Whether or not the Cobblers stay up this season is a question for another day but one thing is for certain: if this refreshingly spirited performance against Shrewsbury Town is repeated in each of their final eight games, they’ll have a fighting chance.
Town’s display on Tuesday did not even register on the same scale as the one just three days earlier against Rotherham United such was the vast improvement in almost every department. It was as if someone had flicked a switch and the immediacy of their situation finally dawned on them.
Two such contrasting performances in the space of four days would usually boggle the mind but not for Northampton, not in this peculiar season. Instead, the tepid defeat against Rotherham and the battling draw with Shrewsbury fit perfectly within the narrative of this infuriatingly inconsistent campaign that continues to leave fans - and journalists - bewildered and frustrated in equal measure.
All logic dictated that Tuesday’s game would only end in one outcome: an away victory. By every possible measure, Shrewsbury were overwhelming favourites. They have lost just six games to Northampton’s 18 this season, recorded 35 more points and were chasing a club record sixth successive away league victory, not to mention having the motivation of going back top.
But, then again, little has made sense this season, and of all the unexpected, surprising twists over the past eight months, in some ways this was not much of a shock.
What was surprising, however, was the way Northampton went about their business and the way the crowd responded. For the first time in a long time, there was a real sense of unity at Sixfields.
The renewed vigour, energy and drive in Town’s play was appreciated by fans because that’s all fans want: for players to give everything to the cause and leave nothing out there. Their team certainly did that here and they were deserving of a point, even if clear-cut chances hardly came along in abundance.
For all the talk of tactics, formations, individual quality and so on, there is no substitute for simple hard graft. After all, that has been the key to Shrewsbury’s remarkable campaign.
Indeed, if you want an example of how football is about so much more than simply a collection of good players, look no further than Tuesday’s visitors. Shrewsbury have not got to where they are through splashing the cash or signing a string of star names, in fact you could justifiably argue that their squad, on paper, is no better than Northampton’s.
Instead, Shrewsbury’s efforts in going toe-to-toe with Wigan and Blackburn is a triumph of hard-work, unity, spirit, organisation and, most importantly, a highly-impressive young manager who has fused all of those attributes to create a relentless winning mentality that could well take them from pre-season relegation favourites to, potentially, the Championship.
The fact that 17 of their 23 league wins this season have been achieved by just one goal is testament to their character and their methods, and while Town continue to scramble around for points at the bottom, Shrewsbury are on their way to achieving something incredibly special.
Thankfully, for this game, Town took a leaf out of the away side’s book. They did not always possess the quality to cut Shrews open and neither did they produce a free-flowing, dominant performance but their attitude and desire, on this particular occasion, was not in question.
Instead of retreating into their shells like they did against Rotherham, the Cobblers took the fight to the visitors. They did not sit back and wait for something to happen. They hurried and hassled, got stuck in, made challenges and, in turn, the crowd responded.
Everyone, from fans to players to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, deserves credit for the turnaround from Saturday but one person who deserves it more than anyone is Joe Bunney. The young full-back showed an immense amount of character to produce one of his best performances in a Town shirt.
It would be ironic in the extreme if, given how the campaign started and how much of a talking point it became under Justin Edinburgh, 3-5-2 ends up saving Town’s season, but it’s undeniably a better fit for the current squad than it was eight months ago.
It would have been easy to hide and shy away from the action but, released from his defensive burden, the 24-year-old was a player transformed in the left wing-back role. If Northampton are able to get him into advanced positions more often, his wand of a left foot has the potential to cause any opposing team problems, as it did for Shrewsbury when Facey, the other wing-back, showed the merits of 3-5-2 by prodding the Cobblers ahead shortly before half-time.
It would be ironic, given how the campaign started and how much of a talking point it became under Justin Edinburgh, if 3-5-2, having received so much stick, ends up saving Town’s season. It’s unquestionably a better fit for the current squad than it was eight months ago and Hasselbaink will be tempted, as he should, to stick with it for the foreseeable future.
Boris Mathis was another to impress on his first start. He was a willing runner who did not shy away from the physical challenge, highlighted by his fine work for the goal when holding off three defenders.
Unfortunately, despite limiting Shrewsbury to very few chances, Jon Nolan’s sweetly-struck volley ensured the high-flying visitors did not leave empty-handed, though this was still a good point and a positive night for Northampton given the circumstances.
There was, however, a major sour note that came on 64 minutes. Until then, the game had simmered on the edge without really threatening to boil over. Challenges had gone flying in and penalty appeals had been waved away but there was little sign of what was to come when John-Joe O’Toole and Abu Ogogo aggressively wrestled one other to the ground, resulting in straight red cards for the pair of them and a subsequent three-game ban.
With Matt Crooks still suspended, Town will now be without two of their best players for Saturday’s crunch game at Fleetwood that may well make or break both teams’ seasons. Of the 24 games, Northampton have played without O’Toole in their starting line-up this term, they have won just two. And this was especially frustrating given the midfielder was enjoying one of his best games for weeks.
One point from these past two home games was not the preferred outcome but at least the Cobblers have got two tough fixtures out of the way. Of their remaining eight games, five are against sides in the bottom 10 and two of the other three are at Sixfields, giving them seven matches that are, realistically, winnable.
Tuesday’s draw was not enough to lift them out of the bottom four but there’s little point getting worked up over the league table and how other teams are doing at this stage. They must concentrate on themselves and focus on the fact that they need to win games, at least three and possibly four, to stay up.
Can the Cobblers survive? Of course. Good players don’t become bad overnight and regardless of what recent performances and results suggest, there is still enough ability within this squad, in theory, for them to collect the points they need to avoid relegation.
The problem, however, is that we’ve been saying that for the past eight months and yet here we are, with Town still in the bottom four, still a long way short of reaching their collective potential on a consistent basis.
Do or die, make or break, whatever you want to call it. There is simply no two ways about it: Saturday’s game at Fleetwood is a must-win as they come.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - The fact he wasn’t called upon to pull off a string of saves made a nice change. Couldn’t have expected such a quiet night against a team chasing top spot with Shrewsbury only managing two shots on target all game, one of which was Nolan’s fine strike. Kicking wasn’t the best... 7
Brendan Moloney - Supreme at centre-back, a role he can’t have played too often. Not only was his positional play exceptional, he was also strong in the air and made numerous important challenges... 8
Ash Taylor - Took command from the off as Town’s middle man in the back three. Was in robust, bullish mood all night to ensure Shrewsbury’s forwards endured a frustrating 90 minutes with few chances, if any, coming their way... 7
Jordan Turnbull - He has a tendency to take a touch in his own penalty box instead of just booting clear, which puts him in trouble. That aside, was steady and aerially dominant, helping restrict his goalkeeper’s workload... 7
Shay Facey - Back in the team and unlikely to be back out of it any time soon. Brilliant at both ends of the pitch, so strong in the tackle and so composed on the ball. Great run and finish for his first goal for the club... 8
Joe Bunney - A revelation at wing-back. Looked far more at ease when he didn’t have to worry about his defensive responsibilities as much, even if the theatrical Whalley was a tricky customer. Sent in several fine crosses, including one for Facey’s goal which came moments after he produced a goal-saving tackle at the other end. Deserves enormous credit for bouncing back and must surely remain at wing-back or, if not, left midfield.... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Matt Grimes - Covered plenty of ground in an impressive first-half that included some lovely moments, the best of which was a sublime piece of skill that took out three defenders. Became harder after losing his midfield partner as he saw far less of the ball, and his set-pieces remain frustrating... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Was at his combative best in the first-half, enjoying one of his best games for a while. But then needlessly got involved with Ogogo and he can have no complaints over the red card. Town will miss him dearly... 6
Hildeberto Pereira - Such an enigmatic character. Looks unplayable at times and all at sea at others. Linked the play well when in the number 10 role and then worked hard in central midfield after O’Toole’s red, though decision-making needs work as he scuppered one or two breakaway chances... 7
Boris Mathis - His display must have left fans wondering why it’s taken so long for him to be given a go from the start. A tireless runner who was up for the physical challenge. Integral in the goal too, doing brilliantly to hold off three defenders and tee up Bunney’s cross... 8
Kevin van Veen - Struggling to get into the game and didn’t look 100 per cent fit, as evidenced by his relatively early withdrawal. The fact he even started was encouraging though... 6
Kevin Luckassen - 6
Gboly Ariyibi - 6
Shaun McWilliams - 6