Whilst the overwhelming feeling at full-time of this 1-1 draw was one of frustration – again – as two further points slipped from Town’s grasp, it was another performance that contained far more positives than negatives and should add strength to the theory that Dean Austin’s men are a team heading in the right direction.
Essentially, the story of Saturday’s game was the same as Northampton’s previous two home encounters in a campaign that has been frustration-fuelled so far: a generally encouraging display, countless missed opportunities and a lingering sense that one point should have become all three.
The season might only be six games and one month old but a theme is already obvious: dominance, wastefulness and, ultimately, that all-too familiar word – frustration.
The main negative here was again the result and that is an understandably important factor in assessing where the Cobblers are currently at five league games in as they remain short on both wins and points, but Rovers were no mugs and based on their showing at the PTS Academy Stadium, not many sides will have it easy against them.
At least the chances of dozing off during Cobblers matches have drastically diminished this season in comparison to last. It can be too helter-skelter at times but that is in stark contrast to the tedious nature of their games last term when you knew what you were going to get, even in victory.
In essence, how upbeat you feel at this stage depends on personal preference. If, for you, football is as much about enjoyment and entertainment as it is about winning, this Cobblers team will be fun to follow over the next nine months. But if three points are the be all and end all each week, a little more patience may be required as they iron out the kinks.
In the chance-creating department, at least, Town are kings. They added another mighty 17 shots to their already league-high tally of 74 going into Saturday but visiting goalkeeper Scott Davies was not made to work hard enough throughout the 90 minutes, particularly in the final 20 when he must have expected to be busy as Town pressed, pushed and probed for a winning goal.
Northampton’s indecisiveness was captured by more missed opportunities in front of goal, and that does not include just the 17 shots they got off. There were also countless instances when they caught Rovers short on the break and were running at an exposed defence, only to make the wrong decisions or fail to find their target, whether that be with a shot or a pass.
The first half-hour was an especially enjoyable spectacle. Rovers, initially anyway, gave as good as they got and that made for an enterprising, sometimes end-to-end opening period that swayed one way and then the other.
More of the play came in Tranmere’s half but there was one big chance apiece, Sam Foley somehow clearing the crossbar from a matter of yards and then an unmarked Mark Ellis heading straight at David Cornell.
Otherwise, it was mainly half chances. Most of them came for Town as Junior Morias, Kevin van Veen, Sam Hoskins and Jack Bridge were all among those to threaten, albeit to varying degrees.
Six minutes into a sluggish second-half, though, James Norwood had home fans groaning once again after more questionable defending. Aaron Pierre slipped, Ash Taylor was too easily shrugged aside and Norwood pounced, calmly rolling beyond Cornell for his sixth goal of an impressive campaign.
But though the response wasn’t instant, one thing you can say about Northampton this season is that they look capable of scoring at any minute. They’re playing with more freedom and expression; sacrificing a certain amount of defensive solidity for attacking enterprise and it’s far more pleasing to watch.
As a result, they’re scoring some tremendous goals. Matt Crooks at Carlisle, Kevin van Veen’s first against Cambridge, both goals at Colchester United last weekend and now this one against Tranmere.
If, for you, football is as much about enjoyment and entertainment as it is about winning, this Cobblers team will be fun to follow over the next nine months. But if three points are the be all and end all each week, a little more patience may be required as they iron out the kinks.
Crooks was the architect, Bridge showed great vision and Morias provided the composure that had previously been missing, steadying himself and easily dispatching beyond a stranded Davies.
Morias’ joy was short-lived but his departure to an unfortunate hamstring injury did not disrupt Town’s rhythm as they proceeded to dominate, creating plenty of opportunities in the process without making the most of them.
Northampton’s stranglehold on this game was not quite as tight as previous home encounters with Cambridge and Lincoln but it was still enough to carve out many clear opportunities, all but one of which was converted and that is what will irritate Austin more than anything.
Sam Foley again impressed in midfield with his tenacity and quality on the ball while Jack Bridge enjoyed arguably his best game for the club and David Cornell continued his impressive form between the sticks.
Cornell has yet to establish himself in two seasons at Northampton but he’s doing that right now. Having already proved his shot-stopping ability prior to Saturday, he showed decisiveness off his line to effectively play as a sweeper at times while delivering some impressive quick kicks and throws to instigate counter-attacks.
There are reasons to be sceptical about Austin’s side at this stage – results, chiefly – but you have to admire the way he’s got his team to play: on the front foot, with purpose and looking to entertain. If you value those qualities above others, you’re in for a treat.
It’s still a work-in-progress and will be for the foreseeable future. That’s not an excuse but it is to be expected given the disaster of last season. It takes time and patience to rebuild confidence and rediscover that winning knack. Once the Cobblers do that, the wins should flow.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Improving all the time. Clearly playing with confidence following his strong start to the season and continued that here. Made one excellent save but what really caught the eye was the decisiveness off his line, regularly mopping up dangerous balls over the defence. Kicking and distribution also much better... 8
Shay Facey - Had trouble containing the lively Jennings who once or twice snuck in behind him at the back post. Rarely pushed on as much as he might have done in an attacking sense and couldn’t stop Norwood from putting Rovers ahead... 6
Ash Taylor - Appeared hesitant throughout, not snuffing out the danger quickly enough and with the necessary conviction you want from the skipper, emphasised when Norwood found it too easy to get in behind and make room for the opening goal... 5
Aaron Pierre - Dominant in the air and composed on and off the ball, one needless late foul and an unfortunate slip for the goal aside... 6
David Buchanan - Some crucial interventions at the back post as Rovers failed to make much headway down their right side. Also darted forward when he could... 6
Sam Hoskins - Much to admire about his attitude and willingness to run after every ball and keep going when things aren’t going his way, but the final pass, cross or shot remains elusive too many times. Got very little change out of his full-back and flag was up the one time he did find the net... 6
Matt Crooks - Architect of the equaliser, winning the tackle and then picking out Bridge. Had his usual five-minute spell where passes went astray and his touch was heavy but kept seeking out the ball and always sought the positive option in an attempt to get the Cobblers moving forward... 7
Sam Foley - Tigerish in midfield, seemed to always be in the right place to pick up a loose ball or make tackles. Tidy in possession too and made up the numbers in attack, missing a great chance in the first-half... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Jack Bridge - Vibrant, impressive display, arguably his best in a Town shirt. Set-pieces caused problems and embarked on one mazy run in the first-half which should have culminated in a goal. Great vision and composure to pick out Morias for the leveller... 8
Junior Morias - Football can be a cruel game. Opened his Cobblers account with a well-taken goal but he went from jubilant to distraught within six minutes after pulling up with a hamstring injury. Looks set to be sidelined for several weeks... 7
Kevin van Veen - Had a tough battle against McNulty who seemed to win every aerial duel between the two. Best chance was taken off his toes by Foley, otherwise three long-range shots were all he had to shout about... 6
Billy Waters - 6
John-Joe O’Toole - 6