The unthinkable prospect of relegation to non-league has always seemed an unlikely one this season, even when the Cobblers had seven points from 10 games, but after this galling defeat to Cambridge United, it remains an all-too-real possibility.
It was not so much the result itself that generated cause for concern, nor even the crushing manner in which it was inflicted. No, it was the deeply disappointing manner of Town’s overall performance as they went from one extreme to the other following last weekend’s excellent victory over Carlisle United.
That display against the Cumbrians was long overdue but it seems it was a one-off judging by their efforts at the Abbey Stadium on Saturday when they were second best throughout, even if you account for Town’s injury-ravaged squad.
While the timing of United’s winning goal and the closeness of the final scoreline could give the impression this was a tight, evenly-contested affair, that would do a disservice to Cambridge’s superiority for much of the encounter.
In truth, 3-2 reflects kindly on the Cobblers. Their play hardly warranted two goals while their defence – or rather overrun midfield – could easily have shipped many more. Only United’s ineptitude in front of goal spared their blushes.
To put it into context, Jevani Brown, Harrison Dunk, Jabo Ibehre and George Maris all missed clear chances and yet Cambridge still scored three goals. That doesn’t even account for the numerous counter-attacking opportunities the home side messed up, nor Brown’s missed penalty at 2-1. Based on the chances count alone, this was far more one-sided than the scoreline suggests.
There were mitigating circumstances. With Shaun McWilliams joining John-Joe O’Toole, Sam Foley, Ash Taylor in the treatment room and both Kevin van Veen and Matt Crooks having been sold, the squad is now down to the bare bones.
That meant two of Town’s brightest young prospects – Jay Williams and Scott Pollock – were thrown into the deep end on Saturday but this was no game for players of such inexperience. Try as they might, the teenagers required more structure and help from those around them to thrive. In the end, they became swamped.
If they weren’t before, reinforcements are now surely needed. If not, an awkward end to the season awaits.
Back to Saturday’s game, the Cobblers led twice but they were fortunate to do so on both occasions. Aaron Pierre’s thumping finish came of the blue and Junior Morias was in the right place at the right time to pounce on a defensive mix-up straight after half-time. Chances were otherwise few and far between.
The midfield was overrun from the first whistle – only exacerbated by the departure of McWilliams to injury – and that in turn left the defence exposed, all while United found oceans of space down either flank as the visitors lost regularly their shape.
The home side’s repeated breakaways became a theme of the game, though they somehow managed to mess up almost every one. If it wasn’t for some indecision and poor decision-making, United would surely have racked up more.
Foley’s tenacity and robustness in midfield was a significant miss. Without his industry, the defence became exposed.
Relegation remains unlikely despite this defeat, thanks largely to a six-point cushion and the amount of teams between them and the bottom two, but the fact it can’t entirely be ruled out at this stage of the campaign – almost 30 games in – says everything about how Town’s season has lurched from one disappointment to another.
Relegation remains unlikely despite this defeat, thanks largely to a six-point cushion and the amount of teams between them and the bottom two, but the fact it can’t entirely be ruled out at this late stage of the campaign says everything about how Town’s disappointing season.
To put it into context, Cobblers require 17 points from their final 18 games to be assured of safety, an average of almost one per game. Over their previous 10 matches, they’ve averaged exactly one point per game.
With injuries totting up and key players now playing elsewhere, it’s getting too close for comfort.
How they rated...
David Cornell - The fact he was one of Town’s better players is telling. Wasn’t tested as much as he should have been due to United’s erratic finishing, but raced off his line to smother at the feet of Maris and was generally solid. All three goals left him no chance.... 7
Shay Facey - Did well to cope with the flurry of attacks and timed his challenges well. Booked for the penalty despite being nowhere near the incident... 7
Aaron Pierre - Had to stand strong as captain and at the heart of the defence given how often United came streaming forward. Thumping finish for his fifth of the campaign, though did concede the spot-kick... 7
Jordan Turnbull - Commendable performance considering how busy he was. Regularly called upon to make tackles, interceptions and blocks, all of which he did excellently... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Jay Williams - Never once shied away from the action as he battled gamely in midfield, but ultimately he was not aided by those around him... 6
Shaun McWilliams - Cobblers could ill-afford to lose him given he went into the game as their only fit senior central midfielder, but that’s what happened shortly before half-time... 5
George Cox - His withdrawal at the break was a blow for the Cobblers as he had delivered some decent crosses and was finding space on the left.... 6
Sam Hoskins - A tough day at wing-back as he never really attacked with conviction and then left gaps for United to exploit on the counter-attack. Unlucky with a looping header that hit the woodwork... 5
Jack Bridge - No repeat of last week’s heroics but was Town’s most dangerous attacking player, at least in the second-half when his work created two good chances for Morias... 6
Junior Morias - Clinical finish to restore the lead after half-time but his miss moments later proved a decisive moment as the hosts fought back. Still, his substitution before the hour-mark came as a surprise... 7
Andy Williams - Very little impact on the game. Shot over shortly before United’s late winner but hard to recall much else falling his way... 5
Scott Pollock - Not the ideal situation for a 17-year-old to be thrust into the heat of battle. Moments of promise and was by no means overawed by the occasion, but this was not the sort of game for one so young and inexperienced... 6
David Buchanan - 5
Daniel Powell - 5