The chances of Northampton making the play-off may well remain remote at this stage but, if nothing else, it seems they have at least stumbled upon an effective winning formula that bodes well for next season and beyond.
There was plenty to admire about their performance during Saturday’s 2-1 win over play-off chasing Exeter City, from how they adapted to the conditions, to how they handled City threat and, perhaps most impressively of all, how saw out victory with relative ease in the final half-hour.
Indeed, it was the performance, as much as the result, that suggested the Cobblers are capable of launching a late charge for the play-offs. Mature and accomplished, they were rarely rattled and always in control against the injury-ravaged visitors.
It’s now three wins in a row for Keith Curle’s men and six games unbeaten. Seven points above relegation only five weeks ago, they’re now 18 points clear and, remarkably, just two off the top 10 and a further six away from the play-offs. While they remain only outsiders for a play-off berth, their form and favourable fixture list means it certainly can’t be ruled out.
What has changed to cause such a stark turnaround? Well, for one thing, performances themselves are not all that dissimilar to those from earlier in the season. However, subtle improvements in key areas – better finishing, stronger defending and smarter game management – can make a significant overall difference and the combination of all three are starting to swing the fine margins in Town’s favour.
Take Saturday’s win as an example. The three points were deserved and good reward for a largely dominant display, but within the 90 minutes, the finest of fine margins went Northampton’s way. In the moments before their two goals, Exeter, and Matt Jay in particular, had chances to score themselves, but desperate, determined defending and then superb David Cornell goalkeeping just about kept them at bay.
Within four minutes of those incidents, Town went up the other end and scored. Earlier in the season, those moments may well have gone against them and the afternoon might have followed a very different path. This time, though, strong defending and clinical finishing put the Cobblers in control, and then astute game management helped them see out the final half-hour with little cause for alarm.
Taking your chances when they come along is such a key element at any level but particularly League Two. As at Crewe Alexandra last weekend, Curle’s side did not create a bucketload of opportunities on Saturday – they’ve created far more in games they’ve lost this season – but it did not matter because Aaron Pierre and Andy Williams were clinical enough to score at crucial times and put them in command.
Everything that applied at Gresty Road seven days ago applied again here, except it was against a better team in tougher conditions.
The first-half was controlled dominance, the second-half was a lesson in game management. Even when Exeter pulled one goal back, there was no sense of panic as Town limited the away side’s chances to very few.
In times gone by, they would have panicked, sat increasingly deep and inevitably conceded an equaliser and potentially even lost. But with Sam Foley and Jordan Turnbull patrolling midfield, Sam Hoskins and Daniel Powell working hard on either wing and Williams leading the press from the front, Exeter barely had a sniff of Cornell’s goal in the final half-hour. All the defence had to deal with were simple, harmless long balls.
So much is built around the industry and tenacity of Turnbull and Foley in central midfield. They win tackles, headers and interceptions galore, and with both players also adept in possession, opposing midfielders have their work cut out to get a foothold in the middle of the park.
On Saturday, they provided the platform for Town’s victory. Powell was equally impressive; his persistent work won the corner which saw Pierre open the scoring and then he supplied the cross for Williams to double the lead.
It would be silly to pretend the Cobblers are playing free-flowing, beautiful attacking football. They’re not. But what they are is effective and efficient, keeping things simple and minimising mistakes – particularly in difficult conditions – to make the opposition work hard to get anything out of the game.
Subtle improvements in key areas – better finishing, stronger defending and smarter game management – can make a significant overall difference and the combination of all three have swung the fine margins in Town’s favour these past three matches.
As a deeply disappointed Exeter boss Matt Taylor referred to afterwards, those are the basics of League Two. Playing tippy-tappy football is all well and good but it rarely gets you anywhere at this level. After Crewe last weekend, Exeter were the victims on this occasion.
Of the 18 games Cobblers have played against the current top 10, their record reads five wins, eight draws and only five defeats. That adds up to a respectable return of 23 points. It’s against the rest where they’ve failed to take enough points to be in the heat of the play-off battle instead of on the fringes, though they have an opportunity to rectify that over the coming 10 fixtures.
The worry is that all of Town’s good work over this past month will be undone. If they fall short of the play-offs, and then if they undergo another overhaul as is expected in the summer, they will have to almost start from scratch next season.
But, for now, things look far rosier than just a few short weeks ago. Claim all three points against Newport County, who lost 3-0 on Saturday, in midweek and you just never know. Stranger things have happened...