While there are still nine games left this season and therefore, in theory, ample opportunity for the Cobblers to salvage their League One status, there was a feeling that this insipid defeat and drab performance to Rotherham United was the moment when, for most people, the realisation of relegation set in.
There have been times before during this campaign when Town have looked dead and buried. The immediate aftermath of the heavy defeats to Bristol Rovers at home and Oldham Athletic away spring quickly to mind but, with time running out and tough fixtures still to come, the manner of Saturday’s loss to Rotherham and the fact it dropped them back into the relegation zone will leave many wondering if they are now there for good.
Rotherham may well be a very good team but we never got to find out on Saturday because it was all too easy for them. Any decent side with something about them would have come away from Sixfields with three of the easier points they will earn all season on this bitterly cold afternoon such was the submissiveness of the Cobblers who almost looked to have accepted defeat before a ball had been kicked.
So for a team with the quality and promotion aspirations of Rotherham, it was a cruise. They didn’t even get out of second gear or work up a sweat in coasting into a 1-0 lead by half-time. They simply passed it through and around a Northampton team that were, bewilderingly, willing to let them have it, something which only invited pressure that would inevitably result in a goal.
And if ever a goal summed up a game, it was Michael Smith’s 18th minute opener here. One long free-kick by Millers captain Will Vaulks, taken from well inside his own half, and one misjudgment from Joe Bunney was all it took for Smith’s 6ft 4in frame to somehow escape the attentions of the entire home defence. Clean through, the former Town loanee made no mistake.
Only Richard O’Donnell’s magnificent reaction save thwarted Richie Towell from adding a swift second but the goalkeeper’s efforts, which also included two more routine stops from David Ball, only delayed the inevitable.
It goes without saying that when it takes you 55 minutes to have a shot of any kind, and when you don’t create a single clear opportunity throughout the entire game, your chances of victory – or getting anything out of the game other than a heavy defeat – will drastically diminish. This was the stark reality for Town on Saturday. It was not until stoppage-time when visiting goalkeeper Marek Rodak finally made anything other than a straightforward save.
Northampton spent far too much of the first-half watching and admiring their visitors, standing off them and sitting deep as United passed it around with ease. It allowed Rotherham to settle into the game and played right into their hands as they looked to get their promotion bid back on track after successive defeats to relegation-threatened sides.
Northampton, unfortunately and regrettably, never came close to making it three in a week. They started negatively and never came out of their shells, and the problem with taking the cautious approach is that if and when the other team scores, switching to a more positive mindset is not as easy as it sounds.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the home side neither really attacked nor defended after Smith’s goal. They had the odd moment but dysfunctional attacking moves were too easily broken down and mopped up by United, who soon had the second goal they deserved.
Ball, afforded too much space 12 yards out, squirmed a shot past O’Donnell on 62 minutes and there was more misery to come late in the game when Towell applied the finishing touch to a crisp team move, placing a precise first-time shot into the corner after Anthony Forde’s neat lay-off. That was the cue for many home fans to leave, another grim afternoon completed.
You might argue, justifiably, that referee Ben Toner should have sent off two Rotherham players. Defenders Semi Ajayi and Joe Mattock were already on a booking when they committed second-half fouls, both of which were as much of a yellow card offence, if not more, than Matt Crooks’ second booking at Bristol Rovers last week.
You could also argue, again with some merit, that Rotherham are a strong team who will beat most sides at this level. But, in truth, those arguments only paper over the ever-widening cracks that are sending Town hurtling towards League Two.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s team selection raised a few eyebrows, not least the curious decision to play Hildebetro Pereira in central midfield when he has so many alternative options in that department. If, as he said post-match, he doesn’t fancy John-Joe O’Toole as a midfielder, Shaun McWilliams, Sam Foley (remember him?) or Regan Poole could all have done a job in there.
The fact of the matter is that, like 12 months ago, when it comes to matching and beating teams either in decent form or challenging for a top six spot, even top half, the Cobblers fall well short of the mark.
But it was the approach of the team, as much as personnel selections, that cost them here. The defence struggled to defend, the midfield neither did enough to hurt United with the ball or negate the away side’s control without it and the attack was almost entirely devoid of creativity, all of which paints a pretty bleak picture at this late stage of the campaign.
Town’s home record does not make for pleasant reading. This season, they’ve won six and lost 10 of 22 in all competitions and scored a miserly 15 league goals, the second worst record in the division behind only Rochdale, who’ve played four fewer home games. To go back further, the Cobblers have won 15 of 42 games at Sixfields since returning to League One. It is simply not good enough and it is no wonder so many have now had enough.
January was meant to be a turning point in the season. Not only did Hasselbaink supposedly upgrade and re-balance his squad, the team collected three wins and a very creditable draw at Blackburn Rovers, lifting them out of the bottom four, having been five points adrift at one point, and raising hope of an unlikely surge towards mid-table, a la Gillingham or Plymouth.
But Town’s upturn in results came with a warning and it appears that warning has become reality. The concern at the time was that each one of those three victories was achieved against a free-falling team who were desperately out of form and who would sack their manager – Phil Brown, Stuart McCall and Robbie Neilson respectively – within the next few weeks. And let’s be frank, it was not as if Northampton won those games with much conviction.
Since then, the Cobblers have one won in eight. Other than their victory over AFC Wimbledon, a game which was also in the balance for long spells, there has been precious little to shout about with pitiful home defeats to Gillingham, Rochdale and Rotherham mixed in with a tame goalless draw against Oxford United and admittedly better efforts at Scunthorpe and Bristol Rovers.
The fact of the matter is that, like 12 months ago, when it comes to matching and beating teams either in decent form or challenging for a top six spot, even top half, the Cobblers fall well short of the mark. Last season, only a good start to the campaign, when they carried over momentum from their title-winning exploits a few months earlier, as well as the shortcoming of rivals teams at the bottom saved them from an embarrassingly rapid return to League Two.
This time around, it is unlikely they will get away with it again and it is difficult to see where the points will come from for them to stay up. This team, it appears, is simply too disjointed, too dysfunctional and too bereft of ideas to win enough games. The fact they continue to stutter and stumble is a collective failing.
Not for the first time this season, Town’s saving grace on Saturday came in the form of results elsewhere. While victories for MK Dons and Oxford were not ideal, the fact that Fleetwood, Rochdale, Oldham and Wimbledon all failed to win means it’s still tight in the battle to stay up. For the Cobblers, however, a drastic improvement is needed. And fast.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - The only real candidate for man of the match despite conceding three times against his former club. Fabulous reaction save from Towell was the pick of the bunch, even if it only delayed the inevitable. Also made several more routine stops and got a finger to Ball’s effort but otherwise well beaten... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Brendan Moloney - Was far from the worst offender on a difficult day all-round. Can’t be blamed for any of the three goals and put in a good shift, though struggled to get involved at all in an attacking sense... 6
Ash Taylor - Not at his razor sharp best. Gave Ball far too much space to pick his spot for the second and was passed around for the third. Cobblers need him to rediscover his best form to have any hope of staying up... 5
Jordan Turnbull - Two miscued clearances in dangerous positions, one in each half, would have been fatal had his team-mates not bailed him out. Smith had the beating of him and the rest of Town’s back four all afternoon. Consistency remains a problem for him ever since signing... 5
Joe Bunney - Another difficult afternoon. His misjudged header allowed Smith in and set United on their way, which drained his already low confidence further. The several misplaced passes/crosses didn’t help either and the crowd grew increasingly restless. Perhaps time to take him out of the firing line? Has ability but would surely benefit from a break... 4
Matt Grimes - Lacked options whenever he picked the ball up, often having to resort to long punts forward or thread risky passes through the thirds, many of which were picked off. Didn’t do enough out of possession, in terms of the ugly defensive stuff, to negate United’s midfield control. Has at least avoided a two-game ban... 5
Hildeberto Pereira - Took everyone by surprise when he started in central midfield, especially given how many options Hasselbaink has in that department, and it’s unlikely he’ll be there again soon on this evidence. Unable to get in the game, left chasing shadows and was rarely given the chance to utilise his pace... 5
Sam Hoskins - Town’s cautious approach hardly played into his hands. Had one of those disappointing afternoons when he ran around and tried to make stuff happen but ultimately little came off for him. Saw very little of him as an attacking force, much to his and everyone else’s frustration... 5
Daniel Powell - The only one to take the attack to United in the first-half, but even his occasional bursts forward were too few and far between to really hurt the visitors. When he picked up the ball, he was too deep and when he got into good positions, his decision-making let him down... 5
John-Joe O’Toole - Seems to have gone off the boil at an inopportune time. Played almost as a striker but was ineffective and easily nullified by United, thus taking away Northampton’s focal point and removing the link between the striker and everyone else... 5
Kevin Luckassen - Wasn’t the same powerful, dominant force he had been in Bristol a week earlier, frequently too isolated to cause major problems for Rotherham’s back four. Worked hard up front and tried to get involved in the game... 6
Gboly Ariyibi - Briefly lifted the crowd with the odd moment but unable to produce anything substantial... 6
Kevin van Veen - Booked for a silly foul and then saw a late header saved. Good to see him back and Town will need him... 6
Boris Mathis - 6