Cobblers unable to bridge the gulf in class as Manchester United flex their muscles
It was the 54th minute of Wednesday night's EFL Cup tie between the Cobblers and Manchester United, and the home supporters burst into song '˜we've got O'Toole, John-Joe O'Toole'...
Yep, the match was evenly poised at 1-1, and Town’s player of the year and talisman was coming on to the pitch to try and help his tiring team over the line for what would have been one of the biggest results in the club’s history.
United manager Jose Mourinho decided to make some changes at the same time - and he brought on former FIFA world player of the year nominee Zlatan Ibrahimovic and England’s great future hope, Marcus Rashford.
And there, in a nutshell, you have the two different stratospheres these great old clubs move in.
Ibrahimovic, formerly of Barcelona, Internazionale and Paris St Germain to name just three of his ex-clubs, went on to join England captain Wayne Rooney in attack - a pair whose weekly wages combined add up to more than a third of the Cobblers’ playing budget for the entire season.
At that point, all bar two of United’s 11 players were full internationals, with the odd ones out being right-back Timothy Fosu-Mensah and midfielder Ander Herrera, who has represented his country at the Olympics.
So should anybody be surprised that it was the visitors who went on to complete a 3-1 victory and book their place in the fourth round, where they will meet old foes Manchester City?
No, of course not.
The United team was arguably the strongest to ever take to the pristine Sixfields surface.
It was definitely the most expensively assembled.
The young football fans inside Sixfields, and some older ones too, will treasure the day they saw the likes of Rooney, Ibrahimovic and Rashford close up, and in the flesh, at little old Northampton.
It was a night to remember for the bulk of the record crowd in attendance, and the result was the right one, but for many there was still the nagging feeling the Cobblers didn’t quite do themselves justice.
Having seen how good Town have been, and how good they were in the previous round against a strong Premier League side in West Bromwich Albion, they perhaps didn’t quite produce what they are capable of on the night.
But I certainly don’t go along with the opinion that United ‘were there for the taking’.
No, they weren’t overly impressive and on the night they probably produced a performance less than the sum of their parts, but they were still powerful, classy and pacy, and there were a few more gears for them to click into if required.
Michael Carrick purred his way through the game, Marcus Rojo was dynamic, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind dominant, Memphis Depay a livewire and Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin impressive.
The Cobblers players’ effort can’t be faulted, their desire and work-rate was spot on, and they certainly gave a star-studded United side more of a run for their money this time around than when the teams last met in 2004.
Alex Revell scored a goal from the penalty spot that he will remember for the rest of his life (I can imagine him now, talking to his grandchildren, asking them if he’d ever mentioned ‘the day I scored against Manchester United’), and from the 40th-minute through the 75th, when Rashford made it 3-1, it was a decent cup tie, with the Cobblers well in the hunt.
But that little spell was book-ended by periods of total dominance by United.
The last 15 minutes were totally understandable, as the Cobblers players had run themselves into the ground, but the opening third of the game was disappointing as it resembled an attack versus defence training exercise.
That said, it is a difficult balancing act when lower league sides take on the big boys - especially when the big boys are some of the biggest of the lot.
If the Cobblers had tried to attack United then they could easily have been picked off and been out of the game within 20 minutes, the visitors possessed that much quality, but perhaps Town were a little too respectful, and too stand-offish in those opening exchanges.
There was maybe a bit of a fear factor there, and the slow start could also have been down to nerves, as after all, the world was watching as is always the case when Manchester United play a game of football.
It could also just be down to the fact United, with Carrick pulling the strings, were so good the Cobblers players simply couldn’t get hold of the ball.
The visitors dominated possession, and on the odd occasions the Cobblers did get hold of the ball, they gave it straight back, with attacking options and outlets very limited.
The home crowd were willing their team to show a bit of attacking intent, and when they did in the closing stages of that first half, United’s defesive frailties were very quickly exposed.
Kenji Gorre hit the bar with a left-foot strike, and then Sam Hoskins was fouled by Blind for the penalty.
Revell slotted home and in the blink of an eye the Cobblers were level, and now they, and the supporters, had belief.
Town were more positive at the start of the second half, more aggressive, and got stuck into the United players more.
The fact that Mourinho was getting agitated in the technical area and remonstrating with the fourth official proved he was worried about whe he was seeing.
But the gulf between the teams was highlighted by those 54th-minute substitutions, and Mourinho then threw on Belgium international Marouane Fellaini for good measure.
In the end, the fact is the United class told, and if there are any regrets in the Cobblers camp, in all honesty there should’t be too many.
As the dust settles, there may a feeling of what might have been, especially as basic errors from goalkeeper Adam Smith led to the first and third goals, but the Town players can hold their heads high and be proud of their efforts.
Not only in Wednesday night’s game, but also in the fact they beat Championship side Barnsley and Premier League Baggies to reach the third round.
But the EFL Cup is gone now, the Manchester United circus has left town, and the cup run and Wednesday night’s game are consigned to the history books.
And for Rob Page and his team, they once again focus their attention on their league campaign.
On Saturday they face what is an even more important game for the club, and again it is all about United - Southend United.