There is rarely a time in football when a manager has the universal backing of his fanbase, unless your name happens to be Chris Wilder.
Current Cobblers boss Keith Curle certainly does not have that luxury at present as he continues to divide opinion among Northampton supporters.
But whilst there are legitimate points to be made on either side of the argument, it’s important to add context to the debate when assessing his first five months in the Town hotseat.
At the time of Dean Austin’s sacking on September 30, the Cobblers were 21st in League Two, two points outside the relegation zone and were licking their wounds after being thumped 4-0 by Mansfield Town.
They were also coming off a relegation and with only three wins under their belt from 24 league matches across two campaigns, pre-season optimism had been washed away and replaced by a fear that Town were sliding out of the Football League and into the abyss of non-league.
That’s when chairman Kelvin Thomas turned to Curle. His task, first and foremost, was to halt their slide and ensure they did not suffer back-to-back relegations. Barring a major disaster over the final 12 games of the season, the former Carlisle United boss has achieved that with room to spare.
Whether the fear of relegation was genuine or not when Curle took over is beside the point, the fact is Cobblers languished just two points and two places outside the bottom two. Now, with 12 games to go, their safety looks assured.
Debates will continue to rage about the style of play and whether Curle has the ability so spearhead a promotion challenge over the next 12 months – which is what fans will rightly expect – but having steered the ship away from choppy waters and picked up 35 points from his 24 league games, losing just five in the process, he’s earned the opportunity to lead the club into next season.
His average of just under 1.5 points-per-game since taking the reins works out to 68 points over the course of a season, short of the play-offs but not by much. Considering the mess he inherited, that’s a fine effort.
“There wasn’t a winning mentality in the changing room but it’s coming and we’re building it,” says Curle, speaking after the victory at Stevenage on Saturday. “There’s a platform and people are enjoying the environment we’re trying to create and we want to work within.”
Curle has guided Town 12 points clear of the drop despite losing his two best players in Kevin van Veen and Matt Crooks, both of whom left in the January transfer window when the wage budget was reduced. As seven departed, only five came in, all on loan.
“As a new manager coming in, for the first month or two months, everybody would have heard me talk about foundations and platforms,” Curle adds.
“They’re still not in place and we’re still working on putting those in place. We’ve had one transfer window but there’s a willingness to work and there’s an appetite to learn and improve. Now, we have to make sure we maintain that.”
Despite widening the gap back to relegation from two points to 12, support for Curle among Cobblers fans is far from universal and perhaps one of his biggest problems is the start he had.
Six wins from his first nine games raised expectation levels and had fans dreaming of a potential play-off challenge when in reality that always seemed beyond their capabilities, particularly given where they were when Austin departed at the end of September.
Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement. The current style of play will not be tolerated over the long-term and Town’s home form remains inconsistent at best, but it’s obvious Curle has opted for the pragmatic approach for the most part.
His focus has been on making them harder to beat – as just five defeats in 24 games demonstrates – and improving a defence that previously leaked goals for fun.
Attacking-wise, work needs to be done. The recent goalless draw at home to Crawley Town was a sharp reminder that, without Crooks and van Veen, the Cobblers lack creativity and flair in the final third. Getting the balance right through smart recruitment and shrewd tactics will be the ultimate challenge for Curle.
His constant tinkering between personnel and formations is another source of frustration for fans. Some decisions, whether made before or during games, have not always made total sense and neither have they always paid off.
But some have. Playing Sam Hoskins as a lone striker at Tranmere Rovers caused outrage on social media and yet Town won the game 2-1 and Hoskins scored both goals.
The fact is Curle sees himself as a tinkerer. If he spots something he doesn’t like, he’ll change it. It can be frustrating for fans but it’s an approach that worked for almost four years at Carlisle United where he came within three minutes of a play-off final less than two years after rescuing them from relegation.
The remaining 12 games are key for Curle as thoughts start to turn to the summer and beyond. He must continue to build on the good work seen at Tranmere, Lincoln and Stevenage, with two wins and a draw from those games having prompted a slight sea change.
The heavy home defeat to Colchester was alarming and concerning at the time and raised relegation fears, but it might just prove the defining moment of Curle’s time at the Cobblers. If he can add consistency and creativity to a solid backbone, his jigsaw will be well on the way to completion.