While the result itself should be no more than a brief blip, this 1-0 defeat to Scunthorpe United was a reminder of the challenges Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink still faces in his quest to find a consistent winning formula.
Those reminders came in the form of a makeshift team selection, a disjointed overall performance and a first defeat in seven matches, with the Cobblers barely laying a glove on their hosts for 70 minutes in a timid exit from the world’s oldest competition.
They at least did go down fighting before succumbing to what felt like the inevitable, although it could be argued their late rally owed as much to Scunthorpe’s conscious decision to drop off as it did to Northampton’s gradual improvement.
There are unlikely to be many tears shed or hearts broken over their early departure from this season’s FA Cup but that apparent apathy should not detract from a poor performance and a missed opportunity.
Granted, a trip to Doncaster Rovers is neither the most glamorous prize nor a guaranteed victory in any case, but the fact the Cobblers went out with such a whimper was disappointing.
Before kick-off, Hasselbaink’s team selection was telling. His nine changes from Saturday’s game at Oxford United said everything about where his current priorities lie: with his side’s league campaign and, more specifically, with Saturday’s visit of familiar foes Scunthorpe, which is followed by back-to-back games against Sky Bet League One’s current bottom two.
That run of three games in seven days heavily influenced his decision in fielding such a makeshift team but there still should have been enough quality to produce better than what they managed.
Unfortunately, their lack of strength in depth in certain positions, most notably out wide, proved fatal.
With Sam Hoskins and Daniel Powell sidelined, George Smith, a left-back by trade, and Dean Bowditch, naturally a more central player, started on the wing but it wasn’t until Billy Waters’ 73rd minute introduction when they started to pose a genuine threat from wide areas, though Smith did occasionally demonstrate his impressive ability to deliver a wicked cross.
The general team performance was several notches below Saturday’s effort at Oxford and that was mainly due to the changes to midfield personnel. While Matt Grimes and Lewis McGugan were able to dictate and control the game at Grenoble Road, Yaser Kasim and Sam Foley became overrun and almost entirely bypassed by Scunthorpe at Glanford Park.
It would be an exaggeration to say Northampton have been stopped in their momentum-building tracks because the truth is there are far more important matters on the horizon and one off-colour evening does not undo the obvious strides that are being made.
The back four therefore had a busy evening and David Cornell, in for the ineligible Matt Ingram, produced several smart stops, only beaten by Hakeeb Adelakun’s 33rd minute rocket.
Marc Richards endured a lonely evening as Town’s sole striker, barely having a sniff of a chance, let alone a goal, with opportunities instead falling to Sam Foley, who headed the clearest chance straight at Matt Gilks, and the lively Matt Crooks, who twice went close on another night where he was head and shoulders above his team-mates.
Sure, Town had a bright spell towards the end but United should have had this game sewn up long before the full-time whistle. Paddy Madden was only on for 25 minutes but in that time he had three excellent chances to settle any home nerves, though in the end it did not matter.
It would be an exaggeration to say Northampton have been stopped in their momentum-building tracks by this defeat because the truth is there are far more important matters on the horizon and one off-colour evening does not undo the obvious strides that are being made.
And at least this result does not register on the same embarrassing scale as last year’s humiliation at Stourbridge. There is a lot more dignity and acceptance in going out to a team currently fifth in England’s third tier, though ultimately the final outcome remains the same.
They have an immediate chance to gain revenge against the same opposition this Saturday and given that Scunthorpe made only two changes to Town’s nine on Tuesday, in theory they should be fresher and fitter for when the sides reconvene at Sixfields.
With key player set to return, it represents an excellent opportunity to register a fourth straight league win and immediately consign their FA Cup disappointment to the distant past.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Relatively solid between the sticks aside from the occasional hesitation. Made two smart stops and did well just to get anywhere near Adelakun’s rocket... 7
Shaun McWilliams - Positioning was suspect at times as Scunthorpe targeted him down their left but, after a shaky start, he gave as good as he got... 6
Ash Taylor - Kept his record of playing every minute this season, even with nine changes to the side, but was a little below-par. Fortunate to get away with two misjudgements under the high ball... 6
Aaron Pierre - The only other player to survive from Saturday and again United’s quick, incisive football ensured it was a tough - and busy - evening for him and the back four... 6
Ryan McGivern - Second start for Town, first at left-back, and was as solid as any of his fellow defenders. Hard to recall him crossing the halfway line but did his job at the other end... 6
Yaser Kasim - Will need to perform better than this with midfield competition so fierce. United regularly bypassed him, highlighting his lack of mobility and match sharpness. Might have to wait a while for his next chance... 5
Sam Foley - Ventured forward with a couple of bursts and headed the best chance of the night straight at Gilks. Like Kasim, has to grab these opportunities with both hands... 6
Matt Crooks - The bright spark for Town in the number 10 role. Almost all of their good play went through him as his composure and class on the ball made him the standout. Twice went close to scoring too... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Dean Bowditch - The absence of various individuals meant he had to take up a wide right position and it became a struggle. Fluffed the one chance that fell his way and the team’s subsequent improvement after his withdrawal for Waters was telling... 5
George Smith - Back playing a more advanced role but you wouldn’t have guessed that from the amount of time he spent on defensive duties in the first-half. More attacking in the second when he showcased his impressive crossing ability... 6
Marc Richards - To say he fed off scraps for the first hour or so would be an understatement. Ploughed a very lonely furrow and even when he did get more joy late on, chances still did not come his way... 6
Billy Waters - His pace and directness injected some life into Town and was at the heart of their best chances... 7
Lewis McGugan - Didn’t get enough time to really exert his influence on the game... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Same applies here... 6