Northampton Town 0 Gillingham 0 – match review, player ratings and highlights

NO LOVE LOST: Tensions ran high between the two benches on Sunday as Justin Edinburgh came up against his former club. Pictures: Sharon Lucey
NO LOVE LOST: Tensions ran high between the two benches on Sunday as Justin Edinburgh came up against his former club. Pictures: Sharon Lucey
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In keeping with how their season has fizzled out over the past few weeks, this sterile and lifeless goalless draw was an apt way for the Cobblers to sign off a mostly underwhelming campaign that many will be glad to see the back of.

Just as they opened the season with a disappointing home draw, Northampton ended it with a similarly timid stalemate at Sixfields in a game high on endeavour but seriously devoid of quality, innovation or entertainment.

The result was enough to secure a more than respectable 16th place finish in their first season back at this level but whilst most would have accepted that back in August, the downward spiral they have been on since mid-winter continues to show little sign of abating.

That’s why it’s imperative Edinburgh and his staff get their recruitment right this summer because there are big changes on the horizon, and judging by Sunday’s evidence, there needs to be.

What concerns most is how Northampton have almost totally lost their way as an attacking entity.

Their last two games have come against teams who end the season having conceded a combined 152 goals, yet they barely created one clear-cut opportunity over 180 minutes, instead conceding three goals and potentially more if not for David Cornell.

If Matty Taylor’s set-pieces are off-colour, they’ve been reliant on Brendan Moloney’s driving runs and teasing crosses from right-back or a moment of individual quality to break down an opposition defence.

Three wins at the start of March gave fans every reason to believe a top half finish was achievable, even more so given their final three fixtures all came against teams below them.

But with no wins in their last eight and only four goals scored, the Cobblers have not exactly gone out with a bang, and their meek end to a largely underwhelming season has only reinforced how much work Edinburgh has to do this summer.

That said, one area of encouragement and one major positive from the final few weeks has been the emergence and performances of young Shaun McWilliams, who produced his most impressive display to date against Gillingham.

Willing to put a shift in, make tackles and get about the pitch whilst also showing an eye for a pass and composure on the ball, McWilliams may have just won himself a place in Edinburgh’s first-team plans next season, if he hadn’t already.

It was so refreshing to see a midfielder play with such enthusiasm and energy in midfield, scampering and scurrying across the pitch to close opposition players down and get involved in the thick of the action.

Those are qualities Northampton have sorely missed this term and with major changes on the way, it will be important to keep some continuity. McWilliams, along with the likes of John-Joe O’Toole, David Buchanan and Marc Richards, will provide that.

The teenager also provides youthful exuberance and given that Town’s squad is the oldest in the division, youthfulness is not something they have in abundance.

Willing to put a shift in, make tackles and get about the pitch whilst also showing an eye for a pass and composure on the ball, McWilliams may have just won himself a place in Edinburgh’s first-team plans next season.

Most would argue the only position that does does not need strengthening this summer is at full-back where Buchanan and Moloney have established themselves as more than capable enough at this level.

But of all positions that require upgrading, midfield is a particular area of importance, especially in the wide areas where the Cobblers have lacked pace, creativity and a genuine threat all season, which has perhaps played a role in Edinburgh sticking with a narrow diamond formation in midfield.

The long ball tactic has rarely bore fruit because Alex Revell and Marc Richards are too similar and have little pace to trouble opposition defences who play high lines and are easily able to mop up the danger.

Pace is a highly sought-after attribute but one the Cobblers will be keen on this summer, as well as some guile and creativity and a player or two that has that handy knack of changing a game in an instant by producing a moment of magic, a la Ricky Holmes.

Sunday’s drab stalemate illustrated all of Northampton’s problems, although they did defend manfully and David Cornell made the most of a rare opportunity in goal by keeping a clean sheet, just Northampton’s ninth of the campaign.

He brilliantly saved Josh Wright’s penalty and also denied Jake Hessenthaler with another fine stop but otherwise he was rarely called into action as his centre-back pairing kept Gillingham at bay.

Zander Diamond produced the type of steady performance we’ve become so accustomed to during his time at Sixfields and if he does leave this summer, as expected, he will take some replacing.

Lewin Nyatanga’s loan spell is also over but his display against Gillingham may prompt Edinburgh to seek a permanent move because he was in the right place at the right time to snuff out dangerous attacks at crucial moments.

Matty Taylor is a conundrum. His left-foot has contributed to 22 goals this season but when his set-pieces are below-par, one wonders if the team would be better off with a more mobile, energetic midfielder to either replace or complement him at the base of midfield.

A fit and firing O’Toole will be back next season but he is one of few players whose Sixfields future is secure as Edinburgh sets about reshaping and remodelling his squad to suit his requirements.

Sunday was an opportunity to at least end on a high and offer reason for optimism ahead of next season, instead the result and performance instead left many deflated and looking forward to a summer of change.

The season, by and large, has flattered to deceive. It promised so much but delivered little. Now, for Edinburgh, the real work begins.

How they rated...

David Cornell - Seized his opportunity to impress Edinburgh. Brilliant save to deny Wright from the spot and was again at full stretch to tip Hessenthaler’s shot wide. Did the basics well too on an excellent afternoon as he kept his first clean sheet for the Cobblers... 8

Brendan Moloney - Lovely floated cross teed up Richards for Town’s best chance of the game. Wasn’t the only teasing cross he delivered on the day as his driving runs forward provided the home side’s only real attacking outlet... 7

Zander Diamond - Potentially his last game for the club and produced the type of solid, dependable performance that we’ve become accustomed to this season. Big shoes to fill if he does indeed leave this summer... 7

Lewin Nyatanga - Crucial interception snuffed out a dangerous break in the first-half and was also on his guard on several other occasions, getting in important blocks and tackles to help keep a clean sheet... 7

David Buchanan - Returned to the side by giving away an early penalty. Seemed to win the ball but it was an unnecessary challenge, fortunately his goalkeeper helped him out... 6

Matty Taylor - Cautioned for an ultra cynical foul but one he was forced into due to the amount of ground he had to cover in midfield. His set-pieces were the most likely source of a goal... 6

Hiram Boateng - Not one of his finest afternoons. Touch was loose throughout and didn’t ever impose himself on the game. Confidence looks low as he heads back to his parent club... 5

Shaun McWilliams - Hasn’t looked out of place in any of his five appearances, this being his best and most impressive yet. Was not only tidy in possession but did the dirty stuff well, winning tackles and making blocks all over the pitch... 8 CHRON STAR MAN

Paul Anderson - Tends to drift in and out of games, as he did here. Produced some good flashes and moments of promise but spent too long on the fringes and not involved in the thick of the action... 6

Alex Revell - Ran the channels and provided a physical presence up front but visibly grew frustrated by the lack of quality service up to him... 6

Marc Richards - Wasn’t able to celebrate his new contract with a goal nor a victory as he squandered his side’s only real chance when heading wide from six yards... 6

Substitutes

Keshi Anderson - 6