Cobblers boss Rob Page said his decision to recall Adam Smith to the Northampton goal for their clash at Oxford United on Boxing Day was based on gut instinct and didn’t reflect badly on David Cornell.
After being forced to watch their last five games from the bench, Smith was restored to the Cobblers starting XI by Page for Monday’s encounter and he repaid his manager’s faith by delivering a faultless performance.
He couldn’t have expected to enjoy such a quiet game, making just the one save of note, but his improved decision-making and willingness to come for crosses caught the eye and helped his side keep a first league clean sheet in three months.
His performance didn’t go unnoticed by Page, who explained afterwards why he felt Monday was the right time to bring Smith back in at the expense of Cornell.
He said: “One of the questions I’ve asked of Smudge is his work ethic in training and wanting to better himself.
“He had a terrific season last year but you can’t live off that and you’ve got to want to improve and be better.
“And he’s shown that, as has David.
“It’s harsh on David who’s gone in and given a good account of himself and just as he was getting his momentum, I take him back out off the team.
“But it’s no reflection on last week (against Rochdale) because the third goal is an embarrassing decision with it being a foul on him, so the decision to take him out wasn’t made because of that third goal.
“I just felt that, in my gut, it was the right time to bring Smudge back in and I thought he did well.”
Smith’s workload was kept to a minimum on Saturday due to a combination of Oxford’s lack of creativity and Northampton’s stout defending.
Nevertheless, Page saw signs that his first choice shot-stopper was getting back to his best again.
He added: “I think there was one cross which came into the box in a dangerous area and it was fantastic to see him come and command his area and collect it.
“It’s important for him to build on that. I’ve been critical of his decision-making at times but I thought he was outstanding on Monday and I’m pleased for him.
“He’s been out of the team but has come back in and first game he’s been excellent for us.
“Same for Alfie Potter. Sam Hoskins went down injured (on Sunday) and we had to put Alfie in and I thought he gave a terrific account of himself.
“He’s a great lad and never once has he complained. He just works hard every day and all you ask of the players is that when they get that opportunity they go and show the manager what they can do and that’s why Alfie did.”
Marc Richards’ injury-time winner ensured it was a happy Boxing Day for the Cobblers, but it could have been different had the referee decided to send off John-Joe O’Toole who flirted with a red card all game.
The midfielder picked up a first-half booking for dissent - his 11th of the season - and could have had a second yellow for two further fouls later in the game.
The referee saw otherwise, much to Michael Appleton’s annoyance, and Page admitted he toyed with the idea of making a change.
He said: “As the game got late on I thought me made one more tackle. It wasn’t a booking but you never know with referees and I was thinking I wasn’t going to risk it so I got Jak (McCourt) stripped off and ready to come on at one stage.
“But Oxford are always a threat from set-pieces and John-Joe does give you that presence in both boxes and I was just relying on him to be disciplined in those last five or 10 minutes not to get sent off.”
One concern to come out of Monday was the news of a hamstring injury suffered by Sam Hoskins in training.
But Page played down any fears his absence will be long-term, adding: “I don’t think it’s a long one or a serious one but Monday was too soon for him so fingers crossed we’ll have him back for Sheffield United.”