Gillingham 1 Northampton Town 2 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
If last season's defeat at Gillingham was the catalyst for a downward spiral from which Northampton never recovered, perhaps this year's invaluable victory at the same place will have the opposite effect.
The Cobblers need that to be the case because as encouraging and as urgent as this win was, there is still much work to be done and improvement to be made if they want to drag themselves out of trouble.
Last November’s 2-1 loss at Priestfield sparked a run of 12 defeats in 15 games, culminating in Rob Page’s sacking and Town’s subsequent battle against relegation, but having gone into Saturday’s game with no win in 10, the victory, achieved by the same scoreline in similar conditions, could prove a watershed moment for another reason.
And it was not only because they won which provides encouragement for the future, though that in itself came as huge relief, it was the determined way they went about their business to achieve it; allying individual quality with team resilience to finally earn a first away win since March.
This game was never going to be one for the purist given the wind-swept, almost hurricane-like conditions endured by both teams throughout 90 scrappy minutes, but Town acquitted themselves well to prevail, rolling up their sleeves and gritting their teeth to outbattle their hosts.
Gillingham edged the first-half and consequently had the better chances, most notably through Elliott List’s close-range shot, but it was Town who had the lead thanks to a moment of magic.
The exquisite first touch, the shuffle forward and the sweet low shot; Daniel Powel’s goal was of a man who has far more ability and potential than what he has produced so far for the Cobblers.
It was a precise finish, via the inside of the post, and hopefully just the spark Powell needs to kick-start his career at Sixfields. He clearly has talent, as well as the application as demonstrated by his tireless running on Saturday, but it’s his lack of self-belief which has held him back. Perhaps this will be the lightbulb moment.
Thereafter, Town rarely came under sustained pressure from their hosts and, in truth, Lee Martin’s neatly-worked and well-taken 62nd minute equaliser came as a bolt from the blue, but it set up a tense final half-hour with both teams in need of all three points given their respective predicaments at the wrong end of League One.
It has always been apparent that there is plenty of individual quality in this Cobblers team, yet they have so seldom shown it on the pitch.
Not on Saturday. After Powell’s fine strike, it was Matt Grimes’ turn 17 minutes from time.
After Chris Long’s terrific work to win the free-kick, Grimes delivered a wonderful strike at just the right moment. Time almost stood still as the ball curled up and over the wall, off one post, onto the other and eventually across the line.
It put the Cobblers back ahead and gave them something to protect, while their fans finally had something to shout about, much to Martin’s expense after the former Town man had unwisely celebrated his goal in front of those now jubilant away supporters who were singing his name in jest.
Once again the expected Gillingham onslaught did not arrive, bar the odd close shave, and Town were relatively comfortable in seeing out victory, even having half chances to catch their hosts on the break and win by a bigger margin.
In the end, two goals were enough for only a second away win of 2017, and it came courtesy of two moments of supreme individual quality which belied both the horrific conditions and Northampton’s stop-start season to date.
This was not the type of performance or victory that suggests the Cobblers will suddenly click into gear and charge away from trouble. But what it does do is lift spirits and confidence and adds further weight to the theory that, step-by-step, they are edging in the right direction.
And they deserve immense credit for the way they have reacted to the home humbling against Bristol Rovers. Since that grim day, they’ve lost 1-0 to AFC Wimbledon, drawn 2-2 with Rochdale and won 2-1 away at Gillingham.
It’s not a run of results that will turn many heads or strike fear into opposition players but they could have easily fallen away and dropped out of contact with the rest of League One given the tepid manner of the defeat to Rovers.
That has not been the case, although with other teams around them continuing to win, it remains imperative that they maintain their upward trajectory in the coming weeks.
With their next three opponents currently placed seventh, eighth and ninth in the table, this is certainly not the time for there to be any slacking off.
At the risk of getting carried away, there were positives across the pitch on Saturday. Ash Taylor led the way with a typically resolute display at the back, placing himself in the right place at the right time to make countless timely interceptions and tackles, while Regan Poole and John-Joe O’Toole brought fight and steal into midfield, just what was required in the conditions.
Matt Grimes and Daniel Powell provided the quality – and the latter also deserves credit for his immense work-rate – but a special mention must got to young Shaun McWilliams.
Played at right-back with Brendan Moloney ruled out through injury, the youngster equipped himself superbly in difficult conditions in an unfamiliar position; making up for any positional shortcomings with a series crunching tackles and his unrelenting determination to get stuck in throughout the 90 minutes.
It was an admirable display by the teenager and something that Northampton will need more of this season.
Because they are far from out of danger. With four points from two away games, it’s been a positive and uplifting week that suggest this team are far from doomed for relegation.
How they rated...
Matt Ingram - Terrific diving save kept Martin at bay in the early stages and also thwarted List but can’t recall him being seriously worked apart from that, even during the latter stages when Gillingham poured men forward in search of an equaliser... 7
Shaun McWilliams - Equipped himself brilliantly in an unfamiliar position on a difficult afternoon weather-wise. Positioning was questionable at times, understandably, but more than made up for any deficiencies in that department with a series of crunching tackles and his tenacious attitude... 8
Ash Taylor - Delivered another masterclass in how to read and clear the danger in defence, making two absolutely crucial, potentially goal-saving interventions which prevented Gills from being one-on-one with Ingram first-half. Was solid as a rock for the second, repelling the home side’s bombardment, in an error-free display... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Aaron Pierre - One of his better days in the past few weeks, his aerial prowess and physical presence gave his side just what they needed in the difficult conditions... 7
David Buchanan - Heart would have been in his mouth when he dragged back List early on with the Gills man running through on goal, but that was the only time he looked in trouble as he gritted his teeth to help nullify the home side’s threat... 7
Regan Poole - Always seems to impress and really came to the fore after half-time. His legs and athleticism are a huge asset in the Cobblers midfield and that showed at Priestfield as he helped thwart any forward momentum the Gills were building... 7
Matt Grimes - Did fine in general play but it was his set-pieces that proved so valuable to his team, planting an early free-kick wide, then setting up Pierre for a chance before his sublime late strike ensured all three points headed back up the M1... 8
John-Joe O’Toole - Got into a few tangles with opposition players, as he always seems to, but his aggressive attitude added steal to the team, something that had previously been lacking. Did well to last 65 minutes on his first start of the season as he continues to work his way up to full fitness... 7
Sam Hoskins - Valiantly charged up and down the right flank throughout his time on the pitch, tracking back to carry out his defensive duties whilst also dragging his side forward whenever he could. Typically industrious and hard-working, even if the quality wasn’t always there... 7
Daniel Powell - Threatened to score with an early sighter but even so few could have foreseen his cracking opening goal, which owed as much to the first touch as it did to the precise finish after brilliantly bringing down Grimes’ fizzed pass. Goal was just reward for his tireless running on the day which left him visibly exhausted by full-time... 8
Chris Long - Selfless display up top where he put in a busy shift as he tussled with ex-Cobbler Zakuani all game. His work in the winning goal should not be forgotten, doing brilliantly to bring down a long ball and draw the foul before Grimes did the rest... 7
Sam Foley - Impressive as a second-half sub, often winning midfield battles and subsequently leading his side up the pitch to relieve the pressure when they were protecting a lead... 7
Billy Waters - 6
Marc Richards - 6