Just when it seemed as if Northampton’s play-off chances were about to recede from possible to improbable, Joe Powell stepped up with his best Ricky Holmes impression.
The Cobblers were off the pace and below-par for much of Tuesday’s clash with Newport County but if they are to sustain their unlikely play-off surge until the very end this season, they will have to master the art of finding ways to win when not at their best.
Whether that’s through moments of magic, good fortune or scrappy, ugly goals is not relevant. We’re now at a stage of the season where it’s substance over style and points over everything else.
And if you are going to win a match with a dramatic late goal, you might as well do it like this. Powell’s wonderful strike on Tuesday, which required superb technique, perfect timing and brilliant execution, hardly belonged in such a low-key, low-quality game but will Town care? Not likely.
It stretched their winning run to four and made it seven games unbeaten in total, lifting them above Newport in the process and all the way up to the heady heights of 11th, the highest position they’ve held all season long, by a good three places too.
The fact the play-offs are even being discussed as a realistic possibility is an illustration of how rapidly things have changed. With each victory the glimmer of hope gets that little bit bigger, and now it’s become a distinct possibility.
Tuesday’s victory was the least convincing and most fortunate of Town’s four-game winning run. They were off the pace, particularly second-half, and perhaps lucky not to fall behind as Jamille Matt had three chances himself – hitting the crossbar, dragging wide and lofting over – while Aaron Pierre blocked from Padraig Amond and Mark O’Brien snatched at his shot when the goal beckoned.
But despite struggling for fluency and fluidity in attack, Northampton had chances too, including the best of the whole game when John-Joe O’Toole burst through the middle and teed up Daniel Powell, but he failed to beat a combination of goalkeeper and defender.
The game was meandering towards a goalless draw when the other Powell, Joe, announced himself in spectacular fashion. It’s not always been plain-sailing for the 20-year-old since signing on loan from West Ham United in January.
Whilst clearly talented, he’s been short on game-time and remains a little lightweight but that’s why he’s come to the rough and tumble of League Two: to test himself physically in the men’s game.
And talent will always shine through if it’s accompanied by hard work. Powell has shown both during his time at the Cobblers and you will struggle to find a better goal anywhere in the country than his thunderous left-footed volley that rifled into the top corner, pleasingly catching the crossbar on its way in.
That secured a fourth win in a row, the first time Northampton have achieved such a feat in the league since their record-breaking run in 2015/16. The winning goal in their fourth win during that sequence? Holmes’ sensational late volley at Dagenham.
It’s unlikely Town will play well in all nine remaining games so they must continue to find ways to win – as they did on Tuesday – to have any chance of reaching the play-offs.
But the fixtures are kind. Only two of their final nine opponents occupy a top-half place at present while six are currently no higher than 16th, including Saturday’s hosts Grimsby Town – who lost 4-1 at Tranmere on Tuesday.
The Cobblers are into the top half for the first time all season and, even more remarkably, they are now closer to the top three (14 points) than the bottom two (19). It’s been a stunning transformation.
What also helps is that they are not only six points off seventh-placed Colchester United, but also only six behind sixth-placed Forest Green Rovers too, giving them two teams to catch. Only one has to falter to open the door to the chasing pack.
It almost beggars belief to think that Northampton were 16 – sixteen – points away from the play-offs after losing to Colchester. That gap has been slashed by 10 points. With four of the five teams immediately above them playing one another this coming Saturday, victory at Grimsby would almost certainly make further inroads.
The Cobblers are also into the top half for the first time all season and, even more remarkably, they are now closer to the top three (14 points) than the bottom two (19). It’s been a stunning transformation.
An average of just over 71 points has been required to finish in the top seven in League Two over the past 10 years. If that’s the case this time around, Northampton need 20 points from nine games, a difficult but certainly not impossible task.
The play-offs have gone from highly unlikely to possible to very much realistic. If they do make the top seven this season, it will be quite some journey.
For player ratings, see the following link: Cobblers 1 Newport 0 player ratings in pictures