Two relegations in one, the subdued atmosphere and glum faces all around Sixfields at the full-time whistle of Saturday’s season finale was a rather fitting way for this mostly underwhelming campaign to conclude.
The game itself was an entertaining way to finish a disappointing season, the Cobblers at least signing off nine months of frustration with some fight and some heart, giving their fans reason for optimism as everyone – supporters, players, managers and chairmen – ponder what lies ahead over the next nine weeks and what wrongs need to put right to make amends for this wholly avoidable relegation.
If you, like caretaker boss Dean Austin, subscribe to the theory that teams can carry momentum over from one season to the next, then you should be hopeful that Town will hit the ground running when the new League Two campaign rolls around. Two wins, one draw, one defeat and four generally improved performances from their final four games represents a decent finish
Season finales can often be dull, laboured affairs – think Gillingham last season – but that did not apply to Saturday’s helter-skelter contest that had an extra twist thanks to the visitors’ desperation for three points.
While Northampton’s relegation was inevitable, Olddham’s was not. The Latics, in need of three points to guarantee their safety, and the Cobblers, keen to sign off on a high, served up an enjoyable contest once a tame first 30 minutes had played out.
The opening half-hour was lacklustre and low-key, but the next 15 were dramatic. George Edmundson somehow found acres of space to scuff Oldham ahead before Town twice hit back, first through the most perfect spot-kick you will see courtesy of Matt Grimes, and then Ash Taylor’s seven of the season.
The fact that Taylor, a centre-back, is the club’s second top scorer says it all for Northampton’s struggles in front of goal. No player reached double figures, Chris Long leading the way with nine.
In the second-half, Oldham’s desperation grew and they were lent a helping hand when slack defending gave an unmarked Thomas Haymer the space and time to nod the visitors level, but with no winner forthcoming, and with Rochdale beating Charlton on the same evening, the full-time whistle consigned both teams to League Two.
Town’s display was nowhere near to the level of the one against Plymouth in their last game at Sixfields but, with nothing on the line, it was still an acceptable showing, led by two midfielders.
Grimes, who now heads back to Swansea following his season-long loan spell, pulled the strings. The Cobblers have benefited from the 22-year-old operating in a more advanced position in recent weeks. His penetrating passes and impressive vision provided the creative edge Town previously lacked. He, in turn, benefits from playing alongside the tenacious, battling Shaun McWilliams. Perhaps if those two had been partnered together earlier and more often, Town would not be heading to League Two. In the end, only one victory separated them from survival.
McWilliams’ strong finish to the campaign mirrors this time last year when he broke into the team and then made central midfield his home. Willing to put a shift in, make tackles and get about the pitch whilst also showing an eye for a pass and composure on the ball, the teenager must now be the man the team is built around from the start of next term.
From the moment the full-time whistle blows on one season, attentions quickly turn to the next one and Town have plenty of questions to be answered over the summer. Namely: who will be the next man in charge?
Austin must surely be the frontrunner. He seems keen to have a go and the players have evidently responded positively to his methods in these past five games, though whether that’s a shot-term effect or something more substantial is a question for Kelvin Thomas to ponder.
Northampton’s chairman only needed to take a quick glance into the opposite dugout on Saturday to realise that it doesn’t always pay off to employ a successful temporary manager on a full-time basis. Richie Wellens – the same also can be applied to Steve Lovell at Gillingham – picked up four wins and one draw from five games as caretaker boss of Oldham but he was unable to sustain that over the rest of the season, ultimately seeing his team relegated.
Willing to put a shift in, make tackles and get about the pitch whilst also showing an eye for a pass and composure on the ball, the teenager must now be the man the team is built around from the start of next term.
Of course, Wellens’ fortunes does not mean Austin shouldn’t get the top job at Sixfields. The 48-year-old has earned his chance and the fact of the matter is any appointment comes with its risks. Opting for Austin in charge would minimise those risks.
He’s already employed by the club, he knows the squad and he knows which players should stay. He also appears to have a clear idea of how he wants his team to play - on the front foot and with energy and positivity. That style would be welcomed by fans.
There is no rush to make a decision though. If the Cobblers are intent on bouncing back at the first time of asking, the decisions made this summer will be telling.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - Deflection rendered him powerless for Oldham’s first and his defence’s slack marking gave him equally little chance for the second. Barely had a save to make otherwise... 6
Brendan Moloney - Back in the team and can be satisfied with his performance. Didn’t pull up any trees but neither did he do much wrong, keeping things tight at the back and breaking forward on occasion... 7
Ash Taylor - Developing something of a killer instinct in front of goal, perfectly placed to power home his seventh of the season in one of three chances that fell his way. Defensively sound, though may have got tighter to Edmundson who was in acres of space to open the scoring... 7
Leon Barnett - Displayed impressive technique to nearly find the top corner from 20 yards, with Taylor smashing in the rebound. Has finished the campaign with a series of solid displays having returned to the team under Austin, including another one here... 7
David Buchanan - The words solid and steady regularly appear next to his name and it was the same story against the Latics. Ever-willing to work hard for the team, and ventured forward once or twice too, whipping in one delicious cross that only needed a touch... 7
Sam Foley - Signed for the club as a central midfielder yet he so rarely features in that position, instead utilised on the wing and that’s where he played again on Saturday. Doesn’t use that as an excuse though and you can’t question his attitude, although Town miss pace and width on the right... 7
Shaun McWilliams - The more you watch him play, the more you wonder how this was just his 12th start of the season. Such a battler in midfield, snapping into challenges and generally buzzing around. Made several of his trademark sliding challenges, most of which he times to perfection... 8
Matt Grimes - Concluded his season-long loan spell with one of his best displays for the Cobblers. Carved open Oldham’s defence with some sumptuous passing and was involved in both goals, releasing Hoskins for the penalty, which he then brilliantly converted, and also delivered the set-piece that led to Town’s second. Thriving in a more advanced position under Austin... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Daniel Powell - His performances towards the latter end of the campaign have been in stark contrast to how he started. Now playing with more confidence and drive, using his physical attributes to take on defenders and run with ball at feet. Went on two or three mazy dribbles against the Latics... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Lost his man for the second goal from a free-kick and while he won headers and generally played OK, he wasn’t as influential as he so often is... 6
Sam Hoskins - Made good runs and took up decent positions, none more so than when racing through to win the spot-kick. Sometimes lacks that ruthless touch in the penalty box and his decision-making can be mixed... 7
Jack Bridge - 6
Morgan Roberts - Didn’t get a touch of the ball but fantastic experience for the 17-year-old academy player to get a first senior run-out in stoppage-time... 6