Jefferson Lake’s Port Vale v Northampton preview: Motivation not an issue

ON THE MEND - Alex Nicholls, who broke his left leg when the Cobblers last met Port Vale, back in October
ON THE MEND - Alex Nicholls, who broke his left leg when the Cobblers last met Port Vale, back in October
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At this time of the season, the concept of motivation is one that is applied to every football team in varying degrees and for a multitude of reasons.

In npower League Two, the clubs at the top are competing in their own game of musical chairs, although it looks like Gillingham and Port Vale will now take the top-two places.

The next five clubs - one straight up and four left to fight it out after the regular season ends - are all taking it in turns to go third, with Rotherham the club currently sitting there until the music starts again.

The advent of the play-offs has extended the shelf life of the domestic football campaign and even meaningless fixtures have been given extra importance in the era of the Bosman ruling.

Freedom of movement has meant players with contracts that are due to expire are all competing in some kind of competitive trial period; there will be members of the current Cobblers squad looking to impress potential new employers in the next two games.

As well as those kind of beneath-the-surface factors there are also the tangibles - gathering momentum for the play-off travails to come and a pressing need to improve what has become an automatic promotion bid that is hanging by a thread.

And then there’s the Alex Nicholls element.

The injured striker has been a regular attendee for away matches recently, and even kicked a ball around at half-time with Clive Platt at Wycombe on Tuesday (although, with his right leg and not the left, which remains in a wince-inducing metal brace more than five months after the incident).

He will be there again on Saturday, a visual reminder of the most upsetting moment of the season so far and one which has had a profound effect on the team’s overall impact on the league.

Nicholls had scored eight goals in 18 starts at that point; Northampton would certainly have been more successful with him available for selection than they would with him in hospital, of that there can be no debate.

The loss of the player will go down as one of that ‘what ifs’ of the 2012/13 season at Sixfields and a reminder of what might have been.

At Vale Park on Saturday, the squad need to use it as a means of motivation.

League tables, talk of historical finishes in divisions, points tallies and facts and figures only go so far. Nicholls was one of the most liked players in the squad, a totally down-to-earth young man who was excelling in a new environment and earning victories and win bonuses for his colleagues.

So, this weekend, as well as the business of promotion, it’s also personal.