Clinical in the first-half and then disciplined in the second, the most impressive aspect of this efficient 2-0 victory at Crewe Alexandra on Saturday was the simplicity with which the Cobblers achieved it.
There was no drama, no tension and no fuss en route to three thoroughly deserved points. The Cobblers simply turned up, devised an effective game plan and got the job done, stretching their unbeaten run to five matches and collecting a third away win in four.
Those words have not often been uttered about a Northampton performance during the past 18 months. Even when they’ve won, they’ve usually made hard work of it with fans put through the wringer. See Stevenage and Tranmere as recent examples.
But there was no need for any tension or nerves at Gresty Road where Keith Curle’s men began with purpose, followed it with goals and then defended their lead with impressive ease. Indeed, the services of goalkeeper David Cornell were not required until the 89th and 92nd minutes.
Those stops aside, it was another gentle afternoon for the Town stopper, who must be enjoying some peace and quiet between the sticks this past month. Having shipped four goals in the space of 42 minutes against Colchester a month ago, Cornell has conceded just three in the last five games combined (490 minutes).
There have been a few signs in recent weeks – just a few – that the Cobblers are starting to resemble a functioning, effective football team, and their efforts on Saturday, albeit against an admittedly meek Crewe outfit, only strengthened that feeling.
They have not done anything groundbreaking during their mini-revival but it’s been a return to the fundamentals of football and it has represented a marked improvement on what went before
Those fundamentals include organised defending, hard-working midfielders and clinical forward players, all of which contributed to victory over Crewe, Town’s third win from their last four away games.
Crewe, regarded as one of League Two’s more attractive footballing sides, can complain all they like about supposed ‘rough house’ tactics but the beauty of football is that there is no single way of playing the game and not once did Town overstep the mark at Gresty Road.
It was a perfectly fair and legitimate victory. It was not even an especially physical game. It was just a proper disciplined, dogged and resolute away performance.
And within their defensive sturdiness, the Cobblers played some decent stuff and always posed a threat on the break. Indeed, Crewe’s inability to lay a glove on their visitors did not owe to Town’s physicality, it owed to their own lack of cutting edge in the final third. You cannot expect to succeed in League Two by just playing neat and tidy football.
The groundwork for this victory was laid down in the first-half when a purposeful start was followed by two quickfire goals either side of the half-hour mark, though the visitors were let off the hook by Jordan Bowery’s inexcusable miss just 12 minutes in, the Crewe man skewing wide from close-range.
Daniel Powell has become one of the forgotten men under Keith Curle but he’s always had talent and he showed it again here. In for his first start since mid-December, he scored one and created the other.
His scruffy finish crucially nudged the Cobblers ahead before John-Joe O’Toole, whose stop-start season has mirrored that of the team, came to the party.
Crewe’s inability to lay a glove on their visitors did not owe to Town’s physicality, it owed to their own lack of cutting edge in the final third. It’s not realistic to expect success in League Two purely by playing neat and tidy football.
His goal was a classic O’Toole goal: an opportunistic run into the box followed by a brilliant first-time finish. Powell supplied the cross and suddenly the visitors were in command.
The second-half took on a predictable pattern given the state of the game. Crewe had all of the ball but, faced by an organised Northampton defence, they struggled to go anywhere with it. Callum Ainley and Chris Porter had chances in the final few moments but, despite nine added minutes, it was too late to influence the outcome.
While thoughts of the play-offs might be a little far-fetched at this point, the Cobblers, having spent virtually the whole season stranded in the bottom third of League Two, now have an excellent opportunity to move into the middle tier and even towards the top half.
The speed and extent of the turnaround has been remarkable. There was nothing false about fans’ fears of relegation just a few short weeks ago when a 4-0 home spanking against Colchester left them peering over their shoulders, seven points above the drop. Within a month, that gap has grown to 15 and now fans are looking up.
It will take a few more wins to truly have fans dreaming of an unlikely charge towards the top seven but maybe, just maybe, a chink of light is appearing at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
For player ratings, see the following link: Crewe 0 Cobblers 2 player ratings in pictures