Obscurity…for now…

D'Ath...one 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…

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!