Christmas Bonus…

James CollinsSix points, a grip held on second place and a genuine powerhouse of a signing at League Two level – it’s not been a bad Christmas and New Year period for the Cobblers as the home defeat by Portsmouth that derailed the fine run of form was quickly forgotten about with two very different victories.

It’s a stark contrast to twelve months ago when Town headed into the 2015 on the back of five straight defeats. We were two points from the drop zone having collected just 24 points from 23 games. Fast forward twelve months and 2016 begins with us five points clear of fourth place with a game in hand and with more than double the amount of points on the board.

The victories that keep us in touch with leaders Plymouth Argyle and the chasing pack were a good indicator of where we’re at. Fellow promotion hopefuls Accrington were the better side at Sixfields a couple of days after Christmas but an out of sorts performance still ended with us nicking the win thanks to the reliability of the blossoming pairing of Ricky Holmes and Marc Richards, Rico heading in the only goal of a tight games.

Barnet were more straight forward opposition for once and when you brush past the Bees, a perennial bogey team of ours, you start getting the feeling that we’re going to be in with a huge chance of keeping up the pace with a group of sides that are showing no signs of blinking in this huge promotion race.

The fact that the ranks were boosted on Tuesday by a beast of a signing – Shrewsbury striker James Collins on loan until the end of the season – surely makes everyone else sit up and take notice. It’s s statement of intent that means that the attacking options are even more potent than ever. The exit of Dominic Calvert-Lewin would have been disappointing after the youngster made a good impression in his short time here but given that the focus is now on promotion the moves in and out make a lot of sense. Calvert-Lewin certainly has potential but it’s understandable that if someone like Collins becomes available you have to go for him.

Collins’ first involvement will be a top of the table clash at leaders Plymouth on Tuesday night but first comes a rare appearance in the FA Cup Third Round on Saturday. It’s been one of the most dramatic cup runs in recent times with the victory at Coventry drawing all the emotion possible from a travelling contingent that were genuinely believing that it could be the final ever away game for the club and then a remarkable turnaround against Northwich Victoria threw us into the hat.

It’s not the glamour tie it could have been at this stage but the appetite and desire of a squad chomping at every bit of opportunity that comes their way means that there’s a big opportunity for an upset and progression to a stage not reached since 2004.

It’s still ‘pinch me’ territory from where we were before that game at Coventry and whatever happens on Saturday and then on Tuesday, you have to be thankful for this completely opposite style of ‘worry’ we’re facing in the next few days.

As we settle in for this double header, let’s first check out the latest man to tie his flag to the mast of the good ship Cobbler…

Out of jail at the death…

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Northampton Town 1-1 Shrewsbury Town

League Two

Saturday, August 23rd 2014

For the second time in seven days the Cobblers have escaped a game with a point when all looked more lost than Alistair Slowe on a team sheet.

This was my first look at the team this season and from the first half display against a fancied Shrewsbury Town outfit I was more than confident that we at least won’t be struggling at the wrong end of the table again this time out. The key difference, by a long way, was the organisation of the side that twelve months ago looked incoherent and aimless. Everyone seemed to know exactly what they were doing and when balls were cleared into touch it was noticeable how immediate shape was restored to our ranks.

It was these small differences that were giving me that dreaded emotion when watching the Cobblers – hope – as a first half bereft of clear cut chances moved on. The Cobblers were building up attacks well and all that was lacking was an illusive final touch in front of goal from a relatively quiet front two of Marc Richards and Ivan Toney.

Shrewsbury were content to soak up pressure and play on the break like many sides travelling away from home in this division, ourselves included, will do in the coming months. They certainly weren’t looking the dangerous force I’d predicted in the build up to the game until the big turning point that should have tipped the game in our favour worked only to highlight the visitors’ determination whilst also shining a light on our shortcomings that hadn’t yet been examined properly so far this season.

Liam Lawrence – he of playoff irritation whilst at Mansfield Town in 2004 – went in late on the impressive debutant Joel Byrom in the middle of the pitch and was shown a red card hastily by that most notorious of lower league referees Darren Deadman. Deadman was in the bad books of Shrews fans for the rest of the half whenever a decision went against them but despite a couple of decent openings and a long range effort from Byrom their side still had parity come half time.

This was where things started to go wrong. The Shrews came out firing after the break with substitute James Collins proving to be his usual menacing self and it was the man who returned to Shropshire in the summer who would provide most of his sides’ best moments.

On the hour mark, Jordan Clarke smacked the Cobblers bar from twenty five yards but we didn’t heed the warning. The second half Cobblers performance was disjointed and, at times, desperate and we could have no complaints when Shrewsbury took the lead. Ben Tozer, restored at right back in place of Danny Alfei, made a big mistake with a back pass and Collins needed no second invitation as he repositioned himself and finished with the aplomb of a man clearly ready to make an impact in his second spell with the club.

So a goal down and the Shrews had something even bigger to hold out for. The Cobblers were struggling to break them down, though, and all that early organisation went out the window in place of long balls, changes in formation and substitutions including Emile Sinclair on for Toney.

After the clock ticked down to what seems inevitable defeat all hope seemed lost with the away side holding up play as much as possible as well they might. But Sinclair – put up for loan this week and subject to an apparent approach from Cheltenham Town – snatched a point back when Lawson D’Ath, himself a substitute, crossed beautifully for the former Macclesfield man to nod in on his third goal for the Cobblers since joining in January.

Incredibly, we could have won it when Kaid Mohammed curled in a late effort that went just wide. If getting a point was lucky, that would have been daylight robbery of the highest order, though, and we settled for a point.

Shrewsbury will be hurt by the late goal but will still come away perhaps the happier of the two camps after showing real grit and mettle, particularly at the back. For the Cobblers, there’s more lessons to learn going forwards.

There was a disturbing change at half-time in the way we played. Players who had shown real promise in the first half disappeared from the game and only time and more tests like this will show whether that was entirely to do with us or whether Shrewsbury were just tactically better.

Toney could do with a break from this showing – the young man thrust into the limelight could do with being taken out of it for a couple of weeks. The worst case scenario is that we pile too much on his shoulders and his situation needs to be well managed by Mr Wilder.

Sinclair and Alex Nicholls could both end up out on loan by this time next week with the latter having trained with Next Saturdays opponents Exeter City over the last couple of days. It would be a strange one to let both go out with just Richards, Toney and David Moyo the only other recognised out and out forwards left but perhaps the loans being talked about are short term deals designed to get them both games quickly before they return to fight for their places again.

The squad does look in decent nick and points are coming in where a year ago we would have been dead and buried so progress is slowly but surely being made on this viewing. Forty five minutes of poor showing against a battling front runner for promotion will be forgotten in the long term as long as we can come back next week and pick up three points in an altogether more winnable game against Exeter City.

Before that is the League Cup Second Round tie at Bournemouth on Tuesday where we’ll return to a position of underdogs which could help one or two get their groove back in a pressure free environment ahead of that second consecutive home league game.

I’m staying positive. There’s signs of something half decent here…