THE BIG KICK-OFF: James Heneghan’s Northampton Town v Lincoln City preview

Full-back Neal Eardley will return to Sixfields this weekend after a brief spell at the Cobblers in 2017
Full-back Neal Eardley will return to Sixfields this weekend after a brief spell at the Cobblers in 2017

Fixture: Northampton Town v Lincoln City, Sky Bet League Two

Date/kick-off time: Saturday, August 4, 3pm kick-off

Venue: PTS Academy Stadium

Forecast: 25C, sunny spells

Outs and doubts: Cobblers: Shay Facey (ankle). Lincoln: Sam Habergham (quadricep)

Betting: Northampton 13/10, draw 12/5, Lincoln 2/1

Shay Facey is a doubt for Saturday

Shay Facey is a doubt for Saturday

Possible line-ups: Northampton (4-3-3): Ward; Odoffin, Taylor, Pierre, Buchanan; McWilliams, O’Toole, Crooks; Powell, Hoskins, Williams. Lincoln (3-5-2): Vickers; Wilson, Waterfall, Wharton; Eardley, Chapman, Frecklington, Toffolo, McCartan; Akinde, Green.

Man in the middle: Lee Swabey

Last time out: Northampton Town 2 (Grimes, Taylor) Oldham Athletic 2; Exeter City 3 Lincoln City 1 (Green)

Most recent meeting: January 3, 2011 – Northampton 2 (McKay, Johnson) Lincoln 1 (O’Keefe)

There are decisions to be made in goal, at centre-back and up front, but the most heated competition comes in midfield where Town must find a way of fitting McWilliams, O’Toole and Crooks into the same team because all three are too good to sit on the bench for a prolonged period.

Record v Lincoln City: P52 W15 D24 L13

Opposition view: “We’re expecting Saturday to be a tough challenge but it’s a great game for us because it will give us a clear idea of where we’re at straight away,” said Imps boss Danny Cowley this week. “We’re really pleased with the personnel we now have.

“We have a bit more quality in the group, better balance and certainly more fire power. The challenge is now to try and bring that together. It won’t be perfect by Saturday. We’ll be a work in progress throughout the season.”

Cobblers connection: Given the seemingly countless number of players who have come and gone over the past few seasons, you could be forgiven for failing to recollect Neal Eardley’s less-than-memorable 10-game spell at the Cobblers. The 29-year-old was signed on a free transfer in January 2017, the same day Rob Page was sacked, and proved himself to be an able deputy for the often-injured Brendan Moloney at right-back. But his release at the end of the season paved the way for him to join Lincoln City where he has made a name for himself. His 54 appearances and 10 assists – a good return for a right-back – earned him two Player of the Season accolades last year and he’ll be eager to pick up where he left off when he returns to Sixfields for Saturday’s opener.

James Heneghan’s preview: Intrigue and excitement often dominate the build-up to a new football season and both are in no short supply again this weekend as Cobblers host LIncoln City what should be an interesting early clash between two teams expected to challenge at the top end of League Two.

Reshaped but by no means overhauled, Town’s squad is by and large the same one which ended last season as familiar faces return and bid to atone for the errors that led to their return to the fourth tier of English football, two years on from their thrilling title success.

The disappointment, anger and frustration following that all too avoidable relegation back in May has gradually seeped away over a summer of surprisingly little change, replaced by intrigue, optimism and, above all, excitement for what lies ahead.

Junior Morais, Andy Williams, Hakeem Odoffin and Lewis Ward are the new faces at the renamed PTS Academy Stadium and at least two of those – Williams and Odoffin – look in line to make their competitive debuts. Ward too could do likewise if he is chosen ahead of David Cornell while Junior Morais may well feature off the bench despite not featuring at all during pre-season.

There is also some continuity on the manager front as Austin prepares for his first full campaign as the main man at Sixfields, continuing on from his promising stint as caretaker boss at the end of last season when Town came close to completing the great escape.

Despite very different journeys over the past couple of years, both Cobblers (12/1) and Lincoln (8/1) are among the pre-season favourites for the League Two title, making Saturday something of an intriguing gauge as to how good – or how far away – these two are.

While Town enjoyed a flawless pre-season campaign with six wins from six, City’s much tougher programme saw them beaten by Championship quartet Hull City, Norwich City, Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers, though they did defeat Derby County U23s and League One Scunthorpe United in their final two friendlies.

Lincoln’s brotherly management team of Danny and Nick Cowley won the love of a nation for their team’s remarkable FA Cup run two seasons ago - eventually beaten by Arsenal in the quarter-final - and they continued their sharp rise last term when only defeat to Exeter City in the play-off semi-final prevented a swift return to Wembley, months after beating Shrewsbury Town in the Checkatrade Trophy final.

A settled side strengthened by several smart-looking summer acquisitions, it would be a surprise if the Imps don’t challenge for promotion again this season, particularly with the likes of John Akinde, from Barnet, and Shay McCartan, on-loan from Bradford City, now in their ranks.

For the Cobblers, optimism is is in the air. Squads are so regularly decimated after a relegation but Town have done extremely well to go into tomorrow’s game with 16 players that featured last year, though there’s still another week of the transfer window to go so their resolve may be tested again.

There’s a reasonable argument to be had that Austin should have overhauled his squad given that these are the same players which ultimately got them relegated, but that is too simplistic and wouldn’t necessarily rectify the problems.

Instead, Austin has focused on continuity. Good players don’t become bad players because of one season and it remains the case that Town, with the likes of John-Joe O’Toole, Ash Taylor, Matt Crooks and young Shaun McWilliams on their books, have the quality to match most in this division.

Their midfield options are as good as any, they’re also well-stocked in defence and the attack boasts a variety of options and styles, from the pace and agility of Billy Waters and Sam Hoskins to the proven goalscoring records of Andy Williams and Kevin van Veen.

Ward was the final piece of the jigsaw added last week and while David Cornell did nothing wrong in pre-season, the Reading shot-stopper has not some to Sixfields to sit on the bench.

Austin has close to a fully-fit squad to pick from for Saturday’s opener. Shay Facey and Junior Morais are the only doubts but both appear likely to at least make the bench, which gives the Town boss several selections headaches right across the park.

There are decisions to be made in goal, at centre-back and up front, but the most heated competition comes in midfield where Town must find a way of fitting McWilliams, O’Toole and Crooks into the same team because all three are too good to sit on the bench for a prolonged period.

Those are good problems to have but, as Town discovered to their expense last season, having good players means little if the results don’t follow. For Austin, that will be the challenge.

Here’s to another roller-coast ride following the Cobblers.

Prediction: Northampton Town 2 Lincoln City 1