When Cobblers kick-off their Sky Bet League Two campaign against Walsall at the PTS Stadium this coming Saturday, they will do so with the expectation of launching a serious and sustained assault on the top end of the division.
The disappointment of last season’s bottom-half finish has been washed away amid a flurry of new signings, club legends departing and a feeling that Cobblers surely have what it takes to compete at the business.
Keith Curle’s summer spending spree, with 12 in and almost as many going the other way, has fans dreaming high but this season’s League Two, on paper, looks as competitive as it has been for some time.
Plymouth Argyle, having swooped for the always excellent Danny Mayor as one of five signings from crisis club Bury, in addition to former Shakers boss Ryan Lowe, will be a tough nut to crack while relegated duo Bradford City and Scunthorpe United, plus Mansfield Town, have all made eye-catching signings.
Exeter City and Forest Green will be hoping to go one step further after falling just short last season, new-look Walsall have eyes on bouncing straight back and big-spending Salford City are bidding for a fifth promotion in six seasons.
So, if the Cobblers are to hold their own against the best League Two has to offer, who will be key to their chances?
Players who can consistently create goalscoring opportunities in League Two are like goldust but, in winger and returning fan favourite Nicky Adams, Cobblers have one of the best in the business.
Adams frequently tops the assists chart in at this level – he had four more than any other player last season – and he hasn’t taken him long to deliver that killer touch in his second spell at Northampton, setting up both goals in the recent friendly victory over MK Dons.
Finding a creative spark has been an area of concern for some time for the Cobblers. It was one of their biggest undoings in the relegation season and one of the main reasons they failed to bounce back at the first time of asking 12 months later. You can have the best goalscorer in the country but, if they don’t get chances, they won’t score goals.
Things may well change in the final month of the transfer window but, as it stands at this moment in time, Town’s bid for a top-seven finish will rest heavily on Adams and his ability in the final third.
Another area that let the Cobblers down last season was a lack of experience, leadership and game awareness in central midfield. New signing Alan McCormack immediately solves all three problems.
How many times over the last two years have Town failed to see out a game? Or conceded late on? Or collapsed when they’ve fallen behind? Or been unable to fightback? Indeed, in the two-and-a-half years between Chris Wilder’s departure and Keith Curle’s appointment, they won from a losing position on just a solitary occasion.
McCormack – and the same could be said for midfield partner Chris Lines – has seen it all. The vastly-experienced 35-year-old has spent much of his career operating at a higher level and only recently he helped Luton Town to back-to-back promotions, first out of League Two and then into the Championship.
His signature represents a coup for Curle and whilst there are legitimate concerns over his fitness, his mere presence at the club, either on the pitch or in the changing room, cannot be underestimated.
For too long now have the Cobblers been vulnerable in defence. They conceded more goals (77) than anyone else during 2017/18 and only six sides leaked more the following season in League Two.
Curle, whose overseen a gradual improvement in that department since taking over, has attempted to rectify those grim statistics by transforming his entire defence this summer. Shay Facey and David Buchanan were both released, while out went Ash Taylor, his contract mutually terminated, and Player of the Season Aaron Pierre, sold to Shrewsbury Town.
Jordan Turnbull remained at the club and in came Scott Wharton, Joe Martin and Reece Hall-Johnson, but you feel central to everything this season will be new captain Charlie Goode, whose eye-catching loan spell from Scunthorpe United turned into a permanent move earlier this month.
The 23-year-old already looks to be thriving in his role if pre-season is anything to go by. He was impressive against Sheffield United and outstanding against MK Dons, winning tackles, making blocks and showing leadership in the heart of Town’s defence.
That now must continue into the season. All the best teams have strong spines and particularly strong defences so Goode, a player whose career should be on an upward curve, will no doubt have a big part to play.