For those harbouring dreams of back-to-back promotions, it’s dispiriting defeats like Saturday’s against Millwall, one which was all of Northampton’s own making, that perhaps adds a dose of realism and a reminder that consolidation in what is a competitive division will be no bad thing.
In all honesty, despite now being 12 games in, it still remains difficult to know exactly what to make of this unpredictable Cobblers team after another ill-disciplined, disjointed and disappointing home defeat, their second on the bounce that come after three excellent wins that promised more.
And in many ways, this 3-1 loss to a physically direct yet ruthlessly effective Millwall side was similar to Northampton’s last home outing against Bristol Rovers when a sluggish, largely forgettable first-half was followed by a chaotic second 45 that ultimately ended in frustration.
For any side in any division, a mix of poor defending, lack of discipline and failure to create genuine scoring opportunities will rarely be a recipe for success, yet that is becoming something of a trend with this Cobblers team.
That in itself is a concern and one which Saturday’s performance only accentuated.
There was plenty of effort but very little quality or creativity in a first-half that somewhat reflected the opening 45 minutes against Rovers, the only difference on Saturday being that the hosts trailed at half-time rather than led.
But the same traits were there, particularly the struggle for fluency or cohesion in midfield as the Cobblers were easily rebuffed without any guile or quality in the final third.
The game plan seemed muddle too, or at least that’s how the players made it feel in a first-half that had no redeeming features from a Northampton viewpoint.
Millwall’s physical, direct approach paid off when Lee Gregory outstripped an unusually out-of-sorts Zander Diamond to stab his side in front and that moment reflected the first-half in general as the Lions almost bullied their hosts.
The sound of the referee’s whistle was the most prominent feature of an opening 45 minutes that failed to ever click into gear with soft fouls, poor passing and a lack of composure in the final third all to blame for the lack of entertainment
Millwall had come with a clear game plan: to get in the opposition’s face, to break up play and to poach something on the break through prolific strike duo Lee Gregory and Steve Morrison.
It was a test of Northampton’s creativity and their ability to break teams down, and to be quite frank, they came up way short prior to half-time.
What’s more, much of Town’s relative success so far this season has been built on a robust, resilient defence but even that escaped them on Saturday with all three Millwall goals a direct result of Northampton errors – that now six goals conceded in two home games.
And then there was the ill-discipline element; Northampton reduced to 10 men for the third league game running, and it was no surprise when it did come.
For any side in any division, a mix of poor defending, lack of discipline and failure to create genuine scoring opportunities will rarely be a recipe for success.James Heneghan
Jak McCourt was almost a walking red card from the moment of his 14-second booking and sure enough, a reckless and completely needless lunge moments after half-time resulted in an early bath.
It’s easy with hindsight but one wonders why the sometimes over exuberant midfielder wasn’t withdrawn earlier to prevent the inevitable.
Now a man down and soon to be two goals down thanks to Calum Butcher, the game seemed up and it was a matter of damage limitation.
But the Cobblers are nothing if not spirited and the excellent Sam Hoskins provided an excellent cross for Marc Richards to excellently head home, reviving hope of an unlikely draw.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. There was some late huffing and puffing but another defensive error gifted Morrison a third and killer goal, condemning Northampton to a disappointing defeat that raises questions about the direction this team want to head in.
It all boils down to the same thing with this Northampton side: a lack of creativity.
The statistics suggest they had 12 shots and five on target against Millwall but what the stats don’t show is where and how those chances came about.
Too many were either from distance or speculative efforts from unlikely angles, Richards’ goal the only time they carved open Millwall and found space inside the penalty area.
That said, both sides were hindered by an atrocious refereeing performance.
It didn’t directly affect the result, and he did get the one big call right – you couldn’t miss it to be fair - but his insistence on constantly blowing his whistle, disrupting the flow of the game and awarding the softest of free-kicks never allowed the game to breathe and made for a scrappy, largely low quality affair.
Millwall were deserved victors, though. They took their chances and defended competently, something their hosts failed to manage.
How high or how low Page’s men can go this season remains difficult to predict, but a team that prides itself on being hard to beat will not go far if they defend as poorly as Northampton did on Saturday, and given the lack of attacking spark, there’s much work to be done.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Seemed a fraction hesitant in coming out for Gregory’s opener but made important stops at key times to keep his side in the game... 7
Brendan Moloney - Got forward regularly and took advantage of the space he was afforded but had little support from team-mates, and then dropped a clanger for Millwall’s second... 5
Zander Diamond - Errors have been few and far between for him this season but he had a game to forget here, at fault for the first and third goals on a wretched day... 4
Lewin Nyatanga - Classiest player on the pitch, making several timely contributions and always keeping a cool head in tight situations. Now looks set for an extended run in the side... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
David Buchanan - His consistency is even more impressive on days when his team-mates make such poor errors, and again he did little wrong but was let down by others... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Seemed either unfit or disinterested in a laboured performance where he was careless on the ball and too easily overpowered by Millwall... 5
Jak McCourt - Red card waiting to happen from the moment of his 14-second yellow. Second booking completely needless and let his side down just when they looked to be building momentum... 4
Paul Anderson - Moments of promise offset but lack of quality when it comes to the final pass or shot, though was twice unlucky with two long-range attempts... 6
Harry Beautyman - Not for the first time this season he struggled to assert himself before being withdrawn early... 5
JJ Hooper - Final product let him down having worked himself into some good positions. Must learn to get his head up and be more aware of what’s around him... 6
Alex Revell - Didn’t get the service or support he needed as he was dragged, pulled and pushed all over the place... 6
Sam Hoskins - Injected energy and impetus into Northampton, producing the cross that led to Richards’ goal, but that alone wasn’t enough... 8
Marc Richards - Excellent header gave his side hope... 7