The notion of this game ending in a one-sided 3-0 victory after an accomplished performance from one team and a disappointing display from the other would not have been quite so far-fetched prior to kick-off.
In fact, many inside the PTS may well have feared it. Growing apathy among fans, the team’s continued poor form and the loss of two key players within the past 10 days had all contributed to low expectations and made the prospect of taking on in-form, promotion-chasing Carlisle, on a six-game winning run, an uninviting one.
And yet it was the Cobblers who defied all gloomy forecasts and made a mockery of the formbook as, completely out of the blue, they got their act together and dismissed the Cumbrians in impressively emphatic fashion.
Not since beating Plymouth last season, and who knows when before that, have Town played with such conviction and belief as they did on Saturday. Even the 5-0 victory at Macclesfield back in October owed more to the opposition’s shortcomings than Northampton’s brilliance.
The same can’t be said here. Carlisle, admittedly not at their best, arrived in Northampton chasing a record-equalling seventh straight league victory. Indeed, three points on Saturday would have lifted them to third and an automatic promotion place in League Two.
But instead they were sent packing and suffered their heaviest of the season after Jack Bridge’s outstanding individual performance inspired the Cobblers to only a second win since early November.
And it was not only the fact Northampton won which raised eyebrows, it was how they won. They played with the assurance, cohesion and fluency that has so rarely been seen in any Cobblers performance for an awful long time. Most surprising of all, it was actually entertaining and enjoyable to watch, almost as if everything suddenly clicked into place.
Of course, it helped that Keith Curle knew the opposition inside out having coached many of their players but even so, that does not explain the wild swing in his side’s performance levels. Having struggled to muster a coherent, 90-minute performance for so long, this came out of the blue.
Curle deserves credit for his team selection, not least his decision to play Bridge in the number 10 role. With a Matt Crooks-shaped hole appearing only 24 hours earlier, the Cobblers needed someone to step up and take on the creative burden.
Bridge did that and then some. Full of clever touches, smart movement and energetic running, the 23-year-old delivered a performance that illustrated why former boss Dean Austin rated him so highly. To put his display into context, he was well on course to be named man of the match even before he opened the scoring three minutes into the second-half.
His first goal required a deflection but it was still a fine strike, his second showed composure and pinpoint accuracy to pick out the bottom corner and the third, while not on target this time, was created by his vision and execution, sending Junior Morias bearing down on goal.
It’s ironic that he almost certainly wouldn’t have played had Crooks not been sold the previous evening.
It was not only Bridge who impressed, though. The team was generally better balanced with two more natural wing-backs thriving on either flank in the rejuvenated Shay Facey and the steady George Cox, who showed promising signs on debut. The back three of the ridiculously composed Jay Williams – is he really 18? – Jordan Turnbull and Aaron Pierre were also commanding and untroubled for the most part en route to a first clean sheet in over a month, only their sixth of the campaign.
The energy and foundation for the performance came from Shaun McWilliams and Sam Foley in central midfield, while Bridge knitted it all together behind a hard-working albeit luckless front two of Andy Williams and Sam Hoskins.
Neither Crooks nor van Veen are irreplaceable and that was no better demonstrated than on Saturday when Town swatted aside Carlisle with an excellent team performance. And that is the key point: this was a collective effort.
Even in the first-half, there were good signs as Cobblers began with purpose and positivity, though early chances were not converted and only David Cornell’s heroics – his superb stop from Jamie Devitt’s volley was perhaps his best save of the season – kept them level at half-time.
In the second, Bridge took centre stage and Town romped to victory, scoring three goals and missing opportunities for more, all while United mustered only half chances at the other end.
Curle talks about playing with energy and commitment and his side had bundles of that here. Perhaps that’s why he was not too perturbed by the loss of Kevin van Veen and Matt Crooks. While clearly gifted players, both are somewhat individualistic and do not play with the same gusto and vibrancy Curle desires from his team.
It’s also worth nothing Saturday’s squad featured eight players under the age of 24, including three of the most impressive performers in Bridge, McWilliams and 18-year-old Jay Williams. The restructuring of Town’s squad will not all be about signing players; they must also develop the talented youngsters already at their disposal.
Many will hope this performance and result was the first sign of Curle’s grand masterplan coming together. It needs to be too because, whilst enjoyable to watch and way overdue, one victory alone will not be enough to appease supporters whose growing apathy was not helped by the departures of two such important players.
In a business sense, the deals make sense. Both players were on good money and each commanded a decent fee that will allow Curle to re-model and re-shape the squad however he sees fit.
The problem is, football is not any normal business and fans are only interested in results on the pitch, not off it. When you sell your two most influential attacking players halfway through a season, those results are likely to deteriorate. It’s not as if the Cobblers had been flying in the first place.
Of course, the plan will be – or should be – to reinvest the money back into the squad, whether now or in the summer. But until that happens, or until results pick up on a consistent basis, fans will understandably question the club’s ambition.
Crooks in particular is a blow. A clearly gifted player, he is not without faults but the 24-year-old formed an integral part of Town’s attacking play and was often at the heart of their best moments, either setting up chances or scoring them. Without him, they have regularly looked toothless and short on ideas.
But neither him nor van Veen are irreplaceable and that was no better demonstrated than on Saturday when high-flying Carlisle were swatted aside with an excellent team performance. And that, ultimately, is the salient point here: this was a collective effort.
For too long now the Cobblers have relied on individuals to win them game.
For once, almost everyone played their part.
How they rated...
David Cornell - His saves in the first-half must not be overlooked because, ultimately, they were key in the overall outcome. At his very best to brilliantly keep out Devitt’s stinging volley while also made a couple of more routine stops from Hope and Sowerby. Barely tested after the break en route to a welcome clean sheet... 8
Jay Williams - The teenager was once again impressive as he returned to his more customary role in central defence. Put his foot in where it hurt to break up attacks and rarely ever panicked in possession, even when under pressure. Such a calm head for one so young... 8
Aaron Pierre - Captain for the day and he stood up to the task, handling the dangerous Hope for the most part bar one first-half opportunity that came the striker’s way. A dominant figure in the second period... 8
Jordan Turnbull - Commanding and in control at the back with Carlisle unable to open the Cobblers up and create too many clear opportunities. Was pivotal to the team’s first clean sheet in over a month... 8
Shay Facey - Seems far more settled and happier playing at wing-back, demonstrated by his performance here. Went through the gears as the game progressed and became a key part of Town’s attacking play, epitomised by his excellent cross that led to the opener. Lovely pass into Foley helped create the second too... 8
George Cox - Steady on debut. Should only improve when he gets up to full speed as he flagged a little before being replaced, but already plenty of signs to be encouraged, both in an attacking sense and defensively. Looks to have a quality set-piece delivery on him... 7
Shaun McWilliams - His partnership with Foley provided the heartbeat of Town’s performance. The duo covered so much ground in midfield and the youngster in particular played an important shielding role in front of the back four while his ability on the ball ensured things were kept moving... 8
Sam Foley - His typical combative, industrious self as he won his fair share of tackles. Made bursts toward to support attacks and that paid off with his lay-off to Bridge for the second... 7
Jack Bridge - No prizes for guessing this week’s star man. Twinkled at times in the first-half and then dazzled in the second, scoring two, creating another and generally causing havoc in the number 10 role. Great movement, touch and energy throughout. Filled the void left by Crooks and then some... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Sam Hoskins - Crunching last-ditch block denied him a certain goal in the first-half, but his movement and tenacity up front was enough to unsettle defenders... 6
Andy Williams - No clear chances for the forward although cracked a sweet effort on his left foot that had Collin sprawling to his left. Not convinced he was 100 per cent fit... 6
Junior Morias - Terrific finish through the legs of Collin put the gloss on Town’s tremendous afternoon... 7
Daniel Powell - Should have made it four when blazing over... 6
David Buchanan - 6