Cast your mind back to February of two years ago, and you’ll find Northampton Town Football Club staring perilously at relegation out of the Football League. Sitting in 23rd position and six points adrift from safety, it’s fair to say that Aidy Boothroyd’s side were odds on to go down.
Somehow, the Cobblers managed to pull of an incredible run of form in the last two months of the season to save their Football League status, and many attributed this survival to the mid-season appointment of Chris Wilder, the current boss.
Although this is true in most respects as he completely transformed a team that had been languishing in the relegation spots since mid-September, it can be argued that it was one of his early managerial acquisitions that has changed Northampton from a relegation-threatened side to one that is on a one-way ride to League One next season.
Step forward ex-Portsmouth midfielder Ricky Holmes, a man who has been setting League Two alight this year with his mix of stunning goals, vital assists and all-round consistency.
Two years on from their relegation battle, and now fighting for a position at the complete opposite end of the table, Holmes has become something of a revelation at Sixfields Stadium, becoming an instant fan favourite and one of the first names on Wilder’s team-sheet each week.
Slotting in to place in Northampton’s attacking midfield three, Holmes’ natural ability going forward is given the freedom to run at defences and link-up directly with the front two of James Collins and Marc Richards, almost forming a front three at times.
All the more remarkable is that Holmes has scored six times this season despite spending almost three months on the side-line because of groin and back injuries. If there was ever a bitesize summary of the impact that he has had for Northampton this season, it’s shown in his return from injury in December in the tightly contested local derby against Luton Town; coming off the bench in the 69th minute with the scores level at 3-3, he ran from the halfway line with his first touch of the ball and fired a swerving shot into the top corner to win the game for the Cobblers.
It seems like this season he’s only dealing in wonder-strikes if he does score, not least with his recent goal against Leyton Orient where he chested down a defensive clearance before volleying into the top corner past Alex Cisak in the Orient goal.
Even away from the league, in the FA Cup third round tie against Milton Keynes Dons, the number eleven single-handedly kept the Cobblers in contention with two nicely taken goals early in the second half; the first of which was a curling beauty from outside the area.
But it’s not just goals that Holmes brings to the team, as his selfless nature helps set up many more goals; Northampton aren’t League Two’s top goal-scoring side without good reason. This must be a character trait that he has, as even at Portsmouth he made over fifty assists in one season on his way to winning the Player of the Year award in 2014.
Away from the goals and the assists where Holmes gets his plaudits, he’s also got a gritty side to him that is needed for this level. At only 5 feet and 8 inches, there’s always a fear that you can get bullied out of a game by a bigger, stronger opponent, especially in the relative rough and tumble of League Two, but if anything is clear from this season it’s that the ex-Pompey man is willing to put himself about and compete with anyone.
When playing on the right side of a midfield three, if the opposition win back possession and start to break, nine times out of ten Holmes will be tracking back to help out Brendan Moloney in the right back position and offer defensive support.
It’s undeniably an exciting time at Sixfields right now, as these dizzy heights at the top of the table haven’t been seen since their promotion to League One over ten years ago.
With 15 wins in 16 games (prior to their away trip to Hartlepool in the league), including ten successive victories, a Ricky Holmes powered side doesn’t seem like losing their grip of the League Two title.
All of a sudden, the pain of two years ago seems to be disappearing quite fast for the Cobblers.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Matt Churchill.