From being sacked by current Premier League champions Leicester City, after his part in a racist sex video, to becoming a title-winning member of the PFA League Two Team of the Year, it’s fair to say that it’s been quite an eventful twelve months for Northampton Town goalkeeper Adam Smith.
Smith, alongside Tom Hopper and James Pearson (son of ex-Leicester manager Nigel Pearson), was fired from the Foxes following an investigation into allegations that they were racially abusive whilst performing sex acts when on a post-season tour in Thailand last year.
Fortunately for him, ex-Northampton Town manager Chris Wilder wasted no time in giving Smith a chance at instant redemption and signed him only a matter of days after the events in Thailand exploded into the headlines of the media.
Since then, his career has gone from strength to strength, becoming a leader on the pitch and an indispensable member of Chris Wilder’s, and now Rob Page’s, starting line-up.
Smith, in many ways, is the epitome of the perfect Football League goalkeeper. He commands his box supremely, is quick off of his line and is not afraid to make himself look big in the face of oncoming attackers in a one-on-one situation – more often than not coming out on top.
His shot-stopping ability is second to none as well, producing a more than impressive show reel of saves last season.
More than anything, Northampton Town’s Player of the Year for 2016 carries a level of consistency that is needed to compete at the highest levels, keeping 15 clean sheets from 46 league matches and conceding a mere average of a goal a game.
Arguably, the young goalkeeper spurred the Cobblers through a tricky and congested month of February by keeping five clean sheets in six games, a run which included key games against fellow title chasers Oxford United and Leyton Orient.
The best benchmark for Smith’s consistency comes with his recent inclusion in the Football Manager Team of the Season at the annual Football League Awards, where he fought off competition from all 72 Football League clubs to be selected as the man between the sticks.
When considering the circumstances in which he left the Foxes last June, the dramatic resurgence of Smith is even more impressive.
Previously disgraced and ridiculed in the eye of the sport, Smith has resurrected his career in spectacular fashion and in a way that Hopper and Pearson haven’t been able to do – so much so that the air of animosity surrounding his move to Northampton in the early stages has all disappeared, now replaced with the atmosphere of a fan favourite for the League One side.
Smith’s form last season rendered him a player in demand, particularly during the January transfer window when Premier League sides Burnley and Swansea were in the race to sign the 23-year-old, yet he’s insisted that he’s not moving away from Sixfields any time soon.
With key players from last season in Ricky Holmes and Nicky Adams leaving Sixfields over the summer, the Cobblers have done a great piece of business in warding off other clubs and keeping Smith for another year; if Smith had gone as well, it could have become a real uphill battle for Northampton to avoid relegation come May.
Instead, the Cobblers have done well to avoid a repeat incident when former goalkeeper Mark Bunn, now at Aston Villa, was leading them in their previous charge to League One.
Bunn, who appeared over 100 times for the Cobblers, attracted the attention of various bigger clubs after a promotion-winning season for Northampton back in 2005/06, eventually leaving for Premier League side Blackburn Rovers two years later.
The season after he left, Northampton were relegated back to League Two – and it could be said that a similar occurrence may have been in the pipeline this season if Smith had moved too.
Despite his spectacular form last season, the challenge of League One will undoubtedly prove to be a whole new proposition for the ex-Leicester City man, yet if Smith can carry his League Two form over to League One then the Cobblers could be set to raise a few eyebrows as they set out to cement their position in the third tier of English football.
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.