The Cobblers have played better and lost this season but, at a time when wins and points are the only commodities that matter, the manner of their victory over Bury at a sun-soaked Gigg Lane on Saturday was not important.
That’s just as well too because Northampton did not always convince in beating the rock-bottom, now-relegated Shakers – the first EFL team to officially go down this season – but the mere fact that they won, and did so in such dramatic fashion courtesy of Ash Taylor’s late intervention, will lift confidence and instil believe, qualities which have been in short supply in recent weeks.
Though the great escape remains a tall order and a long way off, at least now there is something to cling to and the battling nature of this performance should reassure fans that their team will not go down without a fight.
The commitment of the Cobblers has come in for questioning over the past month or so but there was no doubting it at Gigg Lane. While the quality wasn’t always the best, Town’s determination and desperation to win shone through and that was no better demonstrated by their response to Bury’s second equaliser.
Aware a draw was not enough, they drove forward and grabbed the winner. It was the perfect way to confirm what Dean Austin has been saying ever since he took charge; that this team are desperate to do everything possible to stay up.
Workmanlike in the extreme, Northampton’s first win for over two months was unlikely to be one that claimed any glamour prizes and so it proved. Equally, a game between two teams who have combined for one point from each of their previous six outings was unlikely to be one for the purist. By full-time, however, Town did not care and nor should they.
The 437 Cobblers fans would have set out on on the long trek north with an air of trepidation given their team’s form but it didn’t take long for anyone expecting a dull goalless affair to be pleasantly surprised.
Northampton started on the front foot and by the time Taylor glanced in a sixth-minute header, they had done enough to deserve their lead. Shaun McWilliams provided the drive from midfield, Matt Grimes injected a little class and Taylor was well-placed to get the faintest of touches, Harry Kane style, to find the bottom corner.
But the visitors did not build on that dream start. Instead, they did the opposite and gifted Peter Clarke a easy chance to wipe out the deficit within five minutes and he gratefully accepted after Richard O’Donnell flapped at a corner.
Naturally, a shaky period followed and Town did well to weather the storm prior to Austin’s timely intervention. When Kevin van Veen picked up an injury and had to be taken off, Chris Long was the obvious replacement.
Austin, though, chose to go with Sam Hoskins and that decision could hardly have paid dividends any quicker. Within 90 seconds, Hoskins had latched onto Grimes’ through pass and finished superbly with his first touch to restore the lead.
John-Joe O’Toole – twice – was close with headers either side of half-time before Taylor’s mistake allowed Danny Mayor to score Bury’s second gift of an equaliser, however he would redeem himself in dramatic fashion.
It was an open, entertaining game played between two teams who knew a point was not enough. Bury required victory to stave off relegation for another week and draws are no longer of any use for the Cobblers, who ultimately deserved the three points based on clear-cut chances.
The main criticism of the Northampton here – and it’s not the first time this has happened – was the way they retreated into their shells and stood off once in front. It was hardly any surprise – it’s much easier for players whose confidence is so brittle to take a step back rather than one forward – but it only invited a poor Bury side forward, affording them the respect they did not warrant.
While the quality wasn’t always the best, Town’s determination and desperation to win shone through and that was no better demonstrated by their response to Bury’s second equaliser.
By the same token, however, goalkeeper O’Donnell, bar a shaky spell following his error for Clarke’s equaliser, remained virtually untested throughout the 90 minutes, called into action just once on top of Bury’s two goals.
The main star of the show from a Cobblers perspective was midfielder Matt Grimes. He has not always been everyone’s cup of tea during his time on loan at Sixfields but Saturday was an example of his class and offered a hint of why Swansea felt compelled to splash out almost £2million to secure his services from Exeter City in 2015.
When Grimes plays well, Town invariably follow suit. Due to the team’s general lack of creativity, the burden rests heavily on the 22-year-old and when at his best, Northampton reap the rewards. He did so on Saturday, creating Taylor’s opener and knitting everything together from midfield, none more so than when his driving run and perfectly-weighted through pass sent Hoskins racing in for the second.
And there’s no doubt that Grimes benefits from having a partner like McWilliams, whose tough-tackling and hard graft should not go unnoticed even if his exuberance sometimes gets the better of him.
Elsewhere, Hoskins showed why he would prefer to play centrally, providing a clinical finish to Grimes’ pass, while Daniel Powell came to life at the crucial moment after a quiet game, keeping his cool to float in a cross that Taylor turned home.
That was just the tonic everyone required after a trying couple of months. It remains a long way back for the Cobblers but they have given themselves a glimmer of hope.
For now, fans can dream and that’s not something they’ve done enough of this season.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - An uncharacteristically shaky start, flapping at the corner which allowed Clarke to equalise, but redeemed himself by producing a fine stop from Miller a few minutes later, which proved to be his last and only save of the game... 6
Shay Facey - Overcame a jittery start to impress again. Despite concerns over his ankle injury, he injected some impetus into Town’s play with his athleticism and forward drive from full-back... 7
Ash Taylor - Talk about an up-and-down afternoon. Began it by breaking the deadlock six minutes in and ended it by being in the right place at the right time – what was he doing so far up the pitch?! – to hand Town a dramatic late victory, which atoned for his earlier mistake that led to Mayor’s leveller... 8
Leon Barnett - Threw himself in front of shots to protect Town’s precious advantage at various points as he coasted through a pretty comfortable 90 minutes with Bury toothless in attack... 7
David Buchanan - Another to put his body on the line when needed but, again, it was far from his busiest afternoon as he and his team-mates kept the Shakers largely in check bar two individual errors... 7
Matt Grimes - Not always been a favourite among fans this season but he was outstanding at Gigg Lane. Ran the show from midfield as everything went though him, optimised by his fine work for Hoskins’ goal – his second assist of the day – when he led the charge from one box to the other... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Shaun McWIlliams - An industrious, tough-tackling terrier in midfield who was the perfect foil which allowed Grimes to shine alongside him. The first goal can be traced all the way back to his tenacity and subsequent marauding run upfield. Positioning is suspect at times but his desire and commitment is never in doubt... 7
Daniel Powell - Had a quiet game but stood up when it counted most, tricking his way to the byline and standing up the perfect cross for Taylor to win it. Precisely the type of wing play that has been missing for much of the campaign... 7
Jack Bridge - Bright in patches and occasionally had the beating of his full-back but drifted in and out of the game, unable to create much from the right-wing on his full Cobblers debut... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - So unlucky not to twice extend Town’s advantage either side of the break – crashing a header against the post and also nodding wide – as he played up front again. Can get frustrated but he’s such an asset, even when not at his best... 7
Kevin van Veen - Just can’t get his Cobblers career going, this time hindered by injury when a dead leg forced him off less than half-an-hour in... 6
Sam Hoskins - Replaced van Veen and made an instant impact. Wants to play centrally and his goal here, when he left Bury’s defence for dead and finished calmly, will not do his cause any harm... 7
Matt Crooks - Almost beat Taylor to the winning goal, rebuffed by home stopper Murphy moments before... 6
Chris Long - 6