Bradford City 1 Northampton Town 2 – match review, player ratings and highlights

TWO TO THE GOOD: Chris Long celebrates his seventh goal of the season. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
TWO TO THE GOOD: Chris Long celebrates his seventh goal of the season. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
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There was one question that kept coming to mind while watching this game unfold as the Cobblers picked up their most unexpected yet also most impressive three points of the season so far: where has this team been hiding for the past six months?

Away at Valley Parade, where they have not won for 11 years, the Cobblers gave us a taster of what they are capable of when everything falls into place as they deservedly overcame promotion-chasing, fifth-placed Bradford City.

This victory was not achieved through luck or fortune. It was not achieved purely because Bradford were below-par, though that they were. It was achieved because Town, finally, and for perhaps just the second time in the entire season, put all the pieces of the jigsaw together and lived up to their collective potential to earn arguably their best result since returning to League One 18 months ago.

The win was also perfectly crafted in what was a textbook away performance. Northampton first got themselves a foothold in the opening half-hour, then nudged themselves in front on the cusp of half-time before allying defence resilience with counter-attacking threat to finish the job in the second 45 minutes.

The first thing to say about this win is that it was most definitely deserved. It was not without its alarms – it was never going to be all plain-sailing – but, for 80 minutes, they kept Bradford remarkably quiet for a team supposedly among the favourites for promotion this season.

Sure, top scorer Charlie Wyke was a late absentee through illness but even so, Richard O’Donnell’s goal did not come under undue threat until the closing stages when City suddenly seemed to realise there was a game to be won and put their foot down, only it came too late to influence the final result.

The most impressive aspect of the victory was the assured, sure-footed nature of Town’s performance compared to previous away games. Bradford away is admittedly not the formidable proposition it was 12 months ago but this is still an ambitious club with eyes on promotion and yet on Saturday they barely mustered a single clear chance for 80 minutes against a team written off in some quarters and apparently doomed for relegation.

That’s how good Northampton were on Saturday. And to add to that, the two goals they scored could easily have been more. Set-pieces caused constant problems all afternoon and, in the second-half, the effective partnership between John-Joe O’Toole and Chris Long almost came to fruition on numerous occasions as City’s defenders struggled to keep them in check.

The thing is, we should not be surprised by this sort of performance. The Cobblers have good players, a competitive squad for this level and a manager with an impressive track record in League One, but the fact it does go down as a shock because it is so out of keeping with their season. There was absolutely nothing in their recent form, having lost five straight away games, that indicated they were capable of taking the scalp of a team like Bradford in this manner.

It was clear from the outset that Town were not going to roll over at Valley Parade. They did not just hold their own in the first-half, they bossed the opening half-hour and had City on the ropes, as the agitated home crowd would testify.

A stale first 45 minutes spluttered into life in the final moments as Bradford at last threatened, O’Donnell acrobatically tipping over Romain Vincelot’s volley and Nathaniel Knight-Percival’s goal ruled out for offside after Paul Taylor’s fizzing free-kick was spilled by Town’s debutant goalkeeper.

Still, though, Northampton were not under the pump. They never were. At the other end, Ash Taylor was left unmarked to side-foot over from a corner and Sam Hoskins stung the palms of Lukas Raeder before O’Toole, also unmarked, nodded in Matt Grimes’ corner to put Town ahead at half-time.

The first goal was always going to be important and Bradford inevitably enjoyed more possession after the break, however it was Northampton, and Long, who crucially struck the next blow. O’Toole made himself a nuisance and provided the assist before Long clinically fired beyond Raeder for his seventh of the season, some achievement in its own right in given the lack of chances that often come his way.

From then on, Bradford gradually turned up the heat but it was not until the final 15 minutes when they really threatened. Taylor was in the right place to prevent a certain goal from Knight-Percival before Northampton somehow survived the mother of all goalmouth scrambles, O’Donnell making a tremendous double save and Regan Poole clearing off the line.

This victory was not achieved through luck or fortune. It was not achieved purely because Bradford were below-par, though that they were. It was achieved because Town, finally, and for perhaps just the second time in the entire season, put all the pieces of the jigsaw together and lived up to their collective potential to earn arguably their best result since returning to League One 18 months ago.

There was, as there always seems to be, an anxious finish in store once Paul Taylor’s quick-thinking and fine strike caught out O’Donnell at his near post but another sensational defensive intervention from Taylor at the death preserved all three points before the full-time whistle brought cheers from the 400 jubilant away fans who had out-sung their City counterparts throughout. Finally, they had something to cheer.

Individually, there were excellent performances all across the pitch. The one thing they all had in common was hard work. The back four stood firm. Taylor was immense, Poole was error-free, Facey backed up last week’s impressive debut and fellow new signing Jordan Tunrbull was solid and steady in his first outing.

Goalkeeper O’Donnell, also on debut, was commanding and communicated vocally with his defenders while also showing off his shot-stopping ability. Further up field, Matt Grimes and Matt Crooked work tirelessly in midfield to keep City in check and the two wide men tracked back to help their full-backs while always trying to get forward and support attacks. O’Toole continues to be effective in the number 10 role behind the hard-working Long who was again full of running and endeavour and scored the crucial second goal.

There have been a few too many bumps in the road for his liking but Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink deserves great credit given what might have happened over these past couple of months. His first challenge, upon realising the extent of the limitations of the squad at his disposal, was to ensure they were in touch with teams above them heading into January. He managed that.

His second challenge was to bring in sufficient quality in the right areas to complement and improve the players he already had to work with. Going by the performances of four of the five that have so far come in, so far so good.

The next challenge, and without question the most important, is to keep the Cobblers up. Saturday’s win at Bradford and last weekend’s second-half against Southend United suggest a Hasselbaink team, once he has all the components in place, will be more than good enough to fend off the threat of relegation.

But it would be foolish to get too carried away given the pattern of this season. Trying to make sense of it is like trying to solve a riddle which is wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. There have been high points – and this win at Valley Parade tops the lot – but there have also been so many low points and bad defeats, and yet here we are, with the Cobblers just one place and one point from safety.

The good news does not stop there, either. The fixture list offers further reason to be upbeat about Northampton’s prospects. They have now played three – Portsmouth, Wigan and Bradford – of the top six home and away with Blackburn Rovers soon to be added to that list. Once that game at Ewood Park is out of the way, their remaining fixtures are relatively kind and offer more than enough opportunities to get the wins and points they need to pull away.

One thing is for certain: if Town reproduce the quality and commitment levels produced at Valley Parade on Saturday for the rest of the season, relegation fears will soon be a thing of the past.

How they rated...

Richard O’Donnell - Wasn’t without the odd blip on debut – Taylor’s free-kicks in particular caused him problems – but he was loud and commanding between the sticks and showcased a fine shot-stopping ability by making three fabulous saves in all, one of which came just prior to O’Toole’s opener... 8

Shay Facey - Continued his impressive start to life as a Cobbler with another assured 90 minutes, rarely allowing City play to their strength and get into crossing positions. Tidy on the ball... 8

Regan Poole - Confidence is growing by the week and this was another mature performance by the teenager who built on last week’s terrific outing against Southend by barely putting a foot wrong at Valley Parade. His highlight of the day was a fantastic goal-line clearance during City’s late burst... 8

Ash Taylor - Skipper for the day, he led by example and was an absolute colossus at the back, making at least three goal-saving interventions in the second-half. Sensational tackle deep in added time typified his and the team’s efforts and preserved all three points... 9 CHRON STAR MAN

Jordan Turnbull - Early signs are he is a reliable and solid defender. Debut for the club came at left-back, surprisingly so, but coped well in an unnatural position and provided some extra physicality. Distribution was also decent. Promising signs... 8

Matt Grimes - His set-pieces were about as deadly as they’ve been all season, partly due to Bradford’s non-existent marking at times, none more so than when O’Toole was left all alone to score. Worked his socks off in midfield to nullify the hosts and then get Town back on the front foot... 8

Matt Crooks - Loose in possession on the odd occasion when he was caught on the ball, and gave away some needless fouls, but could not question his attitude or desire here. Looked fit, hungry and up for the battle... 7

Sam Foley - Full of endeavour, energy and running on the left flank. It’s clearly not his best position but that doesn’t stop him getting stuck in. Got back to protect and support Turnbull while all the time trying to surge forward and provide an outlet in attack... 8

Sam Hoskins - Took one for the team when his rugby tackle prevented a counter-attack and that rather summed up his afternoon; hard-working and did his defensive duties but lacked a spark. Did test Raeder with a low effort... 7

John-Joe O’Toole - His return to the goals couldn’t have come at a better time for his team, now has two in two after Bradford took the novel approach of leaving him unmarked from a corner and he duly nodded in. Was influential in a more advanced role, effectively linking with Long and proving a nuisance for City’s back four throughout. The boos that greeted his withdrawal suggested he had done his job... 9

Chris Long - Played a difficult role brilliantly. A handful for City’s back four, always on the move and getting in-between defenders to find space. Took his goal well and could easily have one or two more. Now seven for this season and there’s more in him... 8

Substitutes

Daniel Powell - 6

Alex Revell - 6

Hildeberto Pereira - 6