James Heneghan’s Oxford United v Northampton Town preview

ON THE SPOT: Marc Richards lashed in a second-half penalty to ensure the Cobblers did the league double over Oxford last season
ON THE SPOT: Marc Richards lashed in a second-half penalty to ensure the Cobblers did the league double over Oxford last season
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Fixture: Oxford United v Northampton Town, Sky Bet League One

Date/time: Monday, December 26, 3pm kick-off

Venue: The Kassam Stadium

Forecast: 7C, sunny

Outs and doubts: Oxford: Aaron Martin (Achilles), Joe Skarz (back), Christian Ribeiro (ankle), Sam Long (knee), Liam Sercombe (knee) Cobblers: Zander Diamond (fractured cheekbone), JJ Hooper (thigh), Brendan Moloney (knee)

Betting: Oxford 17/20, draw 11/4, Northampton 3/1

Yellows boss Michael Appleton with former Northampton manager Chris Wilder

Yellows boss Michael Appleton with former Northampton manager Chris Wilder

Form guide: Oxford WWDDDD, Cobblers LLWLLL

Avg. goals scored/conceded per game: Oxford 1.3/1.2, Northampton 1.5/1/5

Possible line-ups: Oxford (4-4-2): Eastwood; Edwards, Nelson, Dunkley, Johnson; Hall, Lundstram, Ledson, MacDonald; Maguire, Hemmings. Northampton (4-4-2): Cornell; Phillips, Nyatanga, Zakuani, Buchanan; Hoskins, McCourt, Taylor, Anderson; Revell, Richards.

Man in the middle: With an average of one red card every three games, only three referees in England have sent off more players this season than John Brooks. The card-happy official takes charge of Monday’s clash between Oxford and Northampton having brandished 98 yellows and seven reds so far this term.

Last time out: Bury 2 Oxford United 3 (Maguire 2, Leigh); Northampton Town (Taylor, Hoskins) Rochdale 3

Most recent meeting: Tuesday, February 16, 2016 – Oxford 0 Northampton 1 (Richards)

Record v Oxford: P29 W13 D2 L14

Opposition view: “We will be more than prepared for the game against Northampton, and we are all looking forward to it,” said U’s boss Michael Appleton ahead of Boxing Day’s clash. “It is obviously going to have a little bit of extra spice because of the competition we had last season with them. They won the league, we finished second, and the season was great for both sides for different reasons, and there is not a lot of love lost between some of their supporters and myself! But that is part and parcel of football.”

Cobblers connection: There are countless connections between these two, one such player being Alfie Potter. Signed by the same man twice, former Oxford and Northampton manager Chris Wilder, Potter made 160 appearances for the Yellows between 2010 and 2015, scoring 21 goals, before heading back to AFC Wimbledon. His second stint at the Dons was just a brief one, however, as he quickly made the move to Sixfields in May of 2015 where injuries have rather plagued his Cobblers career.

James Heneghan’s preview: In desperate need of some inspiration to turn around their floundering fortunes, Rob Page and his struggling side would do well to look back at last season’s first meeting with Monday’s opponents when things weren’t entirely dissimilar.

When Chris Wilder’s Cobblers encountered their only mini-wobble in an otherwise rampant campaign, it was victory over Oxford United that halted their slide and provided the catalyst for a sensational turnaround in fortunes, and now it’s Page who will be hoping a reunion with those old foes can do something similar as he seeks a dose of much-needed festive cheer.

It seems crazy now given what happened in the proceedings eight months but, following defeat to bottom side Dagenham & Redbridge seven days earlier, Northampton went into last September’s meeting with Oxford placed a lowly 16th and with doubts growing over Wilder and his position as manager.

Wilder responded by defying both the naysayers and the odds to lead his side to a gritty, hard-fought 1-0 win as they overcame Jason Taylor’s first-half red card and Adam Smith’s penalty save on a tension-riddled afternoon at Sixfields.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Wilder’s team went on to lose just two of their next 40 league matches and duly romped to the title.

It was a remarkable turnaround, one which provides a perfect illustration of how quickly things can change in sport, and Page knows that the increasing number of people casting doubt over his reign can only be silenced by doing what Wilder did so emphatically: winning games of football.

That’s easier said than done, especially when Northampton’s next three games come against three in-form teams, two of whom are challenging for the title.

It might be a case of things getting worse before they get better, though there is reason not to be completely downhearted.

Six defeats in seven is hardly a record to be proud of but the fact that all six have come by just a single goal should at least offer some encouragement that this team is not a million miles way from turning a corner.

They should have taken at least a point in four of those games too – Gillingham, Peterborough, Bolton and Rochdale – but the fact they haven’t has left many nervously looking over their shoulder at what lies beneath.

Even at this early stage, the rekindling of Monday’s rivalry, plus the following two fixtures over the hectic festive period, marks a potentially defending period in Northampton’s season, not to mention Page’s position as manager.

Unbeaten in nine and heading in the right direction, this is not a particularly opportune time to run into Michael Appleton’s Oxford, who pushed Northampton as close as anyone last season but still came up a mighty 13 points short.

Two 1-0 wins ensured the Cobblers did the double over United back in League Two, however it was Appleton’s comments on the final day of the season which have added some extra spice to this fixture

After needing to sweat through a final-day victory over Wycombe to secure their place in League One – three weeks after Northampton had clinched the title, let alone promotion – Appleton had the temerity to claim his side were the division’s best, something which he repeated again just this week.

It was perhaps said with tongue planted firmly in cheek but it nonetheless prompted derision among unhappy Cobblers fans who had just witnessed their side blow all before them away, including Oxford – twice.

Much of Appleton’s view comes from the fact his side boasted a superior goal difference – seven better than Northampton’s – but that’s a rather weak argument when you consider the final points tally.

Whilst scoring goals and winning handsomely from time to time is all well and good, being hard to beat and finding ways to win when not at your best, both of which Northampton became masters at last season, are essential for any successful side, hence why they resoundingly won the title and Oxford didn’t.

That said, those are two qualities which the Cobblers have lacked this season, and unless they can rediscover them soon, a return to League Two might not be far away.

The big question for Monday is: will Page stick with those who are under-performing or will he shake things up for the visit to the Kassam Stadium?

Despite expressing disappointment at certain refereeing decisions, Page was critical of his side’s display against Rochdale last weekend, which paves the way for personnel changes for this fixture.

Who goes out and who comes in, though, remains up for debate given that Page has seemingly marginalised so many players.

With barely 90 minutes between them in the last few weeks, Harry Beautyman, Alfie Potter and Kenji Gorre could all offer something different but Page seems either unwilling or untrusting, while the likes of Joel Byrom, Lawson D’Ath and Rod McDonald might need a search party.

He’s only been in the role a matter of months but Page’s capabilities as Northampton manager are already being severely scrutinised by a restless fan-base that understandably believe this team have the capacity to perform much better than they currently are.

It’s not just the results either, it’s the manner in which they are playing that has caused unrest.

Time is a precious commodity for football managers and many believe it’s already running out for Page. Some festive cheer at the expense of a familiar foe would go a long way to silencing those doubters – for now at least.

Prediction: Oxford United 2 Northampton Town 1