After a season that finished with a 24 game unbeaten run and a comprehensive League Two title victory, the months that have followed since haven’t quite brought the same amount of joy to Northampton Town supporters as the club prepares for life in League One next month.
Manager Chris Wilder left for hometown team and fellow League One side Sheffield United, and star midfielders Ricky Holmes, Nicky Adams and Danny Rose have all followed suit and found new clubs, leaving a huge gap in the middle of the park – an area that was so fruitful for the Cobblers last year.
These exits, followed by defeats against local non-league sides Nuneaton Town and Brackley Town as well as an uninspiring draw against QPR, seem to have deflated the momentum that the club had built up from their unbeaten run at the end of last season. With this, it’s fair to say that the excitement and anticipation around Sixfields ahead of their return to League One seems to be disappearing ever so slightly.
Although it’s impossible to judge how a team’s season is going to pan out from a few lethargic pre-season games, and although it is common knowledge that nothing is ever won or lost from these run-outs, the lack of potency further up the field, so close to August, is a worry for the Cobblers.
With Holmes and Adams moving on to new clubs, much of the attacking drive that was seen on the Sixfields Stadium pitch last season has left with them, and new manager Rob Page is now seemingly in a race against time to find a solution to this before the season begins in under a fortnight’s time.
It seems like Page’s first efforts to find this solution comes in the shape of Harry Beautyman, a 24-year-old midfielder who signed a two-year deal from rivals Peterborough shortly after their draw against QPR.
A box-to-box midfielder, Beautyman scored five times across 45 appearances for Peterborough in his stint in League One, and Cobblers’ fans are hoping he can bring his energetic style of play to the club to start filling the void left by Holmes et al.
Beautyman seemed like a good asset to the Posh over the last 18 months, and it could well turn out that Peterborough’s loss becomes Northampton’s gain; yet even if he does settle well into the Cobblers, it’s clear that there still needs to be another signing or two made by Page to act as cover.
One of the driving factors during their title win last season was that Northampton were never short of options going forward – if Holmes or Adams needed resting or picked up an injury, there were always suitable replacements on the bench to come into the side and keep the momentum going.
Yet with Lawson d’Ath becoming riddled with inconsistency towards the end of the campaign, Alfie Potter struggling with injuries and Lee Martin not extending his loan deal with the club after his time at Sixfields, attacking depth is something Page’s side are currently lacking.
The appointment of striker Alex Revell from neighbours MK Dons seems like a promising bit of business for Northampton however, and with him likely to partner Marc Richards (Cobblers’ top goal-scorer for 2015/16) in front of goal there’s no lack of Football League experience – this could prove to be priceless for Northampton’s hopes of remaining in the division beyond this year.
Yet for this partnership to truly work out, we end up back at the same problem; they need sufficient service from the midfield to have any chance of getting close to scoring. Between them, Holmes and Adams either scored or assisted 32 of Northampton’s 82 league goals last year; take these out of the tally and the Cobblers would have been hanging on to a play-off place rather than the league title.
Even though the season starts in less than a fortnight, the transfer window is open for another month and it’s a reasonable assumption to make that Page will be digging into his pockets to acquire the services of a few more attacking players to try and replicate the club’s success from last year.
If he manages this, and if Beautyman can settle down into the club and strike up a good bond with fellow midfielder John-Joe O’Toole, then Northampton might be able to make a name for themselves in their first League One campaign for eight years.
How has Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s re-building process been since arriving at Northampton Town?
It may have only been 23 days since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was appointed as manager of League One outfit Northampton Town but there is a sense of all-too rare optimism growing around Sixfields.
The Cobblers have been in a gradual decline since Chris Wilder left to join up with his childhood team Sheffield United in May 2016, leaving on a high after a dramatic season in the club’s history.
Northampton’s future as a functioning Football League club was put into severe jeopardy this time two years ago when HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) issued a winding-up petition worth £166,000, with rogue chairman David Cardoza separately owing Northampton Borough Council a staggering £10.25 million.
It was a saga that rattled on throughout the autumn, with Wilder himself getting involved with an impassioned speech following a 2-1 win over Notts County – a speech that will live long in the memory of Northampton supporters – urging Cardoza to vacate his role and accept takeover bids from others.
Salvation came in the form of Kelvin Thomas, the former Oxford United chairman, who came in and immediately wiped the debt owed to HMRC before injecting a sense of financial stability to the club.
What happened next will never be forgotten, with Wilder’s side somehow defying the odds and embarking on a miraculous League Two campaign, going 24 matches unbeaten in a romp to the title.
His eventual exit for hometown team Sheffield United that summer was as damaging as it was expected, and it was always going to be a tough task for whoever the new man was to keep up with the dizzy heights of the title-winning season under Wilder. Whilst Rob Page arrived from Port Vale and took Northampton’s unprecedented unbeaten run to 31 games, that’s as good as things ever got for him.
The 3-1 defeat away at Chesterfield was the beginning of the end for Page, who picked up eight defeats in ten league matches before being sacked after a humiliating 5-0 reverse at Bristol Rovers.
Whilst his replacement – former Gillingham manager Justin Edinburgh – managed to keep the Cobblers in League One last year, finishing four points clear of the relegation spots, there were enough warning signs that their progress made under Wilder was beginning to stagnate to raise concerns.
These concerns were merely compounded after a woeful start to the new campaign, losing five games on the bounce to leave them rooted to the bottom of League One, and a change was desperately needed.
Whilst there was a palpable relief around Sixfields following Edinburgh’s departure – it is fair to say he had lost the home support after the 4-1 hammering at the hands of arch-rivals Peterborough – this was quickly replaced by an unfamiliar murmur of optimism upon Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s arrival.
Chairman Kelvin Thomas wasted no time in announcing the ex-Chelsea star as manager, suggesting that he had been thinking about the appointment for some time and wanted to nail down his target quickly.
In Hasselbaink he found a man with previous at this level of football, starting Burton Albion’s unexpected rise to the Championship by earning promotion from League Two in his first year there.
In his opening outing with the press as manager of Northampton Town, as reported by the local news outlet Chronicle and Echo, he labelled the campaign ahead a ‘project’ – and that’s a suitable assessment.
He said: “I was very eager to get back. But I was only eager for the right opportunity, for the right project, and I think this is the right project for me.”
Whilst many will be wondering whether he would bring the same sort of attacking flair that he showed as a player, it seems that his managerial style has taken a different route in recent years.
At Burton Albion he built a name for himself on defensive stability and rigid organisation, with the Brewers keeping 21 clean sheets in his 50 league matches there, and that’s what the Cobblers need.
Despite enduring a less successful stint at Queens Park Rangers more recently – winning just 30% of his matches before getting the boot – he’s still held in high regard by journalists in and around the Football League. Talking about his managerial qualifications, Burton Mail’s Joshua Murray wrote:
“Hasselbaink’s Burton were a stellar example of organisation, fitness and work rate coming together in tandem and in harmony. That was the reason for sides struggling so much to break them down and beat them. Burton’s football was not always the most open, but it was hugely effective.
“On more than one occasion, the former Chelsea and Leeds United forward reiterated that he would much rather win a game 1-0 than edge a seven-goal thriller. His attention to detail on the training ground was visible in games, and something his players have highlighted as crucial to their success.”
It is the two attributes in the opening statement, fitness and work-rate, that have been clear to see since his arrival at Sixfields, with results starting to improve after Northampton’s poor start to the year.
You almost had to pull every Northampton supporter off the ceiling after Matt Crooks gave the Cobblers the lead just 21 seconds into Hasselbaink’s tenure against Doncaster, a goal that ultimately proved enough to get the ex-Chelsea man off to a winning start and earn a first victory of the 2017-18 campaign.
This was followed by an impressively clinical 3-1 victory over Portsmouth just a few days later and, despite being winless in their past four league matches, there’s a clear sense of rejuvenation around.
Hasselbaink’s two defeats to date have come against two of League One’s better sides, Wigan and Bradford City, and both – by a 1-0 score-line – came courtesy of sublime strikes from the opposition.
Even in defeat there have been growing signs of improvement, with the 45-year-old all of a sudden instilling a sense of when to press the opposition and when to sit back in his side, tightening things up in what was a midfield full of gaps and getting his side feeling more comfortable when in possession.
The Cobblers may still be sitting in the relegation zone after ten matches of the new season but one big bonus for Northampton is that Hasselbaink has more than enough time to turn their fortunes around.
Whereas Edinburgh arrived at Sixfields in January last season, having to make the best of the bad situation that Page had left him in, Hasselbaink almost has a full season to keep working on this side.
That is an integral part of the re-building process that he’s inherited, having time on his side to drill his own style of play into a relatively new and youthful bunch of players whilst the 2017-18 season is young.
It is important to note that nothing happens overnight, not in the Football League.
But, slowly but surely, Hasselbaink has been showing signs that this Northampton side have the budding potential necessary to comfortably establish themselves as a competitive League One side.
The ex-QPR boss has already stamped his mark on the squad despite arriving too late to have an impact in the transfer market, utilising on-loan Manchester United defender Regan Poole in a more advanced midfield role and bringing Raheem Hanley back into the picture after 15 months in the wilderness.
Their performance in the 0-0 stalemate away at Milton Keynes Dons on Tuesday evening encapsulated everything about Hasselbaink’s ethos as manager. The Cobblers were hard to break down, giving very little away, and in midfield their organisation and slick passing was very pleasing.
It is a far cry from the toothless, one-dimensional football that was seen towards the end of Edinburgh’s reign at Sixfields, with the air of discontent around the ground being replaced by one of almost expectancy.
There are certainly still creases to iron out on the side – not least the lack of pace in their striking options, with Alex Revell and Marc Richards both the wrong side of 30-years-old and both more adept at holding the ball up in front of the defence – but the start has been promising, if unspectacular.
After a tough run up against some of the league’s strongest side the Cobblers have already shown that they’re capable of challenging with anyone and now it’s time to turn these performances into points.
It has been a whirlwind start to life at Northampton Town for Hasselbaink but the new-found signs of encouragement have given hope, and it is fair to say things may look even rosier in another 23 days.
How can Northampton Town resolve their recent defensive issues?
For a team that was a week away from complete extinction just twelve months ago, Northampton Town are, by no means, struggling to adjust to League One life by sitting in mid-table.
Perhaps, after a run of four matches without victory – prior to yesterday’s win over Shrewsbury – the Cobblers have done themselves an injustice after their 32 match unbeaten run this year as a slight dip in form is something that Northampton supporters are not particularly accustomed to.
After an impressive start to their League One campaign saw them rise to as high as fifth in the table, a reality check has well and truly hit Rob Page’s side after three defeats in four have saw them drop down to the bottom half of the table ahead of Saturday’s meeting with lowly Shrewsbury Town.
Instead of last season, where the players at Sixfields were able to play without any pressure on their shoulders due to the ongoing financial circumstances at the club, there are far more expectations facing the Cobblers this year.
Whereas League One survival is ultimately the aim, Northampton may have to get used to the losing feeling that has very rarely been felt over the last twelve months.
Despite all of this, however, the Cobblers’ recent dip in form is largely down to their defensive frailties and lack of composure in the back four, a problem that Page needs to rectify fairly quickly.
21 goals conceded in 15 league games doesn’t initially seem like a bad return, especially for a newly-promoted side, but in their four defeats this season the Cobblers have shipped three goals in each, as well as only keeping four clean sheets so far. They also conceded twice on Saturday’s against a struggling Shrewsbury side.
These defensive frailties were horribly exposed during the week in the first Nene Derby for seven years – in arguably the most important game of the season for the fans, the Cobblers were dismantled at the back and Peterborough made sure of the local bragging rights with a 3-0 win.
One of the main issues is their vulnerability at defending set-pieces, with two of Peterborough’s goals coming from simple headers from corners, and Rob Page will be hoping that the return of Congo DR international Gabriel Zakuani will consolidate the back line.
After the defeat in mid-week, Page also cited the “lack of concentration” at pivotal moments which led to conceding soft goals, but believes that the Cobblers defence can bounce back on Saturday. Of course, they claimed three points, but still lacked resilience in defence.
With Zakuani, the on-loan Lewin Nyatanga, Zander Diamond and Rod McDonald all solid, experienced options in the heart of the defence, Northampton do have useful players at their disposal.
In Lewin Nyatanga, on-loan from Barnsley for the season, the Cobblers have a player that has been playing Championship football regularly for the best part of ten years, and although Diamond and Zakuani are Page’s main centre-backs it can’t be long before the Welshman gets a look in to the side.
Making over 100 appearances in his four-year spell at Bristol City, Nyatanga is a clever-minded defender, able to anticipate the game and intercept the ball well in front of the back four, as well as being more than capable of winning an aerial battle with his physical presence.
Northampton had the perfect chance to bounce-back from their form of late with a trip to bottom of the table and manager-less Shrewsbury, and the took it. The Cobblers may have failed to keep a fifth clean sheet of the campaign in this clash, but at least they are back winning ways.
How important have Alex Revell and Matt Taylor been for Northampton Town this term?
Sometimes it can be amazing to think of what can happen over the space of a single year in the game of football; from the edge of extinction to the heady heights of the League One play-off positions, Northampton Town have had a more eventful two years than most Football League sides.
After all of the drama of the last 12 months at Sixfields, the club now need to put all of that behind them and focus on their priorities – to establish themselves as a League One side and avoid relegation.
However, after midfielders Ricky Holmes, Danny Rose and Nicky Adams (all pivotal players in Northampton’s title winning season) left for other Football League clubs over the summer, there were a lot of concerned fans who thought that these departures would leave far too much of a gap in a midfield that was so strong and solid last year.
Instead, new boss Rob Page went about his transfer business very acutely, making fewer signings than previous manager Chris Wilder had in the summer before but ensuring that the handful of players coming in would improve the squad – very much bringing an ethos of quality over quantity to the club.
These summer acquisitions include – among others – Alex Revell from Milton Keynes Dons and Matthew Taylor from Burnley, and it’s these two that have started the season on fire for the Cobblers and have helped lift them up to as high as fifth in the League One table.
Alex Revell has undeniably been a revelation for the club since his arrival, firing in four goals over his first nine league games, including one against his former club.
His style of play is perfectly suited for League One football, acting as the lone man upfront and holding the ball up, allowing the wider midfielders to make runs in behind the defensive line; and it is this level of physicality playing in front of the back-line that makes him a defender’s worst nightmare.
With Marc Richards, Northampton’s top goal-scorer from the last two seasons, struggling to find match fitness after a recurring injury, the Cobblers’ hopes in front of goal rest mainly on the shoulders of Revell, and he has risen to the task excellently.
At the age of 33 Revell is at the more experienced end of his career, and arguably won’t be sticking around as part of Rob Page’s long term plans. However, as a short term acquisition, there aren’t many other strikers in the Football League that would make as quick an impact for Northampton.
As joint fourth top goal-scorer in League One so far (averaging a goal every 200 minutes) he has been a key part of Northampton’s quick start to the season, and Page will be hoping that he can continue his rich vein of form for the upcoming months.
Matt Taylor, meanwhile, is another player arguably coming to the end of his career at 34-years-old, but he’s someone that needs very little introduction; ex-Premier League player for Portsmouth, arguably most known for some of his outrageous wonder goals down on the south coast, he has been an outstanding signing for Northampton so far.
After being a first-team regular for Burnley in their promotion-winning Championship season last year, Taylor has arrived at Sixfields bringing all of his footballing experience to the side, and this has been clear to see across the opening ten games of the campaign.
Comfortable on the ball, Taylor has settled straight into a midfield partnership with fan favourite John-Joe O’Toole and has adapted well to the more physical style of play in League One.
As well as this, the ex-Burnley man’s footballing brain is very switched on, in a manner very similar to the way Nicky Adams played his football for the club last year. The latter, with his 12 assists last season, was a catalyst for so many Northampton goals and was always going to be difficult to replace, yet Taylor has started this year in fantastic form, scoring and assisting three goals apiece.
If he can maintain this level of form, the shock of the summer exits will soon be able to be forgotten.
Even despite their record-breaking season last year, and despite their record of only one loss in their last 33 league games dating back to December 2015, the Cobblers’ impressive start to League One life comes as a surprise to most.
One loss in ten games is not a bad return for any newly-promoted team, and Page seems to have finally got his side to gel and play his style of football after a tricky pre-season period.
Perhaps the biggest testament to this current Northampton Town side is the way in which Ander Herrera celebrated his goal in Manchester United’s visit to Sixfields in the EFL Cup last week; it just shows how the Premier League giants were more than aware that they were in a game, and there was almost a sense of relief that they saw off the League One side.
With the main target for this season to avoid relegation back to League Two, the Cobblers are already exceeding expectations hugely; yet with the team in form, the new signings settling down and results going their way, who can count against them aiming even higher for the end of May.
Earlier it was said that a lot can happen in a single year, but what about two years – Northampton Town supporters may be forgiven if they dare to dream of Championship football next season.
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