Redemption for van Veen but Town pegged back again

Northampton Town 2-2 Cambridge United

Saturday 18 August 2018

There are two ways you can look at this latest frustrating stumbling block to the start of the Cobblers’ season – either it was a swashbuckling adventure capped by a rejuvenated striker or evidence that our back line is still not 100% recovered from some of the trauma of the last campaign.

Cambridge United came to Sixfields having had a mixed bag of results so far with the one constant being a leaky defence that would have given Dean Austin hope of seeing Kevin van Veen and Andy Williams fill their boots. The Dutchman, who gave a frank and honest interview this week about his personal struggles since joining in January, did just that in a second half display that worked to give us hope that we finally have that twenty goal striker in our midst and to signal the start of his own redemption story.

This was, though, to be a tale of both ends of the pitch cancelling each other out and leaving Austin and the 5,000 or so Cobblers fans in attendance rueing missed opportunities and the inability to close the game out.

It was a fairly subdued Sixfields that welcomed the teams with the novelty of the start of the season giving way to the realisation that this is going to be a real work in progress. With John-Joe O’Toole not ready to start and Shaun McWilliams still missing it was down to Sam Foley to plug the hole in midfield in a 4-4-2 starting line-up.

Town began by using the width well, particularly on the right as Sam Hoskins saw more of the ball than Dan Powell on the opposite flank but the final ball or shot just wasn’t coming off. Frustration was growing in the stands as chances came and went through van Veen, Williams and Matt Crooks, who had the clearest cut of the chances but side footed wide.

There was always the worry that Cambridge could catch us with a sucker punch in the manner in which Lincoln did on the opening day and Jabo Ibehre had a header cleared off the line by David Buchanan late in the half.

Then came a moment in front of the home fans that van Veen had been waiting for. After shooting just wide at the start of the second half, van Veen was found in the area by Powell and he hammered a shot into the net and in one moment may well have started a wave of positivity towards him from the stands. Seconds later and the Dutchman was chasing down his man and crunching into a challenge. He looked like a man reborn.

There was to be a bittersweet feeling hanging over proceedings, though, as the Cobblers didn’t clear their lines well enough from a United attack and George Maris side footed in for the first of two frustrating equalisers.

As the match stretched, van Veen announced that he wasn’t finished as he chased a ball down, controlled well and hammered in yet another beauty for 2-1. The emotion again came pouring out of the big man in his celebrations and the perfect story would have seen him take home all of the match day glory.

But it was a Cobbler of the past and not the future who had the last laugh of a pulsating second half. Gary Deegan never once looked like firing a shot into the top corner during his time at Sixfields but he did just that with three minutes to go to earn his U’s side a point.

It was another lesson in what happens when you don’t close out a game or concentrate for the full ninety minutes and there still seems to be a few issues about sealing a win hanging over from last season. Patches of the game were lost to long, lost passes and we gave the ball away too cheaply on far too many occasions.

The attacking intent should mean that we score a lot of goals this season and if we can take more of the chances we create this could be a very exciting Cobblers team to watch. I’m convinced that it will come with a couple of wins that boost the confidence and maybe even a scrappy success that gives belief to us defensively.

In van Veen, it’s clear that if we keep him motivated we have one heck of a player on our hands for this level. His size can sometime deceive how good he can be with the ball at his feet and his two goals today and header at Carlisle are evidence that he can score all sorts of goals. I’ve been the most guilty of slating the big man for not appearing up for the fight and will be the happiest to admit my mistake at the end of the season if this form continues. Now is the time to give van Veen the fresh start he needs to rewrite his Sixfields history.

Matt Crooks is another who again showed his ability to take control of games at this level. He was immense once again and has the potential to run everything in midfield.

We clearly need work on building the confidence at the back and trusting our ability to play on the floor and this will hopefully come in the next few weeks. Don’t forget previous promotion campaigns (and even the championship winning season) started slowly.

There’s a quick turnaround to the trip to Morecambe on Tuesday night with the Shrimps without a point from their three games so far. That kind of fact usually sends shivers down a Cobblers fans’ spine but it’s a massive chance to get off the mark in the wins column.

With a rejuvenated striker, the return to fitness of Junior Morias (the summer signing played the final twenty minutes today) and chances being created by the bucket load it surely can’t be long…

League Two Season Preview: Part One

Welcome to the first part of four League Two Previews ahead of the big kick off on Saturday. I’ve gone alphabetically so that I can look at each club in detail rather than throwing teams into groups so hopefully this provides a decent look at the Cobblers’ opposition for the next nine months.

Let’s get to it with the first six teams under the spotlight…

Bury

Last season…

There were more than a few enviable looks in the direction of Bury Football Club last summer with then manager Lee Clark overseeing a big turnaround in playing staff in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the 2016/17 season where the Shakers survived by a single point in League One. On paper, the signings of the likes of Chris Maguire, Jermaine Beckford, Harry Bunn and Stephen Dawson looked like excellent pieces of business despite the loss of James Vaughan to Sunderland and Clark’s men were given dark horse status by some.

After a poor start, Clark paid the price and Ryan Lowe stepped in briefly to attempt to steady the ship. Chris Lucketti was appointed in November, bringing with him strong links to the club he served loyally for over 200 appearances in the nineties. But just two months later, Lucketti was shown the door thanks to ten winless matches and Lowe returned until the end of a tumultuous season that saw the Shakers finish rock bottom of League One.

Three managers, shocking form, the loss of Beckford to a long term injury and a season that completely failed to live up to any kind of hype. It really couldn’t have gone any worse and the emergence of youth team graduates was the only silver lining leading to first team appearances for the likes of Saul Shotton, Callum Styles, Ryan Cooney and Joe Adams.

Another new dawn begins for Bury back in League Two and after last summer’s giddy hope there will surely be calls for a fresh approach from the powers that be.

Transfers…

In: Byron Moore (Bristol Rovers), Will Aimson (Blackpool), Chris Dagnall (Crewe), Chris Stokes (Coventry), Gold Omotayo (Unattached), Jordan Archer (Chester), Mathew Hudson (Preston), Tom Miller (Carlisle), Dominic Telford (Stoke)

Out: Andrew Tutte (Morecambe), Zeli Ismail (Walsall), Chris Maguire (Sunderland), Callum Reilly (Gillingham)

Promotion Odds…

10/3

Outlook…

In a similar vein to the Cobblers, Bury went through three managers last season and settled on Ryan Lowe, already placed in temporary charge twice before by the Shakers. Lowe’s task is to rejuvenate a club who failed miserably last season in finishing bottom of League One and the departures of Zeli Ismail, Chris Maguire and Callum Reilly back to League One clubs won’t help the cause. They’ll be looking to new signing Chris Dagnall for goals – the former Crewe man hit 17 in League Two the season before last – and will be hoping that Beckford can recover from the knee injury that kept him out of the second half of last season. If he does, he’ll feel like a new signing.

Lowe has plenty to do and I can see nothing higher than a top ten finish for his Bury side at this stage.

Cambridge United

Last season…

Cambridge had re-established themselves well back in League Two following promotion back from the National League three seasons earlier and headed into 2017/18 on the back of two top half finishes. The plan was for the U’s to kick on under Shaun Derry’s stewardship and make a fist of a shot at the playoffs.

Early season form of five wins, one draw and five defeats from the opening eleven games pointed to another season of failing to bother the top seven but still keeping their heads above water. 2018 didn’t start well for Derry, though, with back to back 0-0 home draws followed by three consecutive defeats including a 5-2 hammering at Forest Green Rovers. Another stalemate at home, this time against Lincoln City, led to Derry being relieved of his position, though the fact that the sacking was announced just three minutes after the Imps draw led you to believe that it was in the pipeline ahead of the game.

Derry left United 14th in League Two and the reins were handed to assistant manager Joe Dunne, initially until the end of the season before the role was made permanent ahead of the final game of 2017/18. Dunne will now look to help to propel the U’s to the next level and aim for a top seven place now that they have once again become established members of the Football League.

Transfers…

In: Louis John (Sutton), George Taft (Mansfield), Reggie Lambe (Carlisle)

Out: Uche Ikpeazu (Hearts), Leon Legge (Port Vale), Piero Mingoia (Accrington)

Promotion Odds…

11/2

Outlook…

It’s looking difficult for Cambridge boss Dunne in his bid to compete with the top seven or eight teams in the league and it’ll take a big effort to pull them into the top half and playoff contention. Home form will once again be key in any bid to top the twelfth place finish of last season with the U’s finishing fifth in the table for home results last time out. Away form was shaky with just four wins on the road all season.

Having not yet properly replaced top scorer Uche Ikpeazu it could well be a more underwhelming season for United so I’m going for a bottom half finish.

Carlisle United

Last season…

Three seasons after they returned to the basement division, after a lengthy spell in League One, Carlisle’s hopes were high of finally breaking down the door back to the third tier under Keith Curle, a man who had led them to the playoffs in 2016/17 only to be beaten at the semi-final stage by Exeter.

Six defeats in the opening couple of months had The Cumbrians playing catch-up, though, and a stop-start season halted any sustained challenge for another playoff campaign. Brief hope came from four straight victories in February and early March that lifted them to within three points of that target but three draws in a row followed, meaning vital points were dropped and a home defeat to Lincoln all but ended the challenge for another year.

Curle then announced at the end of April that he would be leaving the club after three and a half years at the end of the season. John Sheridan was appointed as the new boss at the start of June with the former Oldham, Notts County, Plymouth, Newport and Chesterfield man setting his stall out early by stating that he wants to be the man to lift Carlisle back into League One.

Transfers…

In: Joe Fryer (Middlesbrough), George Glendon (Fleetwood), Macaulay Gillesphey (Newcastle), Gary Miller (Plymouth), Adam Collin (Notts County), Regan Slater (Sheffield United), Jerry Yates (Rotherham)

Out: Jamal Campbell-Ryce (Stevenage), Reggie Lambe (Cambridge), John O’Sullivan (Blackpool), Tom Miller [Bury)

Promotion Odds…

11/2

Outlook…

With Keith Curle having taken Carlisle as far as he could, it’s now down to John Sheridan to finally help the Cumbrians take a step back up the league ladder. Sheridan certainly has previous form having led Chesterfield to the League Two title in 2011 and taken Plymouth to the playoffs in 2015 but has been in and out of clubs far quicker than he would have liked in the last few seasons. This is a chance for Sheridan to really build something at Brunton Park and keeping hold of winger Jamie Devitt could be key. Devitt scored eleven times last season and had attracted interest from Swindon but Sheridan is keen to hold onto the winger.

The U’s were better on the road last season than they were at Brunton Park so Sheridan will be looking to change that in a bid to make the playoffs. But I can see another season of transition for his side, albeit with a top ten finish.

Cheltenham Town

Last season…

With one season back in the Football League under their belts, Gary Johnson’s team were looking to build on their survival in 2016/17 and the former Cobblers manager brought in a whole host of new faces at the start of the season including striker Mohamed Eisa from non-league Greenwich Borough, who would go on to be a revelation.

It was a tough opening for the The Robins, though, as they lost five of their first seven games to leave them playing catch up right from the off. Victories were to follow in September with home successes against Mansfield, Swindon and Lincoln particularly eye-catching. Form steadied from there but never kicked on enough to really trouble the top half of the table.

Looking the other way and Eisa’s goals – twenty three in the league – kept Town above water and had many suitors heading towards Whaddon Road to take a look at the talented striker. Bristol City eventually broke Cheltenham’s resistence with a bid too good to turn down and the Robins will now be looking for their next talisman ahead of the new season, hoping to improve on their seventeenth place finish. With four defeats in a row ending the last campaign, Johnson may well find himself under pressure if they don’t start well.

Transfers…

In: Alex Addai (Merstham), Johnny Mullins (Luton), Ryan Broom (Bristol Rovers), Ben Tozer (Newport), Conor Thomas (ATK), Chris Hussey (Sheffield United), Tom Smith (Swindon), Sean Long (Lincoln), Josh Debayo (Unattached), Manny Duku (Hayes & Yeading), Jacob Maddox (Chelsea), Liam McAlinden (Exeter)

Out: Harry Pell (Colchester), Carl Winchester (Forest Green), Jamie Grimes (Macclesfield), Jordan Cranston (Morecambe), Mohamed Eisa (Bristol City)

Promotion Odds…

9/1

Outlook…

Gary Johnson has gone for his usual clear out and mass signings method in an attempt to propel his Robins side up the table but the loss of top goal striker Mo Eisa is obviously a huge hit to their chances. A whole host of new faces will take time to mould into a team that can challenge but the question will linger as to whether Johnson will be given that time considering how they ended last season.

Replacing Eisa’s goals will be the toughest task and hopes are high for the striker Manny Duku who scored thirty nine times for Hayes and Yeading in the Evo-Stick South East league last season. I can’t see anything other than a bottom half finish for Town despite that but they should have enough to steer well clear of danger.

Colchester United

Last season…

After John McGreal had led Colchester to within a place of the playoffs, it was hoped that he could take them into the top seven last season. But an inconsistent campaign led to a mid-table finish in a season that also saw McGreal’s men eliminated from the FA Cup at the hands of non-league Oxford City in the First Round.

There were periods of the season that highlighted the promise within the squad, though, with patches of form that led U’s fans to believe that on their day they could be a match for anyone in the league. Three wins in a row at the end of March and start of April gave them a glimpse of a late surge but they would then go on to lose four of the last five to leave them frustrated in the middle of the division.

McGreal, like Gary Johnson, could well be feeling the heat if his side begin in the same vein this season as they did last. A trip to Meadow Lane to face Notts County probably wasn’t on McGreal’s list of ideal opening games but he’ll be looking to get out of the blocks quickly again.

Transfers…

In: Harry Pell (Cheltenham), Noah Chesmain (Millwall), Bailey Vose (Brighton), Luke Norris (Swindon), Ethan Ross (West Brom), Frank Nouble (Newport), Aaron Collins (Wolves)

Out: Drey Wright (St Johnstone), Sam Walker (Reading), Kurtis Guthrie (Stevenage)

Promotion Odds…

4/1

Outlook…

Colchester have added well to their squad from last season with seasoned lower league pros like Harry Pell, Frank Nouble and Luke Norris coming in. Nouble and Norris could well form an exciting front line for the club who have also kept hold of talismanic academy product Sammie Szmodics through the summer so far. There’s no reason, now that McGreal has imbedded his ideas and ways of playing, why Colchester can’t be at least amongst the playoff contenders come the end of the season.

Crawley Town

Last season…

Headlines were made in Crawley last summer as it was announced that former Champions League winner, Premier League star and Australian international Harry Kewell would be taking the vacant hot seat at The Red Devils. Kewell had only previously managed the Watford under 21s squad at Vicarage Road but was confident that he could make a name for himself all over again at the Broadfield Stadium.

The season didn’t start well for Kewell with three defeats in a row but he did get his first points on the board with back to back wins against Swindon and Yeovil. Town never got going in the early part of the campaign though and they would only win twice in the next thirteen outings. Just as it looked as though Kewell’s tenure might end early, his team began a terrific run from late November through to the end of February, during which they won eleven times, losing on just four occasions and drawing once. The 1-0 home success against Lincoln was their fifth home league win in a row – their best ever league run – and even had them two points from the playoffs.

That particular target was a step too far, though, and it was always going to take a lot to keep the form going all the way through to the end of the season. Town would only win once more and ended up in fourteenth place but there are signs there that Kewell is starting to build something as he really gets his feet under the table this summer and into his second season in charge.

Transfers…

In: George Francomb (AFC Wimbledon), Brian Galach (Aldershot), Ollie Palmer (Lincoln), Ashley Nathaniel-George (Hendon), Reece Grego-Cox (Unattached), Dominic Poleon (Bradford), Filipe Morais (Bolton), Romain Vincelot (Bradford)

Out: Jordan Roberts (Ipswich), Thomas Verheydt (Go Ahead Eagles), Josh Yorwerth (Peterborough), Enzio Boldewijn (Notts County)

Promotion Odds…

6/1

Outlook…

There were patches of reinforcing to do for Kewell at the start of his important second season as a full time league manager with Jordan Roberts and Enzio Boldewijn leaving a hole in their midfield after signing for Ipswich and Notts County respectively. But Dominic Poleon is a clever signing at this level from Bradford and should replace some of the creativity that’s been lost. Romain Vincelot also joined from Valley Parade and should thrive at this level once again. Filipe Morais brings extra pedigree to the side after learning about his release from Bolton on Twitter with many Wanderers fans disappointed at his exit.

Kewell certainly seems to have the nous to spot a good player at this level already and the Red Devils are a dark horse to become playoff contenders.

Down Town Abbey…

abbey-stadium-112

You know something’s about to happen when you see that the Cobblers have a strong record at a certain away ground we’re about to visit or are hosting a team who haven’t won at Sixfields in X amount of visits. I wish those statisticians would keep quiet because as soon as they rear their head Cobblers Law kicks in and we know that records are about to be broken.

So to the Abbey Stadium on Friday night – scenes of many good memories over the years: Jamie Forrester’s two wonder goals in a 2-1 win, coming from 3-1 down to nick a 3-3 draw, an entertaining FA Cup draw and a Chris Willmott 90th minute winner all spring to mind. I had no idea during all of those good times that a record was being built on quietly – one of years’ worth of visits without the Cobblers losing.

Once again, the curse kicked in on Friday as the U’s came from behind to beat a Town side who are now, despite the win over Wimbledon a couple of weeks ago, in steady decline.

It would, of course, be wrong to blame this on fate. There’s something about the side that just doesn’t feel right at the moment. Things aren’t clicking how they were in the early season, defending is at a standstill and those injuries just keep on coming. It’s a miracle these days if we get through a weekend without a new injury and Tom Newey was added to the roll call half an hour in. It’s shocking for continuity when the team is dropping like the proverbial fly and we’re unlikely to build up a bid for even a top half finish with the sort of problems we’re having on that front.

The Cobblers briefly threatened to win it thanks to Ivan Toney’s much needed goal just after half-time – the young lad is bound to blow hot and cold in his first full season but it would have been a huge confidence booster. Even more so had the team kept hold of the lead it gave them for more than a minute but Cambridge were straight up the other end to level before Ryan Bird won it far too easily and with too much predictability.

You can point at a goal mouth scramble and a goal line clearance as unlucky reasons to not at least get a point but the fact is we’re losing far too much and are headed straight back towards the direction Chris Wilder found us in just over a year ago. He has a big, big job on his hands now to make sure that all his, and the players’, hard work from January to May isn’t wasted.

We undoubtedly have a stronger side in place even with the injuries but there’s so much that needs be addressed. From comments coming out of the last couple of weeks a lot of supporters have felt drained. We’re in need of a great big shot in the arm but you just can’t seem to tell where on earth it’s going to come from.

As for Tuesday night’s cup replay, I think I was more confident of us beating Wolves away earlier in the season than I am that we’ll get through at Spotland –  with a lower league club than them awaiting in Round Two they’ll be well up for it and planning ahead. Next week’s home game with Stevenage becomes pivotal and will see us come under plenty of pressure.

Just don’t tell me about any records in the coming few days!