Workmanlike rather than free-flowing, battling rather than convincing, Saturday’s hard-fought victory at Crawley Town, while not without fault, demonstrated the type of qualities Northampton have not always possessed in recent times.
It would be easy to spend time discussing and debating refereeing decisions following this win in West Sussex, and it’s true that Craig Hicks had a big say in the destination of the three points, but the Cobblers were nevertheless worthy winners and deserve credit for aspects of their display.
This was the type of game they might not have won three, six or 12 months ago, but thanks to Ollie Palmer’s two minutes of madness, allied to Kevin van Veen calmness from 12 yards, Northampton battled their way to three important points to boost hopes of a long-awaited surge up the table.
While Palmer’s curious decision to press the self-destruct button when his team were well in the game was clearly the big turning point, that alone should not distract from what was one of Town’s most comfortable defensive afternoons of the season, albeit against a rather toothless Crawley attack. Even before he saw red, the visitors were untroubled.
They were led by the once again excellent Jordan Turnbull, whose timely defensive interventions snuffed out several moments of danger during the first-half. Ash Taylor improved on recent showings and Aaron Pierre kept his head impressively well having become the pantomime villain among home supporters.
Where there is room for improvement is at the other end of the pitch. Decision-making and end product in the final third were both questionable at the Broadfield Stadium as promising attacks regularly fizzled out.
The second-half introduction of Matt Crooks instantly lifted the visitors up a level. If he can stay fit, and if van Veen can keep knocking in the goals, all without compromising the defensive solidity displayed on Saturday, Keith Curle’s target of a late charge towards the play-offs might not seem so far-fetched.
The drama and excitement of the second-half during Saturday’s contest seemed a long way off during a desperately disappointing opening period that was bereft of quality and entertainment. The football matched the dour conditions in West Sussex as Crawley’s Panutche Camara smacked the crossbar with a delicious curling effort and David Buchanan had a shot blocked for the visitors.
Those moments aside, it was a hard watch as the game descended into a slug-fest.
And it seemed even Palmer wanted to liven things up. If his shove on Pierre in the box was naive, his elbow on the same man two minutes later was inexplicable. Intentional or not, swinging an arm in that fashion runs the risk of being sent for an early bath.
Van Veen confidently tucked away the spot-kick for his 10th of the season – double than any of his team-mates – before Palmer’s second display of naivety allowed the Cobblers to protect their slender lead with more assurance in the final half-hour, although there were still heart-in-mouth moments as Camara whizzed just wide from range and a 95th minute free-kick sailed harmlessly over.
But Cornell did not have a serious save to make throughout as the better chances came at the other end where Shay Facey lacked the accuracy to beat Glen Morris, who also thwarted Daniel Powell. Despite those misses though, the Cobblers were relatively comfortable until the full-time whistle, which – predictably – was greeted by boos by home fans who felt their team had been unfairly treated.
League Two football is rarely about swashbuckling, free-flowing football. Even successful teams have to grind out wins occasionally, even Chris Wilder’s entertainers had their fair share of ugly victories en route to the title three years ago; Wycombe, Oxford (twice) and Newport spring to mind.
So while the Cobblers are a long way short of being promotion challenges, they are heading in the right direction. On Saturday, another building block was assembled.
If Crooks can stay fit, and if van Veen can keep knocking in the goals, all without compromising the defensive solidity displayed on Saturday, Keith Curle’s target of a late charge towards the play-offs might not seem so far-fetched.
How they rated...
David Cornell - One fumble aside, it was a routine afternoon for Town’s number one. His time-wasting antics were arguably his most valuable contribution towards victory for the visitors... 6
Jordan Turnbull - A class act throughout the contest but particularly in the first-half when he won some important tackles in and around his own box. His mere presence seems to transmit a sense of calm across the defence... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Ash Taylor - Home fans bayed for red after he tangled with Bulman late on, but it looked a perfectly legal challenge. A bit more like it from the centre-back for most of the afternoon, albeit against a toothless Crawley attack... 7
Aaron Pierre - Involved in the game’s two key moments. Penalty decision was fair if a little soft and there can be no doubt Palmer caught him with a flailing arm, leading to the Crawley man’s red card two minutes later. His every touch was booed thereafter but remained composed and kept his head to help Town see out the win... 8
Shay Facey - Whipped in a delicious first-half cross that presented chances for both Foley and Buchanan. Was regularly in acres of space on the right when Town had an extra man in the second-half, although didn’t always make best use of it. Denied by Morris late on... 7
David Buchanan - Missed the visitors’ clearest chance before half-time when his shot was blocked. Ran and tackled all game, and ensured referee Hicks didn’t go lightly on Palmer... 7
Sam Foley - Screened the back four effectively and made sure little got through to Crawley’s front men, making for a mostly comfortable afternoon for the away defence. Mistimed his leap when unmarked from Facey’s cross... 7
Shaun McWilliams - Another steady performance from the youngster who was busy and full of action in Town’s midfield. Won tackles and made interceptions while using the ball well... 7
Dean Bowditch - First league start in over two months and came up with some lovely touches, although drifted in and out of the game at times. Did well to the last the 90 given his lack of recent action... 6
Sam Hoskins - A frustrated bystander for most of the first-half but became more involved in the second when moved to the left. His defensive work and excellent bursts from deep positions were useful in getting the Cobblers up the pitch and towards Crawley territory... 7
Kevin van Veen - Stuck away his penalty with consummate ease, bringing his tally into double figures for the campaign. Was his only chance of the day but that’s all he needed to decide the game... 7
Matt Crooks - Instantly took Town up a level when introduced... 7
Daniel Powell - Spurned a late chance to wrap up the points, kept out by the legs of Morris... 6
Junior Morias - Perfected the art of keeping the ball in the corner to waste precious minutes... 6