ANALYSIS: James Heneghan on where it all went wrong for Rob Page
For outsiders looking in, the decision to sack Rob Page as Northampton manager may look a harsh one.
Though not a resounding success, he has led the Cobblers to 16th place after 26 games in Sky Bet League One, eight points clear of relegation, following promotion last season.
But to anyone who has watched or followed the team this season, particularly over the past few weeks, it will come as no surprise.
A run of nine defeats in 11 games, including December’s humiliating FA Cup upset to Stourbridge, ultimately sealed Page’s fate and left Kelvin Thomas with no other decision.
He had lost the fans, the players were bereft of confidence and relegation loomed closer by the week.
It was just a matter of time.
But where did it all go wrong? Let’s take a closer look at what led to Page’s undoing at Northampton Town.
Style of play
As often is the case in these situations, there are several factors at play.
But unquestionably the biggest contributor which led to Page’s downfall was his style of play.
After Chris Wilder’s front-foot, attacking approach last season, Northampton needed a manager which would follow in similar footsteps and play the same kind of way.
But with Page, this was not the case - despite the fact he was described as ‘an excellent man manager who looks to play attacking, possession based football’ when first appointed.
Instead, his style was more cautious and passive, often happy to set his team up deep, allow the opposition to dominate possession and look to strike on the counter-attack or through Matty Taylor’s set-pieces.
You can get away with that if you win on a consistent basis, which he did for a while, but when the results start to turn, so do the fans - and quickly.
With no league win at home since October, it was at Sixfields in particular where Page’s players struggled to impose themselves.
Visiting teams were often allowed to dictate and dominate games, with the Cobblers defending deep and in numbers and unable to get up the pitch.
It was, at times, excruciating to watch, not to mention dull.
For all Page’s faults, that was his biggest.
Again this is where Wilder gets a mention.
One of his most valuable attributes whilst in charge at Sixfields was his ability to connect with fans through his own passion and determination in pre and post-match interviews.
Page struggled to endear himself in the same fashion, and his repeated tendency to blame players for defeats and poor performances whilst not taking responsibility himself didn’t sit well either.
It was often a case of ‘bad decision-making on the pitch’ or players being ‘too honest’ which were his reasoning behind many negative results.
As well alienating fans, comments like those clearly drained his players of confidence and belief, and that was reflected in Page’s last game in charge on Saturday when they were hammered by Bristol Rovers.
He had seemingly lost the trust and backing of his players, and once that goes, there is no coming back.
Following the roaring success last season, Page opted for the novel approach of dismantling a title-winning team and shaking things up, although admittedly many of the players who left were out of his control.
Out went Ricky Holmes and Nicky Adams, while Danny Rose, James Collins and John Marquis signed elsewhere.
In came a whole host of new faces and although some have worked - Gabriel Zakuani without question has been the biggest hit - most have failed, including the likes of Emmanuel Sonupe and Raheem Hanley, both of whom have hardly played a minute.
On top of that, you also have the questionable treatment of Lawson D’Ath, Rod McDonald and Joel Byrom.
Whilst those three might not be good enough for League One level, it was bemusing that not one was given a fair opportunity to prove themselves, especially considering all three were prominent during last season’s success.
Again this caused frustration among Cobblers fans who were not happy to see three well-liked and popular players discarded so quickly.
Page never seemed to settle on a preferred formation or system, often mixing it up for no apparent reason.
Sometimes it would be 4-3-3, then 4-4-2 before 4-5-1 and even 3-5-2.
And regardless of the formation, he always had the same issue: a non-existent midfield.
Whoever he played and whatever combination he tried, whether it was Matty Taylor, Jak McCourt or John-Joe O’Toole, struggled to stamp their authority on games, either dropping too deep or pushing too high up, resulting in a huge hole between defence and attack which opposition teams gleefully exploited.
The home defeat to Bradford was a watershed moment for many.
Leading 1-0 at half-time, the team spent the entire second-half defending, with the midfield four dropping back to form an eight-man defence at times, creating a vast chasm between the lone front man and everyone else.
Inevitably, Bradford utterly dominated possession and it was no surprise when they scored two late goals to come away with a deserved victory.
As well as his cautious style of play, Page also struggled to influence games from the sidelines, especially in the second-half of matches.
There were many instances where the Cobblers led at half-time before going onto lose. Indeed, if every League One game had finished at half-time this season, Northampton would currently be sitting fourth.
But their failure to turn leads into victories was a major reason behind their slide down the table, and that is something which Page must take responsibility for.
The same could be said of his in-game management when Northampton were behind. Of the 13 times Town have trailed at some point during games this season, not once have they gone on to win, losing 12 and drawing one.
When things were going against his side, Page seemed unable to change the flow and momentum of matches through his tactical and personnel decisions, often leaving it too late. The consequence of that was the numerous late goals which his team conceded in games, leading to costly defeat after costly defeat.
Ultimately, everything in football and indeed sport hinges on results.
Since climbing to as high as fifth in a promising start, Northampton’s season has unravelled in spectacular fashion.
It can all be traced back to the last-minute defeat to Gillingham in mid-November.
Since then, the Cobblers have played 10 and lost eight.
Wins over Oxford and Port Vale briefly lifted spirits but any hope of their form returning quickly evaporated and it was defeat to Stourbridge in the FA Cup coupled with the performances against Bradford and Bristol Rovers which, in the end, did for Page.
The fact it has ended like this is a shame because Page is a good man who was only doing what he thought was right for the good of Northampton Town.
But, having taken the Cobblers from play-off hopefuls to relegation candidates, Kelvin Thomas was left with no option.
It’s now up to whoever takes over to pick up the pieces, rebuild confidence and get the Cobblers back on track