Fixture: Fleetwood Town v Northampton Town, Sky Bet League One
Date/time: Saturday, March 24, 3pm kick-off
Venue: Highbury Stadium
Forecast: 8C, sunny spells
Outs and doubts: Fleetwood: Kevin O’Connor (ankle). Cobblers: John-Joe O’Toole (suspended – 1/3), Matt Crooks (suspended – 3/3, Regan Poole (international duty), Aaron Phillips (calf), Aaron Pierre (calf)
Betting: Fleetwood 21/20, draw 23/10, Northampton 5/2
Form guide: Cod Army WDDDLL, Cobblers DLDDDL
Possible line-ups: Fleetwood (4-2-3-1): Cairns; Coyle, Eastham, Bolger, Sowerby; Pond, Diagouraga; McAleny, Dempsey, Hunter; Madden. Northampton (3-4-3): O’Donnell; Moloney, Taylor, Turnbull; Facey, McWilliams, Grimes, Bunney; Ariyibi, Mathis, Luckassen.
Man in the middle: Robert Lewis
Last time out: Rochdale 0 Fleetwood 2 (Madden, Hiwula-Mayifuila); Northampton 1 (Facey) Shrewsbury 1 (Nolan)
Most recent meeting: Saturday, August 12, 2017 – Northampton Town 0 Fleetwood Town 1 (Cole)
Record v Fleetwood: P8 W3 D1 L4
Opposition view: “They had a good result during the week and played a different formation,” Fleetwood boss John Sheridan told the club website this week. “They’ve got one or two injuries and John-Joe O’Toole is suspended, but we know they are a team that’s fighting for their lives.
“They’re not going to come and lie down and they know the importance of this. They’ll see it as a chance to pick three points up as well, so we’ve got to make life difficult for them. We’ll work on what they do but I want to look at us. I want to focus on how we can affect the game and go and win it.”
This game does not fall into the season-defining category just yet because, win or lose, there will still be seven matches and 21 points up for grabs, but it will surely go a long way to deciding Northampton’s fate this season.
Cobblers connection: Striker Chris Long will head back to Lancashire and Fleetwood on Saturday 18 months on from a mixed loan spell at the club. Signed on a short-term deal from Burnley, the 23-year-old began the season in fine fettle when netting three times in his first five games, but there was little to get excited about after that as Long found the target just once more in the next 18 outings. That goal came in an eventful fixture at Port Vale where he opened the scoring and then got sent off for an off-the-ball incident as Fleetwood were beaten by two late goals. With nine goals to his name for the Cobblers in the current campaign, he’ll be desperate to hit double figures on his old stomping ground this weekend.
James Heneghan’s preview: There is little point hyping up the significance of this weekend’s game between Fleetwood and the Cobblers because the bare facts do that all by themselves.
The two teams are separated by just three places and two points at the bottom of the Sky Bet League One table, but what makes Saturday’s encounter particularly important from Town’s viewpoint is the games played column.
To varying degrees, teams all around them, above and below and including Fleetwood, have payed fewer matches. Saturday’s opponents have played one less, as have MK Dons, AFC Wimbledon and Walsall while Oldham, stationed directly above Northampton, and Rochdale, a couple of places below, have two and three games in hand respectively.
So though the Cobblers can probably afford to draw this weekend, they most certainly cannot afford to lose. If they do, it might be curtains because top 10 duo Charlton and Peterborough are next up over the Easter weekend and by the time they get to the final five games, all of which are winnable, they might have left themselves too much to do.
For Fleetwood, their fortunes have looked up ever since the appointment of John Sheridan, who has steadied the ship following a eight-game losing run that marked the end of Uwe Rosler’s tenure and which also sent them tumbling from the top 10 and play-off contenders to one place above the relegation zone.
Under Sheridan, seen as something of a relegation firefighter having rescued Oldham Athletic from an even worse predicament this time last season, the Cod Army are unbeaten in four games. They drew with MK Dons, Plymouth and Charlton and go into Saturday on the back of their first win since January 13, coming at the expense of fellow relegation battlers Rochdale in midweek.
One thing Sheridan hasn’t been able to do just yet, however, is sort out his side’s woeful home form. Fleetwood have the worst home record of any team in League One, managing just 18 points from 19 games and not winning at the Highbury Stadium at all since late October when they beat Oxford United 2-0, although Tuesday’s win over Dale will give them a lift ahead of tomorrow.
That game at Spotland was also significant because Sheridan, like counterpart Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on the very same evening, opted to revert to the wing-back system, though judging by his post-match comments, it won’t be a long-term option.
“I changed the shape a little bit,” he told the Blackpool Gazette. “ Nathan Pond came in and looked solid, and young Ashley (Hunter) played at wing-back. They both did the job for the team. I wanted to match Rochdale up and go three at the back. It was purely for that game.”
But while Sheridan is set to abandon 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3 depending on your preference), Hasselbaink should not. The decision to play the system was a gamble and it could easily have backfired against in-form Shrewsbury, but the Cobblers boss was justified by a much-improved performance and valuable 1-1 draw.
Wing-backs Shay Facey and Joe Bunney impressed with their energy and athleticism down both flanks, Matt Grimes seemed to benefit from having an extra body in midfield and the back three looked a lot more solid than they had done three days previously against Rotherham.
The long-term concern of creating chances and scoring goals still remains, as it has done all season long, but with two out-and-out strikers up front, Northampton can at least get up the pitch and not give opposing defenders such an easy ride.
The big downside to Tuesday’s draw was the loss of talisman John-Joe O’Toole. He will be a big miss for the next three matches but Matt Crooks is back after this weekend and Shaun McWilliams, O’Toole’s likely replacement, has shown he is more than capable of doing a job in midfield.
There could also be a change up front. With Kevin van Veen still working his way back to match sharpness and doubts over Chris Long’s fitness, Dutchman Kevin Luckassen might well be back in from the start to partner Frenchman Boris Mathis, another who impressed on Tuesday.
This game does not fall into the season-defining category just yet because, win or lose, there will still be seven matches and 21 points up for grabs. But in such a tight relegation battle and with other teams at the bottom finding form, it will surely go a long way to deciding Northampton’s fate.
Prediction: Fleetwood Town 1 Northampton Town 1