Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has not had the opportunity to shower his players with praise on too many occasions this season but they left him with little choice after their terrific performance and impressive victory over Bradford City on Saturday.
The Cobblers had conceded 16 goals and scored just two across their five previous away league games prior to Saturday, losing all five, which made for understandable apprehension ahead of the trip to West Yorkshire, all the more so when you factor in their poor record against teams at the top end of the table.
Since being promoted to League One 18 months ago, Town had failed to win any of their nine trips to teams who either finished in the top six last season or are in the current top six this time around, beaten in eight of those games, but they defied both the form guide and the bookies to come up trumps at Valley Parade and deservedly prevail 2-1.
From goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell to striker Chris Long, the Cobblers excelled all across the pitch as they made it back-to-back wins for just the third time this season, however while Hasselbaink was spoilt for choice in terms of picking out star performers afterwards, it was once again the display of key man John-Joe O’Toole that caught his eye.
O’Toole scored the all-important first goal when heading in Matt Grimes’ corner on the cusp of half-time and then was instrumental in the second, slipping in Long who wrong-footed Bantams goalkeeper Lukas Raeder to double the advantage just after the hour-mark.
Long also impressed on the day, as did Ash Taylor in defence, but O’Toole’s growing importance on the team was on full display at Valley Parade, and highlighted that, when he plays, the Cobblers have a significantly higher chance of success. Indeed, they’ve won six of the 11 games he’s started this season but triumphed in only two of 24 when he’s not been in the starting line-up.
“He’s a focal point,” said Hasselbaink afterwards. “Nobody likes playing against him and I can’t imagine why! At times it’s not pretty but it’s effective and he annoys people and annoys the opposition and also the supporters.
“I like that and he thrives on it. The more the supporters are on his case, the bigger he gets. I thought on Saturday he was immense, he led the line and that gave Longy the breathing space he needed.
“I think we can still give Longy better balls and give him more opportunities but on Saturday it was a good start and something to work from.”
For the second Saturday running there were a pair of new faces on show for the Cobblers as goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell and defender Jordan Tunrbull made their debuts, the latter surprisingly chosen at left-back ahead of David Buchanan.
But he impressed in the role and contributed to a resilient defensive display, drawing praise from his new manager afterwards. “I had a decision to make,” added Hasselbaink. “I’ve not brought Jordan in to play left-back but I know that he can play there and we need more players who can play in different kind of positions.
“Obviously Aaron Pierre is going to be out for a while so we needed to bring in a left-footed centre-half if we could but because he was brought up at Southampton and he’s played in different positions, he can play at left-back and I thought on Saturday he did a good job.
“He gave us a little bit more physicality. It was not perfect but it was good for a first start and he’s a very good addition to the squad and we’re very happy to have him.”
O’Donnell’s performance was not without the occasional alarm – he seemed particularly troubled by Paul Taylor’s free-kicks, caught out in stoppage-time when City pulled a goal back – but he made three excellent saves and was an assured presence between the sticks throughout.
Nobody likes playing against him and I can’t imagine why! At times it’s not pretty but it’s effective and he annoys people and annoys the opposition and also the supporters. He was immense.
“We know Richard has the experience and the know-how,” continued Hasselbaink. “He won’t be afraid of going to places like Bradford because he’s been there and done it and that’s what we need - somebody to come in and give that to the back four.
“I think we he played really well. He brought calmness to the back four and that’s what we needed and we’ll need that experience.
“I think he was sorting out the wall for the free-kick for their goal and it was taken quickly. The boy shot and he was not set so it’s one of those things and we have to help him in that situation and make sure they don’t take it quickly.”
Finally, Hasselbaink also addressed the absence of club captain Marc Richards from the matchday squad on Saturday, explaining: “It was a selection decision and it’s just one of those things. I had a decision to make on which attacking players I put on the bench and that was that.”