the service that’s likely to come to them.

Potter has been linked with Town ever since Chris Wilder made the move to Sixfields and at 26 has that fine balance between experienced in league football but with plenty of prime years left in him. The relationship with Wilder shouldn’t be underestimated and hopefully the Cobblers boss can get the best of the winger once again.

Adams is one of those players that seems to have been around for years but is only 28 himself. Past clubs’ fans have commented on how he runs himself into the ground for the team and he fits the Wilder mould to a tee when you look at his signings of the aforementioned D’Ath and Holmes, both of whom provide exactly the same service.

It’s a great start to the summer with the deals done before the playoff final was done and dusted to officially close the 2014/15 League Two season. To say that we’re building bricks on top of solid foundation rather than filling holes is great to see and though there’s still work to be done in key positions there’s reasons to be cheerful as we usher in the summer.

Obscurity…for now…

D' of the key men.

D’Ath…one of the key men.

So that’s that for another season and it’s been another roller coaster ride without the raw emotions of the past few seasons. The Cobblers, for the first time in years, have finished in the unofficial home of mid-table obscurity – 12th place – and considering what could have happened it’s not all bad. After taking in a dramatic final day against a Wycombe side that had to eventually settle for the playoffs it’s clear that Town are well set up for next season but that the core of the squad needs to be supplemented by a stronger supporting cast.

From 1-11 there’s not a lot of positions that need changing. The goalkeeping situation is up in the air with Matt Duke’s imminent departure opening up the role to a fresh face. Duke has been fantastic for us but it’s time to move on with a younger stopper likely to come in. Shwan Jalal looked decent enough but over a full season we’ll need better. Jalal has a chance to prove himself ahead of a decision on his future but I still think we’ll bring in a concrete first choice keeper in the coming months.

I was surprised to see Lee Collins on the list of those not offered new deals. Zander Diamond and Ryan Cresswell are the out and out favourites of Chris Wilder but it would have made sense to have a backup who can also play on either side if needed. It could be a case of high wages and/or the desire of the player to play first team football but he may well be missed in the long term.

The midfield four seem solid enough and the fact that two of them – Jason Taylor and Rickie Holmes – were passed on by League Two rivals seems even more bizarre with the impact they’ve made here. The challenge for Holmes is now to keep his fantastic form going into next season…if he stays fit then we’ll be in with a chance of scoring in most games. The emergence of Lawson D’Ath has been another highlight and it’s hard to believe that he’s only 21 such is the assurance and quality he’s been showing in the second half of the season as the perfect balance to Holmes’ marauding around the opposite flank. Both wingers have set high standards that they’ll now be really in the focus when we kick off again in August.

Up top we could do with at least one more top drawer addition that not only pushes Rico and Ivan Toney but brings a whole new dimension to the attacking options. A big, rough and tumble ‘proper League Two’ striker would do the trick there (no obvious names need to be mentioned!) as well as another goal scorer to add to the mix.

It’ll then be about padding things out with a stronger sense that places in the team aren’t guaranteed. I got the feeling towards the end of the season that if (and of course, when) Rico or Holmes was laid out for a period, we didn’t have the back-up that would realistically be able to come in on a similar level.

Off the pitch, the East Stand drama goes on and on and we’re at least seeing builders returning and picking up tools again so by the end of September there may be something resembling a stand up there. It’s been a hugely frustrating wait but hopefully lessons have been learnt and Sixfields can return to being a four sided venue as soon as possible!

After a year of uncertainty and of nearly slipping into yet another relegation battle, the Cobblers are back on stable ground and a long, long way in front of where we were twelve months ago. The likes of Burton Albion have shown what continuity over a number of years can do for you and if Wilder can get his house in order early again then we may not be lost in obscurity for too long.

Things to get excited about…

Rico...back in with a shot?

Rico…back in with a shot?

So it’s pretty much all over for this season with the Cobblers unable to escape the clutches of mid-table and late goal ultimately costing us once again in the defeats to Stevenage and Oxford this week. As soon as Simon Walton’s winner for Stevenage went in last Saturday thoughts immediately turned to next season with no realistic chance of reaching the top seven. A much needed win at Oxford was then snatched away at the death on Tuesday night despite a decent enough sounding performance which included the return, from the bench, of Marc Richards ahead of schedule.

With three games left to play you’d be forgiven for looking ahead to the summer and getting those holidays booked up for the May 23rd now that we know we won’t be busy. But there’s still plenty of interest to come and the Cobblers need to be on their game on two counts – to not end the campaign on a low that leaves us hanging over during the summer and to compete enough to make sure we have some sort of impact. The three games we have left are all against sides at either end of the season with one ‘special’ return tomorrow afternoon. So here’s a few things that will keep up the excitement during three games that may, on paper, look meaningless..

The return of the poisoned dwarf…

The most intriguing of the final fixtures is tomorrow visit from Cheltenham Town and their new boss Gary Johnson. Johnson needs no introduction of course having ‘saved’ us from the drop a couple of years ago despite us being in a reasonably safe position before his arrival, alienated the fans and blamed us when his tenure ended. Town fans have been waiting to come up against him ever since and with the amount on the line for his new charges tomorrow it makes the game extra spicy. The Robins boosted their chances of survival on Tuesday with victory over Cambridge and are now a point from safety. The carrot is there for us to send Johnson’s team a step closer to the Conference but, perhaps more morbidly for Cobblers fans, it’s also there to ensure that Johnson is back at the job centre come May. I personally really like Cheltenham as a club and would take Hartlepool and Tranmere going down any day of the week but this situation’s now like an old friend starting to hang out in dodgy company. The ideal outcome here is a Cobblers win, Cheltenham surviving still and then the Robins board seeing sense and looking elsewhere for their main man in the summer. Either way, it’s going to be tasty!

Ruining a party?

Following Cheltenham there’s a trip to league leaders Burton Albion in the final away game of the season and the Brewers are likely going to be on the brink of clinching the League Two title. A win at Morecambe tomorrow would hand them promotion and leave them within touching distance of clinching top spot. It’s their last home game and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink will be desperate to start a party on home turf. We’re probably ideal opponents on paper for that with nothing to play for and nothing at stake but there’s something to be said about arriving at a party, stealing the presents and pegging it.

The nervy Wanderers

Having nothing to play for on the final day is sometimes pretty nice. Wycombe will come to town on May 2nd with promotion still hanging in the balance by all likelihood. The Chairboys (who have done incredibly well to turn things around to challenge this season by the way) could move a step closer to League One if they win at Wimbledon tomorrow but the wild card here is the game on Tuesday night between Bury and Southend., the two sides directly behind Wanderers in the chase. That’s a game in hand for both and depending on events tomorrow (Bury go to Portsmouth and Southend to Exeter) there could be a significant closing of the gap by the time Wycombe come to Sixfields on the last day. So there should be something on it for them and it’s another chance for us to make some noise in the league before the curtains are closed on the season.

The Golden Boot…

As incredible as it could be, despite a number of injuries this season, a returning Marc Richards could yet bag himself the League Two golden boot. With Chris Wilder probably erring on the side of caution he may not get too many minutes on the pitch but with his natural goal scoring ability there’s still an outside chance that he can make up the two goal gap between himself and Matt Tubbs at the top of the scoring charts. Jamie Cureton’s hat-trick a couple of weeks ago shot him into contention while Reuben Reid of Plymouth is also a candidate but Rico is one to keep an eye on in these final three games.

Looking to the future…

Three games with not a lot on the line means that Wilder can plan for next season and we’ll get a decent insight into his plans for certain players based on the squads that compete in these games. It’s not just the immediate future we should be looking at, though, with a few youngsters hopefully getting a chance. Sam Warburton, Ben Jackson, Danny Clifton and Shaun McWilliams have all been given squad numbers and may see themselves getting a chance to shine in an end of season cameo.

There we have it – have I convinced you that there’s still a lot to be excited about or are you not bothering now until August? Well, I tried!

*I had to stop myself from pointing out that we sit seven points from the playoffs with still nine to play for…*

Ok…maybe ONE MORE chance. This really is the last one, I promise!

The Cobblers are now quite simply down to the very last breath of the season. After hauling ourselves up from the clutches of a relegation battle that none of us wanted, we’ve given ourselves a number of windows to jump up to that final rung of the ladder but haven’t ever really looked like having the stamina to reach it. It all may well be over after Cambridge all too easily stuck one on us at Sixfields but a trip to playoff challengers Stevenage offers that last hope that is sometimes worse than it all being officially over!

Let’s face it – back at Christmas time you wouldn’t have found many who would have said no to a mid-table finish and a final look at the playoffs with five to play and I do think that when the dust settles on the season there will be positives to take. But while there’s the slightest bit of hope we have to give it a shot, take a few risks and see if maybe, just maybe we can still sneak back into the race.

A win is realistically all that will do at Broadhall Way tomorrow afternoon with the Cobblers five points behind the hosts, who stormed into the top seven with a victory at Cheltenham on Monday afternoon. It was the Boro’s first win in six games but they’d been hovering for quite some time and may be timing their run perfectly. For the Cobblers, anything but three points and we’ll be surely out of the running with the more likely trio of Plymouth, Luton and Exeter City lining themselves up above us too.

I’m ready and waiting to try to sum up what’s been a bizarre season even by our high standards but until we’re completely and utterly out of it we can leave the analysis alone. It’s the hope that sometimes kills you but there really isn’t a lot more time after tomorrow to hold on to it any longer. One last effort from the boys in claret and there may yet be room for a last claret surge of the season…