A sizeable chunk of humble pie was on the menu for many once full-time had been called on this game as Keith Curle managed to confound pretty much everyone, not least Tranmere Rovers, in leading his side to a crucial, pressure-relieving three points at Prenton Park.
At a time when patience appeared to be wearing thin among disgruntled supporters with yet another Cobblers manager, Curle opted to name perhaps his boldest, bravest team yet for the trip to Merseyside, selecting six defenders, four centre-backs and little Sam Hoskins, without a league goal all season, as the only recognised forward player.
It’s not even worth contemplating the repercussions had Town been well beaten at Prenton Park but, as it turned out, Curle’s decisions were entirely justified, not just by the result – which was hugely significant – but also by the committed, battling way his side went about their business.
If some fans were starting to lose faith in the latest Town boss, the same certainly can’t be said of the players as Curle got just the response he wanted and needed following Saturday’s second-half capitulation against Colchester United.
And while the Cobblers have played more swashbuckling, easy-on-the-eye football this season, rarely have we seen them roll their sleeves up and produce such a resolute, gritty display such as this one.
Curle’s team selection stirred much surprise, bordering on disbelief in some quarters (mainly Twitter), when announced an hour before kick-off and you could understand why. Even by his standards, this was a brave line-up. A genius if it worked, a fool if it didn’t.
But it’s become apparent over the last few weeks and months that Curle has a truly unique approach to football management and though his logic hasn’t always paid off in his time in charge of the Cobblers, it certainly did on Tuesday.
In fact, it took less than two minutes for him to be vindicated. Hoskins, in the side to rattle Tranmere’s back four, turned on the afterburners to skip past a home defender and beat Scott Davies with a smart finish.
It was the perfect start and just what Town required after Saturday’s defeat. It also played right into Curle’s gameplan because now his side could sit back, soak up pressure and hit Rovers on the break.
Except they became too negative and too cautious, allowing the home team to have a monopoly on possession for the next 25 minutes, eventually culminating in James Norwood’s 21st goal of the season.
To their credit, though, the Cobblers responded well to being pegged back and re-emerged out of their defensive shells. That said, Hoskins’ second goal, deep into first-half stoppage-time, was still something of a bolt from the blue.
It was a goal of the highest quality. No more than a half chance from David Buchanan’s low cross, Hoskins showed quick-thinking and fine improvisation to produce a wonderfully deft first-time flick that looped over Davies and into the far corner.
Having not scored a league goal all season, now he had two in a half. And they would ultimately be enough for three precious points as Town defended superbly in the second period.
It could have turned into an attack versus defence training drill, as it did at times in the first-half, but this time Cobblers shifted a yard or two up the pitch and refused to get pinned into their own third.
It’s not even worth contemplating the repercussions had Town been well beaten at Prenton Park but, as it turned out, Curle’s decisions were entirely justified, not just by the result - which was hugely significant - but also by the committed, battling way his side went about their business.
It was not until the final 10 minutes when Rovers finally exerted sustained pressure. Despite some scares though, it came too late as Northampton defied all the sceptics to bounce back from a 4-0 defeat with their first victory at Prenton Park in over 30 years.
The problem with the Colchester game is that it’s easy to take one look at the full-time score and automatically assume Town were thoroughly outplayed from the first whistle to the last and remained on a one-way street to relegation.
Yes, they were poor, especially second-half, and yes, their defending left a lot to be desired, but sport is so often about the finest of fine margins. If Marvin Sordell scores his open goal at 0-0, it could have been different. Equally, if Hoskins does not produce a brilliant first-time finish on Tuesday, perhaps we’d now be dissecting another disappointing defeat.
To emphasise the point, on Tuesday the Cobblers took five shots with only three on target compared to Tranmere’s 11 attempts with four on target. Yet they scored twice and won 2-1. On Saturday, the Cobblers took 16 shots with seven on target compared to Colchester’s 14 (also seven on target) and lost 4-0.
Stats like those are sometimes misleading and they can partly be explained by the fact Town were chasing Saturday’s game while on Tuesday they were protecting a lead. Nevertheless, it only serves to highlight the importance of scoring first. Again, if Sordell nets in the 11th minute against United, Cobblers might be celebrating two wins in a week.
It is also far easier to defend as a unit when you have something to protect. After being picked off on the break time and again by Colchester at the weekend, Northampton were far more compact and showed greater discipline against Rovers, forcing the hosts to lump hopeful balls into the box and take shots from range, playing right into the hands of Charlie Goode, Ash Taylor and Aaron Pierre.
Goode was particularly impressive. While Hoskins will take the plaudits for his two-goal exploits, he was only one of several standout performers.
Goode made at least three goal-saving blocks, tackles or clearances, including one in stoppage-time, to show why Curle wanted to bring him to the club, Jordan Turnbull broke things up brilliantly in midfield and Jack Bridge played a vital role in alleviating Tranmere’s growing pressure with his composure in tight spaces.
But there was only one man rightly being acclaimed at full-time. The thing with Hoskins is that he’s 90 per cent of the way to being a very capable striker at this level. He’s nimble, his movement is excellent and he will always put a shift in.
But it’s that final 10 per cent which makes all the difference. Adding an end product to his game has been the missing piece of his puzzle, as Curle might put it, so Tuesday was a hugely encouraging step in the right direction.
As for the bigger picture, Town have finally manoeuvred themselves away from a position of immediate danger at the bottom of League Two. Now 10 points clear of the drop, fans can breathe easy for the foreseeable future.
To make the next step they must find some consistency and reproduce the effort and desire of Tuesday’s display on a weekly basis, starting at high-flying, title-chasing Lincoln City this weekend.
That game can now be viewed as a free hit, at least by supporters. But while anything picked up at Sincil Bank will be seen as a bonus, the Cobblers must prove Tuesday was no fluke with another wholehearted performance against the League Two pacesetters.
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