Poor defending, poor finishing and a lingering sense of what might have been; Saturday’s immensely frustrating defeat to Walsall told an all too familiar tale for Cobblers fans this season.
Beaten by two goals in the space of five second-half minutes after John-Joe O’Toole’s early opener, this 2-1 loss keeps Northampton in trouble, still unable to escape the clutches of a relegation battle.
Placed 16th and five points above the drop, they still have breathing space but with games in hand for six of the eight teams below them, that margin for error is shrinking by the week.
Northampton showed potential and provided plenty of encouragement at the Bescot Stadium on Saturday but promise without substance will do them no good if they find themselves in the bottom four come May.
Unfortunately, that’s been the case for too long now. Too many times they’ve either matched or bettered their opponents without having anything to show for it, and Saturday was a prime example.
In patches, the Cobblers were excellent here, and when they fancied it, they created chances almost at will. The killer touch, however, was decidedly lacking.
John-Joe O’Toole, Lewin Nyatanga and particularly Marc Richards all fluffed their lines at the decisive moment, and with their defending again found wanting at the other end, there was only ever going to be one outcome.
By contrast, Walsall, who themselves are no mugs, defended with desperate resilience, throwing bodies all over the place, and ruthlessly took their chances, like any good team does, to come from behind and take the spoils.
They had a bit of luck, too, when Richards failed to even hit the target with his 95th minute penalty, capping off a sorrowful afternoon for his team.
What makes this defeat all the more frustrating is that this feels like such a missed opportunity. After last week’s pivotal win over Coventry, Saturday represented an excellent chance to build some forward momentum.
It almost felt like a make or break moment.
Win - or even draw - and there’d be genuine belief that a corner has been turned and that they’d be on the up but, instead, the defeat takes them back square one and keeps that fear of relegation hanging over their season, cranking up the pressure on two huge home games next week.
Just like previous wins over Port Vale and Oxford, Northampton were unable to follow victory with another one, which only serves to stall any thought of progress being made.
And whilst the Coventry win was a refreshing change, it was perhaps not the appropriate yardstick by which to judge Northampton’s current standing due to the troubles of the opposition.
Too many times this season Northampton have either matched or bettered their opponents without having anything to show for it, and Saturday was a prime example.
Not so on Saturday when they faced a Walsall side who are on the rise under Jon Whitney and who would provide a much more accurate test of Town’s mid-table credentials.
The result suggests they failed the test but for long periods, particularly the first 30 minutes and the final 20, they more than held their own, only to succumb to defeat.
In many way, the game was reflective of their season as a whole.
On the balance of play, they warranted at least a point. But you can’t keep saying that and they can’t keep taking positives from defeats. It’s time to turn performances into points on a consistent basis.
Though many will pinpoint Richards’ missed penalty as the game’s key moment, it was perhaps another miss from Richards, which came seconds before Walsall’s winning goal, that decisively swung the game the home side’s way.
After heading Rod McDonald’s superb cross agonisingly wide, Walsall broke through the impressive Jason McCarthy, who exploited the away side’s lack of width all afternoon, and his devilish cross was met by hesitant defending that allowed Erhun Oztumer to pounce as he produced a much more ruthless edge when opportunity knocked.
That was enough for victory but only after Walsall somehow survived several frantic goalmouth scrambles in the final 10 minutes, Nyatanga and O’Toole both denied, before Richards had the final say when skying his penalty.
All in all, it was another away day to forget.
The Cobblers should be reflecting on a useful and hard-earned away point, instead it’s another weekend pondering what might have been.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Raced off his line to deny McCarthy in his only notable action of the game, aside from the goals – the first of which the cross seemed to float straight over his head... 6
Neal Eardley - Didn’t do much wrong but didn’t carry the same attacking threat as, say, Moloney might have done... 6
Zander Diamond - Excellent first-half, producing two timely interventions to prevent Walsall getting in on goal. His injury early in the second was a key moment in the game... 7
Lewin Nyatanga - Steady and solid and coped well with the reshuffle when Diamond was forced off. Was brilliantly denied an equaliser by Etheridge... 6
David Buchanan - Couple of crucial blocks in the first-half but for large parts he was given a torrid time by the impressive Jason McCarthy, with the winning goal coming from Town’s left side... 5
Matty Taylor - His free-kick led to O’Toole’s opener in another game where his set-pieces provided the most likely source of a Cobblers goal throughout the afternoon... 7
Hiram Boateng - Exhibited what he can bring in glimpses, particularly first-half, but his influence waned before being withdrawn... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Perfectly positioned to stab home the opener before missing a superb chance to snatch a late point. Was at the centre of most of Northampton’s best moments... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Luke Williams - Not as effective as his impressive debut last week. Hard to see what he offered on the day, struggling to impose himself and was often out-muscled when on the ball... 6
Keshi Anderson - Might have had a penalty early on but couldn’t get in the game despite his best efforts, often finding himself chasing lost causes and pushed out wide... 6
Marc Richards - A day to forget. Spurned a great opening to put Cobblers ahead just before Walsall’s second, and then inexcusably blasted over a last-minute penalty. Was also somewhat fortunate not to see red for a reckless first-half lunge... 5
McDonald - Lost his man for the equaliser but should have made amends when brilliantly setting up Richards, only for the skipper to head wide... 6
Smith - 6
Beautyman - 6