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.