The fact that Northampton made painfully hard work of this win, surviving a deluge of late pressure in a nerve-jangling finale, should not detract from what was, in the end, a deserved victory and another significant step in the right direction.
The visit of Robbie Neilson’s stuttering MK Dons side, who themselves were lingering dangerously close to the trap door after a run of just two wins in 16, was a glaring opportunity for the Cobblers to make it three wins on the spin for only the second time this season while climbing out of the relegation zone for the first time since before Christmas in the process.
That in itself brings its own pressure but Town, aware of the increasing need for points, have clicked at just the right time and while they did not exactly stroll to three points over the beleaguered Dons at Sixfields on Saturday, sometimes victory is all that matters. This was most certainly one of those occasions.
Many nerves were shredded by the time Brett Huxtable eventually blew his full-time whistle after seven hectic, incident-packed and seemingly never-ending minutes of injury-time but style and method are not relevant when there are points up for grabs and survival battles to be won.
Once again Sixfields was put through the ringer as Northampton squandered chances and were almost paid to pay in a frantic, frenetic, tension-riddled finale that involved plenty of action and several scares but, thankfully for Town, no goals and no alteration to the scoreline.
They were indebted to goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell, on his home debut, for a raft of spectacular late saves that protected the win but Town had already done just about enough to merit all three points, even if there was little between the sides who played out an entertaining affair in wretched conditions.
This was a curious game. Enjoyable and fun, yes, but also curious. Both teams had their moments. In patches, the Cobblers were excellent and played some terrific stuff, spreading the play from flank to flank and bursting forward with speed and power The first goal was well-crafted and there were other, similar moves that could have yielded more with a better final pass or a calmer finish.
Dons too had some good spells, particularly first-half and most definitely in the final stages, but the 35-minute period in the second-half when they neither defended nor really attacked proved crucial as it allowed the home side to find their feet and control the play.
The most curious phase of the game arrived early when Dons were allowed to dictate the tempo and dominate possession by a surprisingly hesitant Northampton team who appeared caught in two minds, as showed by a strange two-minute period when their passing was horribly wayward.
But Dons were only able to play in bursts. Around Alex Gilbey’s leveller, Osman Sow had a header cleared off the line and Callum Brittain threatened from range but the better, more cohesive and more direct attacking play for most of the game came from the hosts.
Attacking full-backs were the feature of Town’s play throughout, more so in the opening 45 minutes. Both Shay Facey and Joe Bunney, two of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s recruits, motored forward with regularity and were often the spare man in the final third as dangerous crosses came in from either side.
Matt Crooks sprung out from midfield to lead the charge, John-Joe O’Toole linked the play in his usual effective manner and Chris Long made many good runs that weren’t always spotted and when they were, little came of them.
O’Toole’s opener was a classic O’Toole goal: opportunistic run into the box followed by a neat finish. The assist came from debutant Bunney whose attacking exploits left him exposed defensively but gave Northampton a whole new dimension in the final third, illustrated by the run and cross for O’Toole’s third goal in three games.
For all the talk of wingers and strikers, the position Hasselbaink has clearly earmarked for improvement is at full-back and that’s immediately become obvious now he’s dipped into the transfer market. He’s brought in the players to make it happen, on Saturday they were putting it into action. As well as Bunney, the once again hugely impressive Facey, so calm and confident for someone so young, also delivered one or two crosses that might have brought more on another day. It’s not far-fetched to suggest the 23-year-old could have been named man of the match in all three of the games for the club.
For all the talk of wingers and strikers, the position Hasselbaink has clearly earmarked for improvement is at full-back. He’s brought in the players to make it happen, on Saturday they were putting it into action. As well as Bunney, the once again hugely impressive Facey shone on the right side as the duo brought a new dimension to Town’s attacking play.
Long’s goal was something of a bolt from the blue but it too had its qualities. Hoskins showed the composure – twice – to pick out a team-mate and Long held his position before finding the bottom corner. Prior to that, Dons had been edging it.
That was just what the Cobblers needed to rediscover their mojo for the second-half. After a couple of half chances went begging, Hildeberto Pereira was introduced and brought fresh impetus with him, testing Nicholls from an acute angle as he played in a central role.
Brittain and George Williams almost put into their own net and Crooks flashed wide before Dons launched their late bombardment that saw O’Donnell come to the party. He kept out Williams’ header, Aneke’s low fizzer and Tavernier’s thunderbolt of a free-kick to show his worth on his home debut and keep the points intact.
There was more drama – Aneke shown red for his part in a stoppage-time flashpoint that also involved, inevitably, O’Toole – but that will be of no concern for the Cobblers whose new signings and improved performances are gradually turning depressing negativity into cautious optimism.
As for the bigger picture, Town have finally got themselves in a position where they can truly end relegation thoughts, however the question of consistency remains as long as they are within touching distance of the bottom four.
Blackburn away next weekend can be viewed – by fans at least, not necessarily the players or the manager – as something of a free hit given Rovers’ red-hot form and lofty ambitions (though we said similar of Bradford), but beyond their trip to Ewood Park, there is a run of games that, on paper, offer a golden opportunity for Town to manoeuvre themselves into the safety net of mid-table.
Remarkably, having looked so doomed after a miserable festive period when they were a team seemingly full of problems with so few solutions, the Cobblers are now just four points from the top half and only a further two off the top 10.
They still have their shortcomings and their pitfalls, as Dons almost exposed on Saturday, and they will need to play better against better teams but these past three wins have shown us a set of players who boast the quality, character and know-how to be a solid League One outfit.
With one or two more additions, and as the new payers bed in, there’s every reason for optimism.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - Kept out Sow’s header and shovelled Brittain’s pile-driver around the post but really came to the party in the closing stages, denying Williams, Aneke and Tavernier with a raft of superb stops as Dons came up short in their quest for a late leveller... 8
Shay Facey - Most he’s got forward in his three games for the club, constantly giving Town an option out wide when they attacked. Passed and crossed intelligently and defended without any cause for alarm. Looks an absolute gem of a player... 8
Ash Taylor - Appeared to be barged over in the lead up to Dons’ equaliser but didn’t let that faze him. Was in his element as Dons chucked bodies forward late on, heading, blocking and tackling anything that came his way... 7
Jordan Turnbull - Moved back to his more natural centre-back position for his first home appearance and was steady if unspectacular. Did the simple things well and took no risks, particularly strong in the air... 7
Joe Bunney - Offered a real threat going forward, his assist for O’Toole’s opener was one of three or four teasing crosses into the box as he brought a new dimension to the team. Bit suspect defensively, especially in a positional sense, and Dons seem to target the space behind him but the positives certainly outweigh the negatives on his debut showing... 7
Matt Grimes - Started slowly before finding his groove. Pinged out a number of superb passes to the flanks and was often the man to halt Dons’ breaks into Town’s half, scuttling about all over the pitch... 7
Matt Crooks - Thrived in a box-to-box, central role. His powerful, driving runs from deep were a real feature of the first-half when he constantly dragged Town up field. More subdued after half-time but still flashed a shot wide and took up good positions... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Sam Foley - Indirectly involved in both goals, finding Bunney for the first and then having a shot deflect into the path of Hoskins for the second. A workhorse down the left side as he galloped up and down, never stopped running for every one of the 73 minutes he he was on the field... 7
Sam Hoskins - Kept his composure to pick out Long and create the match-winning goal but that was against the grain of his general performance. Looked frustrated throughout, unsurprisingly withdrawn before the hour-mark having been largely ineffective... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - His link-up play was outstanding as he held off two or three defenders at times to bring team-mates into play. Still has the handy knack of manoeuvring himself into the right place to score goals, scrappy finish here was his third in three games... 8
Chris Long - Barely had a kick for 40 minutes but seized his chance when it came along, finding the bottom corner for his eighth of the season. Made good runs and chased everything, can be a fraction greedy on occasion but he’s got so much to offer... 7
Hildeberto Pereira - Injected fresh impetus into Town at a point when the game was meandering along. Was immediately at the heart of two good chances and almost got his first Cobblers goal... 7
Gboly Abriyi - One marauding run forward offered a hint of what’s to come. Was otherwise restricted to defending, made one superb block... 7
Alex Revell - 6