Jefferson Lake’s Southend v Cobblers preview: Hackett holds key for Town

Although it has become a bit of a cliche in recent years, one of the most basic facts of sport is that truly great players prove such qualities by performing well in the most pressured environments.

Admittedly, Southend United’s Roots Hall on a Saturday afternoon in mid-February does not exactly fit the bill for a modern-day pantheon of sporting exultation.

And, truth be told, Chris Hackett probably has a little way to go before he can be regarded as a great Northampton player (although it can be said with some degree of certainty that he is a very good one).

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But the two align this weekend in what could be one of the season’s pivotal points.

A win, and it’s time to get all excited about promotion again.

A loss, and it’s back to the drawing board.

Said drawing board - presumably a white board in the manager’s office on which Aidy Boothroyd, Andy King and Tim Flowers scribble brainstorms during their religiously-regular meetings - has seen plenty of use this week.

The club’s dire away form is not so much the elephant in the room that nobody dares discuss but the elephant in the room of which everyone is painfully aware and only too keen to discuss, usually in terms of how to get rid of the thing.

Hackett will be key.

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Along with the Ben Tozer long-throw howitzer, he is the team’s most potent attacking weapon but has been sadly nullified in the most recent away games, with his performance at Rotherham being perhaps his weakest for the club.

Scouts have very quickly realised his qualities and, in their reports, will suggest a double-marking strategy.

It worked for Rotherham and has worked for other teams this season too.

Boothroyd has produced a tactical blueprint for the weekend game which understandably remains top secret. Loose lips sink ships, after all.

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And although it is a dangerous game to second-guess football managers, it might not be a bad idea to play Hackett centrally, in a free role behind one of the powerful strikers.

This would allow him to wander around the pitch and get the ball in dangerous, undetected areas.

If Southend put a marker on him, he can use his speed and stamina to drag the player around and - theoretically - wear him out, creating space for others.

Depending on whether the approach is to be an attacking one or a safe one, Roy O’Donovan and Jake Robinson can be deployed as the wide players, leaving Luke Guttridge and Ben Harding to hold midfield together and protect the defence.

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This tactical set-up is only a suggestion and comes from someone with no actual experience of coaching or managing a professional football team.

But the feeling is that if the Cobblers are to start being successful away from home, they need their best players to not only produce more than they have been, but also be used in areas where they can maximise their potential of hurting the opposition, even if that means playing them out of their traditional position.

There are some very good players in the current side, one which is on the doorstep of promotion to league one.

To cross the threshold they need to start winning away matches with the same regularity they do at Sixfields.

They need those very good players to start performing like great players.

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