Oxford United 1 Northampton Town 2 – match review, player ratings and highlights

HAPPY ASH: Taylor wheels away in delight after opening the scoring on Saturday. Pictures by Kirsty Edmonds
HAPPY ASH: Taylor wheels away in delight after opening the scoring on Saturday. Pictures by Kirsty Edmonds

For all of the talk of their recent improvement, there was still a lingering sense that the Cobblers needed to produce a properly convincing, complete performance to confirm they’re on the right track. At Oxford United on Saturday, they did exactly that.

Town’s progression since that dark day at Sixfields when Bristol Rovers ran amok has been steady but not spectacular. They’ve gradually gone through the gears, showing signs of life in comeback draws and gritty wins, however none have been as impressive, nor as convincing or as assured, as Saturday’s surprisingly dominant and hugely encouraging victory at Grenoable Road.

The close scoreline, allied to the misleading final shot count of 14-12 in the away side’s favour, indicates that there was not much in this game, but whilst there was hardly a vast gulf between the sides, it fails to portray just how much better Town were compared to their hosts.

The win was secured with a degree of comfort, even accounting for a naturally anxious final few minutes.

All over the pitch, Town were superior. They defended with more aggression and discipline, they controlled the game from midfield, knocking the ball around with new-found confidence and quality, while the front three gave Oxford’s back four a torrid time.

In terms of pure control and assurance, this was up there with Northampton’s best 90 minutes since Chris Wilder’s departure almost 18 months ago.

For anyone unaware of the two teams’ positions going into the game, there was no obvious indication as to who were sitting in the bottom four and who were supposedly fighting for the play-offs.

Indeed, if the final scoreline flattered anyone, it was the home side.

In addition to Taylor’s scrambled opener – his third goal in six games to make him the club’s join-top scorer this season – and Chris Long’s fine solo effort, John-Joe O’Toole headed fractionally wide, Simon Eastwood brilliantly kept out Lewis McGugan and only a vital defender’s touch prevented Billy Waters from having a tap-in.

There were more chances too, in fact the first 45 minutes was, by some distance, the most dangerous the Cobblers have looked as an attacking force all campaign, with Wes Thomas’ equaliser coming somewhat out of the blue.

The Kassam Stadium has been a happy hunting ground of late but of the three victories Northampton have achieved there over the past three seasons, this has to go down as the most impressive, all the more so bearing in mind where they were barely a month ago.

From the goalkeeper all the way through to the striker, this was an afternoon brimming with positives. Even the one negative – missed chances – can now be viewed as a good thing given that it did not cost them and that creating opportunities in the first place has proved such a thorn in their side this season.

Yes, Oxford were poor but so were previous opponents Blackpool and Scunthorpe and yet all three have been among the top six this season. Surely it says more about Northampton’s steady improvement, and less about those team’s deficiencies, that they were all made to look so decidedly average.

The biggest difference in Saturday’s contest compared to previous weeks came in the final third where Town carried a genuine and persistent threat, chiefly thanks to the midfield’s ability to get the better of their opposition and dictate the play.

Yes, Oxford were poor but so were previous opponents Blackpool and Scunthorpe and yet all three have been among the top six this season. Surely it says more about Northampton’s steady improvement, and less about those team’s deficiencies, that they were all made to look so decidedly average.

Defensively they were once again solid, displaying tremendous levels of concentration to keep their shape and frustrate United, who were often forced to go wide or shoot from distance, but it was in midfield where the game was won, and credit must go to manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for his team selection.

It was a bold choice to go with Matt Grimes and Lewis McGugan as a central two but one that was fully vindicated by the duo’s performances.

Grimes picked up good positions and threaded passes between the lines. He always seemed to be in the right place to get possession back and then start a Northampton attack.

McGugan, meanwhile, injected that extra bit of quality and swagger that took the whole team up a level. He was not afraid to play risky but telling passes into dangerous territory. They didn’t always come off but, when they did, more often than not a chance came of it.

His set-pieces created at least three good chances, including Taylor’s 11th minute opener, and credit must also go to O’Toole who played a key role as the link man between the midfield pair and sole striker Chris Long.

Long’s goal, taken brilliantly after dispossessing Ryan Ledson, was the least he deserved for another tireless shift up front as he and Billy Waters ran the home defence ragged and constantly ensured their team-mates had something to hit up front.

To win in this manner at a club like Oxford will always be an impressive achievement but to do it without Regan Poole, such a key man of late, and Daniel Powell, off injured after only 19 minutes, gives even more reason for optimism going forward, especially given that Matt Crooks did not even get on the pitch.

At no point did they seem under the cosh or in danger of throwing away the lead as Oxford’s expected late bombardment never came. Matt Ingram’s workload consistent of mainly routine saves, bar one acrobatic stop from Rob Hall and even that came from distance.

Even a spate of yellow cards for kicking the ball away – Grimes, McGugan and Sam Foley the guilty culprits – could not dampen the mood on a terrific afternoon for the Cobblers and their jubilant away following who made themselves heard throughout.

Such has been their turnaround, it seems almost inconceivable that 10 of the players involved in the 6-0 spanking against Bristol Rovers were also involved on Saturday.

The players and manager deserve an immense amount of credit for not crumbling following that crushing defeat. Instead, now six unbeaten and on a run of three straight league wins, they’ve used it as fuel to get themselves out of immediate trouble.

It’s been a slightly chaotic, unpredictable ride following the Cobblers this season. Bottom and pointless after four games, early fears of a relegation scrap were initially eased by Hasselbaink’s positive impact and a subsequent run of seven points from nine, only for that infamous Rovers nightmare to stop them in their tracks.

But ever since that day, they’ve gradually improved to the point where they now look a well-drilled, cohesive and solid League One outfit. They remain too close to the bottom four for comfort but, with more days like this one, they will not be there for much longer.

How they rated...

Matt Ingram - No more than routine saves prior to his fantastic fingertip stop from Hall that preserved Town’s slender lead in the dying stages. Always alert and decisive off his line to mop up the danger... 7

Brendan Moloney - Played his part in a terrific defensive effort, regularly stopping the supply line from Oxford’s left. Was a touch tentative once beyond the halfway line but still easing himself back in after a few weeks on the sidelines... 7

Ash Taylor - Now the club’s joint-top scorer for the season with three goals in his last six games. His contributions at the other end are equally important though and once again he was outstanding, seemingly heading and booting away every ball that came into Town’s box... 8

Aaron Pierre - Got the wrong side for Thomas’ equaliser but that was the only blemish from a solid showing at the back as he and Taylor barely allowed Oxford a sniff of goal... 7

David Buchanan - The tricky, skilful Hall kept him on his toes as the two tussled throughout and Town’s left-back was up to the task, only beaten on one occasion. Also broke forward to good effect and delivered some enticing crosses... 7

Matt Grimes - Spread a wonderful crossfield pass out to Buchanan for an early chance and that set the mood for a tremendous, influential midfield display. Was excellent in and out of possession as Town’s midfield trio bossed their counterparts... 8

Lewis McGugan - Superb display, one that suggests he’s playing below his true level. Ran the show for an hour, full of tricks, flicks and penetrating passes. Set-pieces were a handful too. His swagger and confidence rubs off on his team-mates... 8 CHRON STAR MAN

John-Joe O’Toole - Effective link man between Town’s midfield two and front three meant they were able to play up the pitch. Linked with Long well and worked hard for the hour he was on the pitch... 7

Billy Waters - Agonisingly close to his first goal when Ricardinho took the ball off his toes but, whilst that remains an ongoing frustration, he should take great heart from his performance here. Didn’t give Oxford’s back four a moment’s rest with his tireless running and always provided his team with an outlet on the right... 7

Daniel Powell - Bright start to the game curtailed by a hamstring injury just 19 minutes in... 6

Chris Long - Goal was the minimum he deserved for yet another display full of running and endeavour. Came at a good time too and he took it superbly, pinching the ball back before beating a defender and smashing through Eastwood... 8

Substitutions

Dean Bowditch - Equipped himself well in an unfamiliar position after replacing Powell... 7

Sam Foley - Picked up from where O’Toole left off and made himself a nuisance... 7

Marc Richards - 6