THE BIG KICK-OFF: James Heneghan’s season preview - here’s hoping for thrills and spills!

NEW FACE - Billy Waters is one of 12 new signings to have joined the Cobblers this summer
NEW FACE - Billy Waters is one of 12 new signings to have joined the Cobblers this summer

Given the timid manner in which last season petered out, followed by the rush of signings over a frenzied summer, there is a whole range of emotions, from excitement to intrigue to optimism, around Sixfields ahead of Saturday’s curtain-raiser at Shrewsbury Town.

For certain, when the Cobblers came off the pitch following a goalless draw with Gillingham back in April, marking a tame end to a tame season, not many could have predicated the stark contrast in both mood and atmosphere 97 days later.

Dean Bowditch

Dean Bowditch

Those 97 days might not seem like long, but it has been more than enough time for there to be a transformation at Sixfields, both on and off the pitch, where trepidation has been replaced by a sense of anticipation.

From the intrigue of Justin Edinburgh’s first team selection to the excitement of the game itself, Saturday’s trip to New Meadow is something of a leap into the unknown for this reshaped and remodelled Cobblers outfit.

It will provide us with the first real opportunity to gauge where they are at following their summer of upheaval during which 12 new faces walked through the gates amid a splattering of departures.

In theory, the transition from last season to this should be a more straightforward one than 12 months ago.

The Cobblers will have no option but to improve because you feel they cannot rely on the ineptitude of others for a second year running

James Heneghan

Not only are the Cobblers now more accustomed to the demands of League One, they also have continuity off the pitch as Edinburgh prepares for his first full campaign as manager.

Yet you could argue there are more questions than ever before given the extent of their summer renovation.

How quickly will they gel?

Can Edinburgh find the right system?

Daniel Powell

Daniel Powell

And can he keep all of his players happy?

A new season always brings new challenges and Edinburgh faces many himself, not least the task of turning around his side’s meek end to the previous campaign when they failed to win any of their last eight games.

On paper, Shrewsbury, one of the favourites for relegation among the bookies, present an ideal opportunity to hit the ground running but, like Town, they too have justified optimism ahead of Saturday’s clash.

They look a settled side who have been on the rise under the excellent guidance of manager Paul Hurst, who did a remarkable job of hauling them away from desperate trouble last season.

Matt Crooks

Matt Crooks

He has continued that upward curve in an extremely impressive pre-season campaign which has yielded wins over four Championship sides in Aston Villa, Cardiff City, Burton Albion and Wolves, albeit mixed in with defeats to AFC Telford and Brackley Town.

Nevertheless, it’s a tricky start for Northampton, and when you take a look at the fixture list, it’s not immediately obvious who will struggle and who will thrive this season; it’s very much all to play for.

The Cobblers are one of those teams who could end up just about anywhere, from a play-off challenge to another bottom half struggle. Among many factors, much will hinge on how quickly their new-look squad click together.

Most would agree that Edinburgh has done an excellent job over the summer. He’s revitalised and reinvigorated a previously ageing squad with a blend of youthful exuberance and experienced 
know-how.

The squad is now far stronger and far deeper and has a more streamlined look to it, in contrast to last season when there were too many bits and pieces players who barely got a look in because they were evidently not up to the required standard. There has been a conscious effort to sign players who bring qualities and attributes, such as pace, power and physicality, that were conspicuous by their absence last season.

Billy Waters, Ash Taylor, Matt Crooks and Daniel Powell are four such examples and their influence has already been visible in a pre-season campaign where Northampton have looked a superior outfit than 12 months ago.

Marc Richards

Marc Richards

The likes of Leon Barnett and Dean Bowditch have both played in the Championship and bring invaluable experience, while Aaron Pierre, Sam Foley, Yaser Kasim, Chris Long, Regan Poole and young George Smith all offer something different and provide healthy competition across the park.

The only missing piece is a goalkeeper to rival David Cornell but it is wise of Edinburgh to wait for the right man to come along rather than buy someone who’s not up to scratch just for the sake of it.

In addition to the new signings - and it’s easy to forget now given what’s happened since - Marc Richards and John-Joe O’Toole were crucially tied down at the end of last season and they will again form integral cogs of Edinburgh’s system this term.

There is no more Adam Smith, Rod McDonald or Zander Diamond, three key members of the title-winning team two seasons ago, while Gabriel Zakuani, Jak McCourt and Paul Anderson are also among those to have departed.

But with David Buchanan, Brendan Moloney, Matty Taylor and David Buchanan still around, it will be fascinating to see how Edinburgh shuffles his pack over the coming weeks and months. His first team sheet at Shrewsbury is sure to be telling.

Well, at least that rings true on the personnel front, but what we do know is that Edinburgh intends to play 3-5-2 from the start, and that preference seems a sensible one in theory. With the type of players he has to choose from, it could well prove fruitful if utilised correctly.

The spine of the team, especially in midfield, appears strong while all four full-backs, plus Powell, should thrive at wing-back and the system also allows for two strikers, another area of the pitch were Town boast a variety of options.

What the Cobblers must do, above all else, is raise their levels from last season because League One is almost certainly going to a tougher and more rigorous test this time around given the quality of opposition.

Promoted trio Plymouth, Portsmouth and Doncaster are all among the favourites to challenge at the right end once again, and while there is no Sheffield United or Bolton Wanderers, the presence of Wigan and Blackburn ensure the quality remains high.

There are unlikely to be any Coventrys or Chesterfields who fall by the wayside early on, so given the way the Cobblers stuttered so badly against top half teams last term, they will have no option but to improve because you feel they cannot rely on the ineptitude of others for a second year running.

So, what would constitute a good season?

The beauty of football at this level is that it is so unpredictable, and to make a prediction before a ball has even been kicked would risk looking like a fool come May, but, then again, sport has a habit of making a fool out of us all.

First and foremost, improving on last season’s 16th place is a must. Beyond that, there is no reason why they cannot push top half, top 10 or even challenge the play-offs. They have the players and the squad depth to do so, but of course the proof will be in the pudding.

What’s more, as well as improving on results, an improvement on the style of play would not go amiss.

For much of the past 12 months there has been little to write home about under Page or Edinburgh, who was admittedly hamstrung by the limited options available to him, but a dash of flair and style will go a long way to appeasing fans, even if the results are mixed.

Excitement and optimism are in no short supply as the new season draws ever nearer, but with new signings comes greater expectation and Edinburgh will realise that. There are no excuses and he knows he must deliver or face the consequences.

For now, though, fans have every reason to dream big. Football, and the Cobblers, are back.

Roll on Saturday!

Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor

George Smith

George Smith

Leon Lobjoit (left) and Chris Long

Leon Lobjoit (left) and Chris Long