James Heneghan’s Walsall v Northampton Town preview

Tempers flared when Walsall came to Sixfields back in December as Amadou Bakayoko and Matt Crooks both saw red in stoppagr-time of Town's 2-1 victory
Tempers flared when Walsall came to Sixfields back in December as Amadou Bakayoko and Matt Crooks both saw red in stoppagr-time of Town's 2-1 victory

Fixture: Walsall v Northampton Town, Sky Bet League One

Date/kick-off time: Saturday, April 28, 3pm kick-off

Venue: Bescot Stadium

Weather forecast: 11C, showers

Outs and doubts: Walsall: Joe Edwards (knee). Cobblers: Aaron Phillips (thigh)

Betting: Walsall 6/5, draw 23/10, Northampton 23/10

Form guide: Saddlers LLDWLL, Cobblers WWLLLL

Possible line-ups: Walsall (4-4-2): Roberts; Kinsella, Fitzwater, Guthrie, Leahy; Devlin, Chambers, Dobson, Morris; Bakayoko, Oztumer. Northampton (4-4-1-1): O’Donnell; Facey, Taylor, Barnett, Buchanan; Powell, McWilliams, Grimes, Crooks; O’Toole; Hoskins.

Man in the middle: Seb Stockbridge

Last time out: Scunthorpe 1 (Yates) Walsall 0; Northampton 2 (O’Toole, Bradley OG) Plymouth 0

Chris Long scored both goals in Northampton's 2-1 win over Walsall earlier this season

Chris Long scored both goals in Northampton's 2-1 win over Walsall earlier this season

Most recent meeting: Saturday, December 16, 2017 – Northampton Town 2 (Long 2) Walsall 1 (Oztumer)

Record v Walsall: P79 W32 D15 L32

Opposition view: Saddlers boss Dean Keates is not playing down the importance of Saturday’s clash with the Cobblers, saying: “We have got a massive game against Northampton. It’s probably the biggest game for a couple of years for the football club. All being well we’ll get the points we want.

“The comfort we take is the fact it’s in our hands. We need to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and impose ourselves on it. If we do we will get the points.”

The Cobblers have looked doomed at various stages over the past month or so and yet here we are, in a situation where they have genuine hope, potentially 180 minutes from salvation. It just goes to show how quickly things can change in football.

Cobblers connection: For one reason or another, goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell does not tend to stick around when he signs for a new club. In January, Northampton became his 14th different destination across a 12-year playing career, although only half of those have been on a permanent basis. Having started out at Sheffield Wednesday, the experienced 28-year-old followed a short stint at Chesterfield by joining Walsall in 2013. He spent two seasons at the Bescot Stadium where he made 105 appearances before further spells at Wigan, Bristol City and Rotherham United were followed by his move to Sixfields and now he’ll be desperate for a happy return to Walsall this weekend.

James Heneghan’s preview: So it all comes down to this. After nine months, 44 games, three managers and nearly 30 different players, the destiny of Northampton’s entire season rests solely on the outcome of these next two games.

Town’s fate is so preciously-poised that, come 5pm Saturday, they could either be out of the relegation zone and have survival in their own hands or, equally, they could also have their relegation to League Two confirmed should they lose and other results go against them.

But if they were to hand-pick the opposition for two such important, season-defining fixtures, Walsall and Oldham would be pretty near the top of the list, and it’s the Saddlers who are up first at the Bescot Stadium this weekend.

Following the sacking of Jon Whitney last month, Dean Keates left his role at Wrexham to take the hot seat at Walsall where he made over 200 appearances across two different spells as a player.

The 39-year-old is yet to have the desired impact, though, winning just one of his six games in charge - and that came at home to bottom side, already-relegated Bury.

Jon Whitney was sacked last month

Jon Whitney was sacked last month

Walsall’s decent down the table has been steady and gradual, from mid-table for most of the campaign to outside the relegation zone on goal difference only heading into their final three fixtures, although the fact they still have a game in hand – at Bradford next Tuesday – over most of their rivals gives them a little more margin for error than Saturday;s visitors.

The Cobblers have looked doomed at various stages over the past month or so and yet here we are, in a situation where they have genuine hope, potentially 180 minutes from salvation. It just goes to show how quickly things can change in football.

By the same token, however, hope is a dangerous thing and it can easily be taken away, which is what will happen if Town lose – or perhaps even draw – on Saturday. That’s how fine the margins are at this crucial stage of the season.

Northampton’s fate is not quite in their own hands but two wins from their final two games would guarantee them finishing above Oldham, meaning either Rochdale or Walsall would only have to lose one of their two remaining fixtures to ensure survival. Even then, Wimbledon could come into the equation should they fail to beat Wigan and Doncaster (though their final game is at home to Bury).

In a way, the pressure is off Town because so many had written them off after their loss at Blackpool, which left them well adrift of safety and playing catch up. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They also have confidence and momentum coming into Saturday, more so than opponents Walsall who’ve managed just two victories in 12.

Aside from the result, the win over Plymouth last time out also offered plenty of encouragement and renewed hope for these final two fixtures for another reason: a vastly-improved team performance which proved that, when they fancy it, this side are capable of beating the best.

Arguably the most pleasing aspect to come out of that game was Town’s attacking output. They created more clear-cut chances in those 90 minutes alone than in the previous 10 games combined, and as a result, the defence came under less strain and didn’t cough up as many opportunities, limiting Plymouth to just one in injury-time.

All 11 players, plus the substitutes, deserved credit for their efforts so with that in mind – and barring any late injuries – the team for this weekend pretty much picks itself. If they can reproduce a similar performance, victory and another step towards the miraculous will almost certainly be theirs.

Talking up Saturday’s penultimate fixture of the season is almost futile because all it takes is one quick glance at the league table to realise the magnitude of the outcome at the Bescot Stadium.

It’ll be tense, it’ll be nervy but the Cobblers don’t know any other way.

Prediction: Walsall 1 Northampton Town 2