Northampton Town 0 Bristol Rovers 6 – match review, player ratings and highlights

ALL AT SEA: Cobblers' defending fell apart in the second-half as Rovers scored five times in 29 minutes. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
ALL AT SEA: Cobblers' defending fell apart in the second-half as Rovers scored five times in 29 minutes. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds

Take your pick of adjective. You could go for pitiful. Perhaps inexcusable. Or just simply woeful. But whatever you choose and however you dress it up, there’s no escaping the sheer awfulness of this horrific, almost surreal afternoon as the rudderless Cobblers were blown away in merciless fashion.

Picked apart with consummate ease time and time and time again, this was the type of afternoon that left match reporters frantically scrambling for a thesaurus in an attempt to find new ways to describe such a one-sided beating.

Emphatically outplayed by Bristol Rovers and deservedly thrashed in suffering their heaviest ever defeat at Sixfields and heaviest at home since the 1970s, there were no redeeming features for the Cobblers on this torrid afternoon.

There were no positives and certainly nothing to be upbeat about. From start to finish, it was an unmitigated disaster.

If you thought the trouncing dished out by rivals Peterborough United in August was the lowest of the lows, you had another thing coming. This was not just worse, it was unfathomably bad.

The worst thing you can say is that the scoreline didn’t flatter Rovers, and it wouldn’t have flattered them had they scored another two, three or even four goals. That’s how one-sided this game was. That’s how utterly outplayed and dismantled Northampton were.

It could even be argued, with some justification, that goalkeeper Matt Ingram was the home side’s best player. On top of the six goals conceded, none of which were particularly his fault, he made four important saves, including one from the penalty spot.

And all this didn’t come against a team riding high at the top of the table or a team in blistering form. It came against a team who have lost their last three away games, who were 14th in the division going into the contest and who had one of the worst defensive records in the entire Football League.

This was, in theory, Northampton’s easiest and most winnable game since the visit of Portsmouth almost a month earlier. That in itself must be a major cause for concern given what unfolded and the manner in which it unfolded as, for the second time in 2017, the Cobblers surrendered all too easily at the hands of the Pirates.

In fact, in the past year alone, Rovers have stuck 14 goals past Northampton across three meetings. Six of those have been scored by chief tormentor Ellis Harrison, who’s netted 50 per cent of his 12 league goals over the last 15 months against the Cobblers. And this was the worst of the lot.

Both individually and collectively, it all went horribly wrong.

Bar an even first 20 minutes that gave us no indication of what was to come, the Cobblers were one-dimensional in attack, pedestrian in midfield and unusually disjointed at the back.

It’s hard to believe that this was the same team who went to MK Dons only 11 days ago and produced such a controlled, composed away performance, or the team who battled valiantly in defeat to Rotherham, Bradford and Wigan.

They were all defeats but slender, hard-fought ones suffered at the hands of teams who will undoubtedly challenge for promotion this season. They at least offered encouragement and hope of a brighter future.

The worst thing you can say is that the scoreline didn’t flatter Rovers, and it wouldn’t have flattered them had they scored another two, three or even four goals. That’s how one-sided this game was. That’s how utterly outplayed and dismantled Northampton were.

Saturday, though, was in an entirely new bracket.

There was a complete disconnect between Town’s back four, midfield three and front three; three facets that should function as a unit were working entirely independent of one another.

As a result, Rovers were afforded so much space and time, the pace and movement of their forward players far too much for Town’s static, disjointed defence to handle.

The back four struggled to cope but they were given precious little protection by those in front. Matt Grimes is not a natural defensive midfielder, Sam Foley did not look fit and Dean Bowditch’s presence fizzled out after a bright start as he barely featured beyond the half-hour mark.

As a consequence, the midfield became totally overrun by the more mobile and nimble visitors who must have been surprised themselves by the ease at which they cut through their hosts.

What’s also easy to forget amid everything else is that this is a Rovers team who had conceded 23 goals – the second most in League One – prior to Saturday’s game, yet they barely broke sweat in keeping their very first league clean sheet of the season, despite missing both of their first-choice centre-backs. One of those replacements was a 19-year-old debutant who signed from Weston-Super-Mare in the summer.

Goalkeeper Sam Slocombe will not keep many more straightforward clean sheets such was the total lack of threat posed by Northampton. He didn’t have a notable save to make.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s team selection was always a gamble, and unfortunately it backfired. Alex Revell and Marc Richards did not partner each other up front as expected but the sight of Revell charging up and down the right wing was somewhat bizarre and slightly surreal.

He looked uncomfortable and unsure throughout the first-half, culminating in his clumsy challenge gifting Rovers a penalty moments after Billy Bodin’s superb finish fired the visitors in front.

Tom Nichols missed from the spot but it was no surprise when Revell was restored to a more natural position after the break, though that did little to stem Rovers’ domination.

His red card did not look intentional but you are asking for trouble when you swing your arm in that fashion.

The goals, meanwhile, were so avoidable yet they kept coming. Liam Sercombe was given time to line up a cross and duly obliged, picking out Harrison who too easily got between Town’s centre-backs to head in on 56 minutes.

Ash Taylor failed to close down the same man quick enough four minutes later as Harrison scored his second and Rovers’ third, and then the home defence was caught ball-watching when Chris Lines’ shot hit the post and Rory Gaffney reacted quickest to power home.

Sercombe added the fifth and then Aaron Pierre didn’t get tight enough to Dominic Telford who compounded Town’s woeful afternoon with a late sixth, shooting low through Ingram’s legs.

For all of Northampton’s shortcomings, there was much to admire about Rovers’ play and in particular the way they kept going at their hosts irrespective of the scoreline, not once settling for what they had.

It would have been easy to shut up shop at 1-0, 2-0 or even 3-0 up but, much to their own credit and Town’s detriment, they didn’t. Instead, they kept attacking, they kept throwing bodies forward and they kept peppering Matt Ingram’s goal, racking up 24 shots in total with 16 on target.

Ironically, the majority – nine – of those shots on target came in a first period during which they were only marginally less dominant than the second. The only difference between the two halves was the quality of Rovers’ finishing, as well as Ingram’s heroics between the posts.

And in all of this it should not be forgotten that, once again, for the fifth successive league game, Northampton failed to score. It’s now 500 minutes and three weeks since their last league goal.

What happens now? How do the Cobblers turn this around? Is there any way back? There are so many questions and yet so few answers.

There is at least time. Town are not yet detached from safety and one good result can change everything. A week off should allow Hasselbaink to get back to basics in training, put the building blocks in place and try to somehow get a positive result against AFC Wimbledon next weekend.

All is certainly not lost no matter how poorly they played and how badly they were exposed on Saturday, though it is remarkable that the Cobblers can produce such a pitiful performance barely 11 days after the promise and encouragement they displayed at MK Dons.

From steady improvement to complete disarray, Hasselbaink’s task now is an unenviable one.

Sometimes a result like this can shape a team’s season for the better. It could serve as a wake-up call and act as a realisation moment: they simply have to get better.

Because let’s face it, there was little else to cling to on this miserable, entirely dispiriting afternoon.

How they rated...

Matt Ingram - Seems unfathomable that a goalkeeper can even be considered for man of the match when conceding six goals but that was the unfortunate reality for Ingram, who was busy from the get-go with a string of first-half saves including Nichols’ penalty. Arguably could have done better with one or two of the goals but Rovers’ clinical finishing often left him powerless and in truth he kept the scoreline to single figures... 7 CHRON STAR MAN

Brendan Moloney - Struggled to stem Rovers’ threat down his side, perhaps partly owing to the hamstring injury which eventually forced him off. Received very little help from those around him and Hasselbaink will now be praying he’s not sidelined for long given the current injury situation... 5

Ash Taylor - Been one of Town’s bright sparks this season but was far from that here as was given the run around by Rovers’ fleet-footed front three whose movement proved too much to handle all game. Afforded Harrison in particular too much room and time to pick his spot for the third goal... 4

Aaron Pierre - Put his side in trouble with a couple of poor clearances early on and it was his misdirected header which led to Bodin’s opener. All at sea after that, easily out-muscled by Harrison for the second and didn’t get tight enough to Telford for the sixth... 4

David Buchanan - Two tremendous blocks kept out Harrison and Gaffney prior to the onslaught as he and Ingram almost single-handedly kept Rovers out first-half. Struggled to cope with the visitors’ attack in the second, though he’s never one to throw in the towel... 6

Matt Grimes - Stationed slightly deeper than in previous games, playing as a defensive midfielder, and to his credit he never shunned the opportunity to pick up possession and try to get things moving but he often had to drop so deep to receive the ball he was almost playing as a third centre-back at times. Set-pieces also remain far too inconsistent, which is especially frustrating given that they could be a much-needed source of goals for his team... 4

Sam Foley - First league game in six months and sadly it showed on the pitch. Was rusty and off the pace, maybe a sign that he’s still not fully match fit, as Town’s midfield became completely overrun. Eventually replaced on the hour-mark but the damage had been done... 4

Dean Bowditch - Arguably had his side’s best chance when slipped in by Moloney first-half, however his shot didn’t have the conviction to trouble Slocombe and that rather typified Town in front of goal. Was a peripheral figure after that, only really playing on the fringes of the game... 4

Raheem Hanley - His drive and willingness to get at Rovers down the left gave the visitors more headaches than almost all of his team-mates combined, swinging in a handful of teasing crosses that could have brought a goal or two on another day. Probably Town’s best outfield player on the day, certainly in an attacking sense... 6

Alex Revell - Not an afternoon he will reflect on with any fondness. Never looked comfortable on the right-wing and his clumsy challenge to concede the penalty was an accident waiting to happen. Then the red card, which looks pretty clear-cut on the replay even if it wasn’t intentional, only compounded things for him and his team. The only mitigating factor was the fact he started in such an unfamiliar position... 4

Marc Richards - Almost complete lack of service gave him absolutely nothing to work with and the few times he did get a sniff of goal, he either snatched at the shot or was caught offside... 5

Substitutes

Regan Poole - 5

Lewis McGugan - 5

Sam Hoskins - 6