Jefferson Lake’s Cobblers v Cheltenham view and player ratings: It’s advantage Northampton

MIXED BAG - Adebayo Akinfenwa played well, but should have scored at least once against Cheltenham (Picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
MIXED BAG - Adebayo Akinfenwa played well, but should have scored at least once against Cheltenham (Picture: Kirsty Edmonds)

The Cobblers got their noses in front in the play-off race on Thursday night but they really should have got at least the first few toes of one foot in the Wembley door.

They deserved to beat Cheltenham, of that there can be no debate. But they also deserved to win by more than the one goal which they did.

Goalkeeper Scott Brown produced one of the best saves the ground has seen this season to dive back across himself and palm Adebayo Akinfenwa’s header away one-handed. It is the kind of moment that you hope isn’t looked back on in a few days’ time as some sort of turning point.

The attempt came from one of several copybook crosses from his wing by Chris Hackett, who was named man of the match by the sponsors and who recalled his early-season form with a stellar display.

Time and time again he beat his marker and put in the kind of crosses that have strikers’ eyes bulging and mouths watering.

But only once did they yield a goal, a superb hit by Roy O’Donovan, who now has three goals in three games.

It was enough to give Northampton their 18th win in league football at Sixfields this season but will it be enough to see them progress through the tie?

It was notable that Cheltenham manager Mark Yates not only reshuffled his side into a 4-5-1 system - which was curiously then copied by Aidy Boothroyd - but also clearly wasted time on a couple of occasions when returning the ball from the technical area.

By undertaking such acts, the implication is that Yates is fully comfortable with the scoreline as it is going into the second leg.

He will feel such a way because Cheltenham themselves have a pretty handy home record, with just two teams winning in league two at Whaddon Road this season.

But they are not a team that piles up the goals.

They are a solid team that love their 4-5-1 system and that are content to win 1-0. That might not be enough on Sunday.

The Cobblers’ 1-0 advantage may just be, though. These fixtures were always going to be tight and there is nothing to suggest the second leg will deviate from that pre-game prediction.

If you’re into the superstitious and historical thing then you’re in luck because the only time Northampton have ever won the first leg of a play-off semi-final (against Cardiff City, in 1997 and also by a 1-0 scoreline) they went on to win the tie.

Although that game was a tense and taut affair, the second leg exploded into life - on and off the pitch - and Town eventually progressed with a 4-2 aggregate victory.

This year’s games seem much more like the ones against Southend; two very well organised and largely defence-minded sides grinding against each other.

Boothroyd spoke after the game about a need to get on the front foot at Cheltenham and not simply look to defend for the 90 minutes.

But it must be tempting to do so.

Keep a clean sheet and you’re at Wembley.

It’s as simple as that, and although the team should perhaps be closer to reach the national stadium than they currently are, they are in pole position to be the ones advancing to the all-or-nothing showdown on May 18.

It’s a slim one, but it is very much advantage Northampton.

Jefferson’s ratings

LEE NICHOLLS

Was never called upon to make the kind of saves Brown did at the other end but played his part in the clean sheet ...7

BEN TOZER

Contained Mohamed throughout and performed well when shifted into a holding central midfield role ...7

CLARKE CARLISLE

Another typically robust display, seemed to relish attacking the ball and didn’t mistime anything. A very good night’s work ...8

NATHAN CAMERON

There were none of the errors or uncertainties of previous matches - in fact he didn’t put a foot wrong in a stout display ...8

LEE COLLINS

A couple of uncharacteristic poor passes aside he played well, putting the emphasis on defending rather than joining in attacks ...7

CHRIS HACKETT

A real big-game performance from a big-game player, he beat his marker repeatedly and provided five or six crosses that should have led to better ...9

BEN HARDING

Kept things ticking over in the heart of midfield and even managed to rattle into one or two spicy challenges ...7

LUKE GUTTRIDGE

Makes such a difference to the side with his work rate and ability to pick up loose balls; seemed to cover every blade of grass ...8

ISHMEL DEMONTAGNAC

The enigmatic winger continued his good pre-injury form and caused some trouble down his wing, although his crossing let him down at times ...7

ROY O’DONOVAN

Produced a superb piece of skill to volley in the game’s only goal but often found himself retreating wide to collect possession ...7

ADEBAYO AKINFENWA

A real mixed bag of an evening. Excellent link-up play and passing but will feel he really should have scored at least once ...7

Substitutes:

JOHN JOHNSON (for Demontagnac, 76mins)

Sent on at right-back to facilitate a change to a 4-5-1 system and didn’t let anybody down

Not used: Robinson, Snedker, Langmead, Platt, Moult, Hornby