James Heneghan's Bristol Rovers v Northampton Town preview
Fixture: Bristol Rovers v Northampton Town, Sky Bet League One
Date/time: Saturday, March 10, 3pm kick-off
Venue: Memorial Stadium
Forecast: 11C, showers
Outs and doubts: Rovers: Stuart Sinclair (knock), Ollie Clarke (knock). Cobblers: Kevin van Veen (knee), Aaron Pierre (thigh), Aaron Phillips (thigh)
Betting: Rovers 4/5, draw 13/5, Northampton 10/3
Form guide: Rovers WDLWWL, Cobblers DDLWLD
Possible line-ups: Rovers (4-3-3): Slocombe; Partington, Lockyear, Craig, Brown; Lines, Sercombe, Russe; Moore, Harrison, Bennett. Northampton (4-4-1-1): O’Donnell; Moloney, Taylor, Turnbull, Bunney; Powell, Crooks, Grimes, Ariyibi; O’Toole, Long
Man in the middle: Eddie Ilderton
Last time out: MK Dons 0 Bristol Rovers 1 (Harrison); Northampton Town 0 Oxford United 0
Most recent meeting: Saturday, October 7, 2017 – Northampton Town 0 Bristol Rovers 6 (Bodin, Harrison 2, Gaffney, Sercombe, Telford)
Record v Bristol Rovers: P100 W38 D28 L34
Opposition view: “They’re a team fighting for their lives and Jimmy’s made a lot of changes and there’s only two or three players starting against us (from previous fixture) so the squad’s totally different,” said Rovers boss Darrell Clarke this week. “The experience in the team and within the squad is pretty strong and they’ve had a big player turnover which can happen after a bad run so they’re a squad full of talent and aiming to stay in the league.”
Cobblers connection: Midfielder John-Joe O’Toole will not be expecting an especially warm reception by the home faithful inside Memorial Park this weekend following his acrimonious departure from the club two years ago. Despite O’Toole’s contribution of 15 goals in the 2013/14 season, Bristol Rovers were relegated from the Football League at the end of that campaign and the 29-year-old opted to activate a release clause in his contract, a decision which angered his local fans. He took a while to get going at next club Northampton but he’s now a firm fans’ favourite and will be key to Town’s chances of getting a result on his old stomping ground this weekend. For Rovers, ex-Cobbler Adam Smith has recently lost his place between the sticks with fellow goalkeeper Sam Slocombe currently preferred by manager Darrell Clarke.
James Heneghan’s preview: This weekend’s trip to the west country presents one of the more tricky challenges Northampton will face between now and the end of the season but it is one they can approach with a dose of cautious optimism thanks to their vastly-improved recent away record.
Time is running out and the need for wins is as great as ever but we are not quite in panic mode just yet. There’s still a decent chunk of the season to go – almost a quarter, in fact – and therefore there remains plenty of games and ample opportunity for the Cobblers to collect the points they require to stay up, and this Saturday is one of those fixtures, away at an in-form team chasing the play-offs, where defeat would not constitute a disaster.
But with rival teams at the bottom continuing to churn out good results, Town will take points wherever they can find them because it still appears eminently possible that 50 points – so often enough to stay up over the past decade – will this time not to sufficient to sit on the right side of the dotted line come the final weekend, with 52 and possibly even 53 needed to be assured of safety.
For those seeking reassurance that all will be well, take comfort in this fact: if the Cobblers maintain their current points-per-game ratio since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink took charge (38 from 31), they will end up on the magic mark of 52.
But predicting what will happen in football is rarely an exact science and there are enough difficult fixtures remaining, and enough good teams in good form around them, to keep things more interesting than they should be.
For one thing, Town’s recent record against Saturday’s opponents Bristol Rovers does little to raise the confidence levels. To find fonder memories, you need to go back further.
In the summer of 2015, John-Joe O’Toole’s second-half header on the opening day of the season at the Memorial Stadium was the first step on the road to promotion from League Two, a feat that was sealed in the reverse fixture with Rovers, whose late comeback from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 didn’t prevent Sixfields from celebrating at full-time.
After the Pirates followed in Town’s footsteps to also win promotion a few weeks later, the pendulum began to swing the way of the Gloucestershire outfit who produced another late comeback in the next clash at Sixfields, winning 3-2 through Charlie Colkett’s stoppage-time strike in October of last season.
From there, it was a steep decline downhill for the Cobblers who were demolished 5-0 in Rob Page’s final game in charge in this fixture last year and then came the worst of the bunch just five months ago.
Five became six as the Cobblers were blown away on their own patch – Ellis Harrison netting five of those 11 goals across the last two meetings – and once again it appears Town have ran into Rovers at just the wrong time with Darrell Clarke’s men on a run of just two defeats in 12 league games and looking to sneak into League One’s top six.
Strangely, though, Rovers’ charge to a top 10 place has not been straightforward. After romping to that sensational victory at Sixfields in October, their form tailed off alarmingly over the next couple of months as they lost nine of their next 10 games in all competitions to briefly flirt with relegation danger. At one stage, they were just two points above Northampton and only one place above the bottom four.
But the turn of the year coincided with a marked upturn of results. Only three sides – Blackburn, Plymouth and Rotherham – have a better record in 2018 than Bristol Rovers, though most of their wins have come at the expense of teams either in poor form or at the wrong end of the table (something that admittedly doesn’t bode well for Northampton on Saturday), including Rochdale, Oxford, Bradford and MK Dons last time out.
Nonetheless, they are a strong team with a menacing forward line that includes Town’s nemesis man Harrison, scorer of 13 goals this term, and the always impressive Rory Gaffney, who also netted in October’s mauling.
But while keeping Rovers’ strikeforce quiet has proved too much of a challenge for Town in the last three games between these two, if they are able to manage that on this occasion, there are weaknesses to exploit at the other end: only four teams – one being in Northampton – have conceded more than Rovers’ 52 goals this season, and none in the top half of the table.
And the Cobblers can also take heart from how they’ve fared on their recent travels. While their search for home consistency continues, Town’s away form has been impressive. Wins at Bradford City and AFC Wimbledon, allied to draws at Blackburn Rovers and Scunthorpe United, means they are unbeaten on the road in 2018 as we enter the key and defining phase of the season.
For now, the struggles of others has helped Town keep their head above water but while they had a Saturday off last weekend due heavy snow and freezing temperatures in Blackpool, wins for Oldham Athletic and Walsall, followed by victory for Rochdale in midweek, has only ramped up the pressure.
It’s looking more and more of a three-way fight to avoid the final relegation place. Rochdale and Bury should not be written off just yet, particularly the former, but they are running out of time while MK Dons, with just two wins from their last 24 league games, are the EFL’s most out-of-form team.
Fleetwood currently occupy the fourth spot, one point below Northampton and AFC Wimbledon. With the margins fine and the consequences significant, every game and every point from now until May 5 will be crucial, starting at Bristol Rovers this weekend.
Prediction: Bristol Rovers 2 Northampton Town 2