Nicholls steals the thunder with memorable goal…

Nicholls...big return

Nicholls…big return

After four ex Cobblers already this season came back to haunt us, you would have put your mortgage on Bayo Akinfenwa adding to that list when he came back to town on Saturday. It was as dead cert a bet to make before the game and was perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the season that he actually had a pretty quiet game.

Instead of the big man stealing the glory, it was one of his former team mates who made all the headlines with Alex Nicholls scoring his first goal at Sixfields in just over two years since the injury that threatened to end his career.

It was a game, against a decent Wimbledon side, that needed that extra spark and moment to make it stand out from the rest and Nicholls’ goal – a well taken finish after a rebound from the goalkeeper – provided just the tonic to end a dreadful run of results through late October. You can hear the joy around the ground when the ball flies in and it marks a significant moment in the recovery of a player that many couldn’t see kicking a football again.

The goal and the win, started by Kaid Mohammed’s return to form in front of goal, couldn’t have come at a better time. With two cup games coming up in the coming week and a bit it would have been a desperately long wait had we extended our losing run even further. Now we can head into the double header against League One’s Rochdale and Leyton Orient with a little bit if steam behind us.

Rochdale are up first and it has the makings of a decent, but difficult, tie. They’re on fire at the moment and smashed promotion hopefuls Preston North End 3-0 on Saturday to record a third straight win with all of those victories seeing them score three goals. Keith Hill has done a fantastic job once again and his side will be confident going into the weekend.

It seems a pretty pivotal month for the Cobblers with everything going on (or not going on) off the pitch making it a nervy place to be at the moment so a good run in either of these cups would be more than welcome.

There were a couple of new faces in against the Dons and both Tom Newey and Stewart Murdoch slotted in pretty well by all accounts with both available to play in the FA Cup on Saturday. We can’t dip into the loan market any more at this point and that’s probably a good thing – the positives with the double signing at the end of last week is that both are until January and not just the one month stop gaps we’ve been plagued with in the past.

It’s been good to see the loan system not used for a quick fix striker and for Nicholls to get his big chance to shine again in the absence of Marc Richards. Now for a few more to finally wash out those cobwebs once and for all.

A few weeks ago I looked at the top 20 moments in Sixfields history – I would be interested to see where Nicholls’ goal on Saturday would poll given the chance but it’s fair to say we have our first nomination for the second twenty years…

Welcome back Mr Nicholls!

Alex-Nicholls_2811798

Sileby Rangers 0-9 Northampton Town

Pre-Season Friendly

On any other day, this first pre-season friendly of 2014 for the Cobblers would have created just a passing interest for Town fans – be it those who made up a healthy attendance at Fernie Fields this afternoon or those checking the progress from beaches and holidays. But what would usually be a low key run out turned into a significant and emotional game because of one man’s official return to the football pitch after twenty months out.

Alex Nicholls came off the bench to a fantastic reception a few minutes into the second half to cap what has been a gutsy and inspirational fight back to fitness following that horror tackle from John McCombe of Port Vale back in October 2012. You get the sense from interviews and tweets that Nicholls never imagined that he wouldn’t be back and it’s a testament to a character that we saw on the pitch for a couple of months at the start of the 2012/13 season that he’s not given in where plenty would have called it quits.

The fact that he’s even kicking a ball again is almost miraculous so to score a hat-trick inside eleven second half minutes of your first half of football back – no matter who the opposition – is outstanding. It wasn’t just the goals either as the striker put himself about like his old self. There’s only one thing left for him to do now and that’s to earn the contract that’s been held back for him by Chris Wilder.He surely cannot have done any more so far.

It was a perfect start to pre-season all round with new man John-Joe O’Toole also netting a hat-trick and Lee Collins, Ivan Toney and Chris Hackett getting on the score sheet while Kelvin Langmead and Collins led the defence to a clean sheet they’ll be more than happy with. It was never going to be a result to shout from the rooftop whatever happened but you can do no more than bag a load of goals and shut the door at the other end.

A trip to Scotland for a training camp and a match at Alloa Athletic on Thursday is next before a couple of home friendlies hopefully provide Nicholls the chance to really put the old ghosts to bed. A superb moment to kick off the countdown to the season…now get that man a contract!

Mixed emotions after big win over Vale

Nicholls…serious injury

Northampton Town 2-0 Port Vale

League Two

Saturday, October 27th 2012

After a 2-0 home win over the team that went into the afternoon vying for top spot in League Two you would expect any report of the match to be full of superlatives and joyous statements that the season is back on track. But the lasting damage coming from the incident that occurred after the first goal was scored will be the main talking point despite Town taking home three crucial points in the quest to stay in touch with the top half of the table.

Alex Nicholls, the Cobblers’ leading scorer this season, broke through after a mistake in the Vale defence, nipped in and rounded Chris Neal in the visitors’ goal before tapping the ball into the empty net. Sixfields erupted, buoyed by what was a deserved lead up until that point, until the realisation hit that something else had happened. Vale defender John McCombe had clattered into Nicholls after the ball had been put in and the striker was lying flat out on the Sixfields turf in front of the South Stand.

It was looking grim as more and more time was taken for medics to tend to Nicholls and when an ambulance was called onto the pitch there were no more doubts – he was going to be out for a long, long time. With a goal going in just before that and a lengthy delay most Vale fans were understanding and gave Nicholls a couple of good ovations as he was being treated and on his departure from the pitch but unfortunately the minority did their club no favours at all by berating Nicholls, making diving gestures to him and even shouting at his family members as they ran onto the pitch.

It’s hard when so many of their supporters were doing the right thing but it can’t be ignored that some idiots still, for reasons only they know of, took it upon themselves to tarnish the reputation of their football club. Perhaps just as shocking was the fact that nothing seemed to be being done about it by the Sixfields stewards. It was a horror show in more ways than one and something that put a massive dent in any celebrations of a goal.

John McCombe was sent off for the challenge and though I would say it was the right decision having watched it back again I don’t think there was any more to it than that. There was no evidence of any sort of stamp or anything malicious and in fairness to the player he apologised to Aidy Boothroyd straight after the game. His suspension, though, will be a whole lot less than the punishment that Nicholls will be going through in the next few months.

Alex Nicholls will fight back, of that I’m sure, and I just hope and pray that we do see him in a Cobblers shirt again. The chant of “win it for Nicholls” was most appropriate and the fact that we went on to do just that made sure that his efforts went towards something.

Louis Moult was Nicholls’ replacement and he came on looking to stake his claim and to take his chance before Aidy Boothroyd could even consider bringing in any replacements for the striker. Moult was lively throughout the rest of the half and got his reward when, after Anthony Charles had a goal ruled out, he raced on to the end of some fantastic hold up play from Bayo Akinfenwa to slot in a well taken goal. Having come through the ranks at Stoke City, Moult would have thoroughly enjoyed that one!

The system had been changed by Boothroyd to a wing back system and it had been working well even up to the goal with Danny East and Joe Widdowson flourishing in their respective new roles and perhaps the youngest ever Cobblers midfield of Emyr Huws, Lewis Wilson and Lewis Hornby belying their inexperience tags by holding things together impressively against high quality opposition.

In the second half we switched to a style that made sure of the points and though it was nowhere near as easy on the eye, it was understandable for Boothroyd to want to make sure of a good lead being held on to. Moult faded when put out wide whilst Bayo did his best to play the loan striker role in a spell of taking what we had from one of the more difficult fixtures of the season.

Vale fought hard to get back into it and had a couple of good chances to do so, notably for Ashley Vincent as he broke clear but couldn’t beat Lee Nicholls at his near post. It was hard to judge the visitors on their overall play with the ten man situation making it tough for them to stamp their authority onto the game but it’s clear that they have a dogged and technically sound squad that will still be up there come the end of the season.

Lee Nicholls, meanwhile, has hinted that this may be the last game in his loan spell at the club and with mounting injuries elsewhere we may indeed need to let him return and build in other area. If it was his final game we thank him for a fantastic few months keeping goal. One way or another we will hear of him again I’m sure.

As the dust settles from what could be seen as one of the Cobblers’ best wins of the season come the final reckoning the thoughts are mainly with Alex Nicholls as he begins what looks like being a long, hard journey back. We will all welcome him back with open arms when that day comes and wish him a speedy recovery.

Up next is a second game against Bradford City in the FA Cup and I’d like to see us use this new system again, though adjustments in terms of a new signing for the middle of the park could dictate whether that does indeed happen. It’s nice to go into that on the back of a win and now we need to kick on and try and build the momentum that’s been lacking so far this season.

3-2 avoided as Nicholls earns dramatic point

Nicholls…stunning equaliser

The fear of the 3-2 result returned on Saturday afternoon as Burton Albion briefly threatened a fourth successive season of that particular score line haunting our fixture lists. Fortunately, or brilliantly based on the late equaliser from Alex Nicholls, this was to be a change of direction as the Cobblers earned a point and after coming back from 2-0 and 3-2 down we can count ourselves reasonably happy with the weekend activities.

The fact that we got to the point where we were two down, though, will grate with Aidy Boothroyd. This really was a game of two halves with the threat of Town falling to another hefty half time deficit against the Brewers very high after Calvin Zola’s opener that put us on the rack. Luckily for us, though, Zola was taken off soon after and the second half would be more of a battle.

Albion went two up on fifty five minutes and it did seem like game over with Billy Kee’s cross going in off Kelvin Langmead for 2-0. But almost immediately after the introduction of new loan signing Kemar Roofe, replacing Chris Hackett, things started to turn in the Cobblers’ favour with the West Brom man lifting the tempo.

Langmead headed in at the right end and it was game on. Suddenly the Cobblers were a different side and peppered the hosts’ box with waves of attack. The reward came when David Artell volleyed in a cross from the left. At that point it wouldn’t have seemed against us to go on and win the game but that 3-2 score line was to hover over us until a frantic finale.

That was thanks to Zander Diamond heading in with ten minutes to go to sink what looked like a powerful force coming from Aidy Boothroyd’s men. But there was one last twist in the tale. Alex Nicholls raced onto a through ball, brought it down well and sent a stunning chip over the home goalkeeper Stuart Tomlinson to earn a well fought out draw. It was a genuine goal of the season candidate and a strike that will hopefully reinvigorate the early pace setter in the Cobblers’ leading scorer charts.

That sort of point is another of the type that we wouldn’t have picked up in the first half of last season and as long as we continue to rack results up I’ll be happy. It’s a toughie tomorrow evening at home to league leaders Gillingham but after they lost for the first time in the league on Saturday they’ll hopefully be wounded enough for us to continue a fine start to the home campaign.

This result knocks us down into the bottom half of the table but a decent result against the Gills would push us back up again with the league still in the process of taking shape. It should be another decent atmosphere under the Sixfields lights…a preview of that one to follow on Tuesday morning here!

For now, we catch our breaths after a dramatic Saturday afternoon at the Pirelli Stadium.

NTFC Month in Review: August-September 2012

Nicholls…good opening month

So this is a new feature I’m going to try to stick to on the blog for the coming season. It’s not going to be the usual run through of results and key moments I usually produce at the end of each season but more a look at some of the things that have gone well, disappointed us and surprised us in the month in question.

Seeing as though we kicked off the season on August 14th with the League Cup it makes sense to do these on a similar date of each month rather than just at the end of the month, which will then mean I end them in mid-May unless there’s some sort of end of season business to deal with. We won’t talk of anything near that question for a fair few months yet though!

So here we go…any comments always welcome!

What’s gone well?

The defence (sporadically) – The big question marks have been about the defending but for a large majority of the first month we’ve seen some solid displays. Kelvin Langmead looks like a new player and appears to have shed a stone or two over the summer. Coupled with a new partner in central defence, the towering David Artell he seems to be flourishing, especially having been handed the captaincy over the summer. Joe Widdowson, John Johnson and new boy Danny East have been solid either side whilst Lee Nicholls has enjoyed a terrific start to his loan spell in goal. More on him later. With one or two blips (the nine goals conceded in the three games against Southend, Wolves and Plymouth) there’s still some work to do but for the most part it’s nice to know that we can be hard to beat on our day and that’s a start!

Alex Nicholls – What a start to his Cobblers career. Five goals in all competitions has set the former Walsall man on the way to what looks pretty certain to be his highest ever scoring return for a season (previous best is eight with Walsall). Nicholls has played on the wing in the past but was signed with the knowledge that he’d be played in his more natural position of front man and boy has he flourished. His added work ethic and battling qualities make him a prime candidate for fans’ favourite and if he can keep up a record anything even close to his first month then we’ll be in for a good season.

Chris Hackett – Hackett seems the type that fans can often get frustrated with (a la Josh Low). He’s undoubtedly talented and for this level can have a massive impact but you get the feeling he’s a confidence player. More often than not, though, he’s been the spark that we’ve been lacking for so many seasons and will add another goal threat in every game. A key figure to the team if he can stay fit.

Bayo as a super sub – I’m the first to call for Bayo to start games but when you have a beast like him on the bench then you’re automatically starting games with an ace up the sleeve. As defences tire, the big man comes on and changes games, something that he seems happy to do for the time being. Setting up both goals during the win over Wimbledon last weekend was the typical impact he’s had in this opening month. #Beastmode at its best!

Effective loans – Not many things bother me more than short term loans that don’t have any impact on the side, staying for a month for fitness or ‘experience’ before leaving and not forming any sort of connection to the club. Part of Stuart Gray’s downfall in his last months in charge involved this sort of player, and the wrong sort of player. Aidy Boothroyd has been sensible in choosing the right type of player and the right type of deal as and when they are needed. Lee Nicholls has been outstanding in goal, Danny East solid as cover for John Johnson and Henoc Mukendi, though raw, is here for the long term and is looking honest enough a player to learn.

Progression in the JPT – The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy isn’t for everyone but I’m all for a rare run in the one cup competition that we’re realistically able to have a go at. Beating the plastic Dons made the First Round win that bit sweeter and with some fringe players getting some good game time it was a complete win to set up another decent tie at home to Colchester in Round Two.

Robinson…Twitter trouble

What’s not gone so well?

The defence (sporadically) – Yes, the defence makes both categories. Like I mentioned before, it’s been good for the most part but there’s been small bursts of panic that reminded us of last season which we certainly don’t want to revisit. A couple of the Southend and Plymouth goes in particular were disappointing to concede and we need to be a little bit more solid when under that sort of pressure.

Jake Robinson’s Twitter outburst – Now I’m not one of those who called for Robinson’s head when he tweeted about not being in the squad for the trip to Rochdale on the opening day but it wasn’t the best outlet for his frustration. Bayo was out of the side back in January, kept his head down and worked his way back in so that Aidy Boothroyd couldn’t ignore him. That’s what Robinson should have done. It was almost wiped out by that stunner of a goal against MK Dons and there could yet be a place for him at Sixfields but whilst we continue to be fruitful in front of goal it makes sense that he’s able to get games, and hopefully more goals, under his belt down the road at Luton. Hopefully he’ll come back all the better and the Cobblers front line will be that bit stronger.

Tired Legs – Playing Championship side Wolves on a Thursday and then travelling to Plymouth on the Saturday was never going to be easy and even the most cryogenic of chambers would struggle to put the Town players back in tip top condition. It’s no coincidence that those were the only two defeats of the season so far and hopefully now things have started to settle down game wise we’ll be in better shape.

The Sixfields PA system – It feels like the same pre-match CD is being inserted that was doing the rounds in 2001 and the general sound doesn’t seem to travel well at all still. A pre-match atmosphere is more important than it might seem to get supporters ‘in the mood’ and the Sixfields system needs some sort of overhaul to lift us before a ball is kicked.

Steve Evans – An automatic entry to this category for simply being allowed into Sixfields. Enjoy your time at home for the next six games, Steve! (By the way, I have nothing at all against Rotherham United at all and find their supporters to be as realistic and friendly as any in League Two but with Evans in charge it unfortunately puts a temporary black mark against your team!)

How can we improve?

By shoring up the defence (not by any new players – I feel the right men are in place – but by more consistency) and by continuing to produce good form at home. Only Wolves have won at Sixfields so far with a last gasp Southend equaliser preventing a three game winning run in the league. Couple that with battling points away from home and we won’t be far wrong. Easier said than done of course!

Goal of the month

This category is for Cobblers goals only and is a decent competition this month. Jake Robinson’s stunner against the plastics would have usually won it every other month but, for me, I enjoyed the sheer pace and skill of Chris Hackett’s strike against the real Dons a few days later.

Player of the Month

Again a stiff competition for the first time in a while with plenty staking their claim but I can’t look any further than Alex Nicholls for his all round game and five goals.

Month rating

I’m going to give the month of August-September a mark of 8/10 with plenty more to be happy about than to be negative about. Two wins, two draws and one defeat in the league, progression to Round Two of both of the early cup competitions and some positive play means that it’s been a very good start to the campaign. Keep it up boys!

Signing number two confirmed as Nicholls completes move

Nicholls…new signing

The steady summer of rebuilding continued today with Alex Nicholls joining from Walsall, dropping a division and rejecting the Saddlers’ contract offer to jump on board the good ship Cobbler. I have to admit to not knowing a lot about the lad apart from what’s been flagged up on the official site this afternoon but I’m happy to trust Aidy’s judgement on this one.

Nicholls has been at Walsall for his entire career and, although still only 24, has racked up over 200 appearances at the Bescot with a short loan spell at Burton Albion in 2004 in between. It’s clear that he’s not an out and out goal scorer but rather someone who can be flexible in the new, shortened version of the Northampton Town squad for 2012/13.

It’s encouraging again to see someone jump down the leagues to want to play for Boothroyd, as was the case with Clive Platt, and hopefully it’s another decent cog in the system. Trawling through one or two Walsall message boards, like you do, it’s apparent that Nicholls won’t be completely missed but hopefully it will be a fresh start for someone who might have been getting itchy feet.

I still think that Clarke Carlisle is the major one we need to get down this summer…re-signing him would be a massive message to other targets with his performances at the end of last season one of the major reasons for us not sweating on the final day of the season.

For now though, we keep ticking away as the only calendar month of the year that doesn’t hold any football at all for the Cobblers (friendlies in July remember!) kicks in.