FEATURE: Determined Crooks back fit and now up for the fight in fierce battle for midfield places
It says a lot for the sheer strength of Northampton's current midfield options that a player of Matt Crooks' quality is not guaranteed a regular starting spot.
With the likes of Lewis McGugan and Matt Grimes currently on the books at Sixfields, in addition to John-Joe O’Toole, Sam Foley, Shaun McWilliams and Yaser Kasim, it would be no exaggeration to say that Town have one of the strongest midfields, both in terms of quality and depth, in the whole of League One.
The challenge for manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is to find the right balance and combination to get the best out of them and consistently win games of football.
He currently seems settled on 4-3-3 which opens the door for three of those players and, at the moment, O’Toole, McGugan and Grimes are in pole position after all three impressed in last Saturday’s win at Oxford United.
That means Crooks, who was a regular before his knee injury, must bide his time and wait for an opportunity.
He’s happy to do that too, though not for long. He said: “The boys have obviously been doing well so I’ll have to fight for my place, but that can only be good for the team and for our confidence.
“It’s a healthy competition. We’ve got lots of good players in there with the likes of Lewis who’s come in and he’s a very talented player and we also have Grimesy and a few others.
“So there is a lot of competition but it’s team game, although obviously I want to do my utmost to get in the side.”
Crooks was tipped for big things after a stellar couple of seasons at Accrington Stanley but his subsequent big move to Rangers did not go according to plan in proved to be a frustrating year at Ibrox.
He returned to England towards the end of last season when loaned to Scunthorpe United and now it’s at fellow League One club Northampton where he’s trying to live up to lofty expectations.
The 23-year-old was doing a good job of that too, only for a knee injury to strike him down at Milton Keynes Dons in September and keep him out for six weeks.
But, at Scunthorpe on Tuesday, he followed up an hour against Southampton U21s the previous week with the full 90 minutes in Town’s FA Cup defeat.
“I’m happy have played 90 minutes,” he added. “It’s been so annoying, especially with the time I had out last season, but it’s nice to be back on the pitch.
“It was frustrating but being injured is part of football and I’ve worked hard to get back fit and hopefully I can get back in the team and get back in the manager’s plans.
“I feel I’m back to where I was. Tuesday definitely helped and now we’ll see what happens on Saturday.”
Crooks, a tall, rangy and imposing figure at 6ft 4in, came to Sixfields with the reputation of a deep-lying midfield player. His exploits in that position for Accrington earned him his move to Rangers and it’s also where he initially started for the Cobblers under Justin Edinburgh.
But Hasselbaink sees it differently. As soon as the Dutchamn came in, Crooks was moved into a more advanced role behind the striker and it was a stroke of genius.
Despite his unfamiliarity with the position, he scored a goal in each of Northampton’s following three matches, one against Doncaster, one against Portsmouth and another at Southend. As a result, he’s remained there ever since.
“I’ve not really played it much before, I’m more been one of the two in midfield,” explained the summer signing who, despite missing six weeks of action, is still the club’s join-top scorer this season. “But I’m enjoying it and I feel I’m getting into some good goalscoring positions.
“I’ve just got to learn to take those positions more and at a better percentage, so I’m learning the game and learning in that area and hopefully I can improve.”
Hasselbaink’s blessed with a wealth of options in midfield but that strength in depth is not replicated across the pitch, with the wide areas a constant source of concern. The Town manager will likely try to rectify that in January but, for now, he must work with what he’s got.
And what he’s got are going pretty well as they bid for a fourth straight league win this weekend when they host, er, Scunthorpe.
As an ex-Iron himself, playing 12 games on loan there last season, Crooks admits he’s looking forward to getting their third meeting in 15 days over and done with.
He continued: “I know a lot of them from last season and I’m getting sick of seeing them now!
“It was nice to see them the first time but I can’t wait for Saturday when it’s finished.
“The general momentum of the team and the club is upwards which is a positive sign. Tuesday was a small blip but hopefully we can continue on an upward curve.”
Elaborating on their FA Cup loss at Glanford Park, Crooks added: “Obviously you want to carry on the momentum as much as you can. It’s a big thing in football and confidence breeds confidence and you start picking up results when previously you hadn’t.
“So it’s disappointing but we’ve got to let it slide, learn from it and then forget about it and look ahead to Saturday.”