James Heneghan's Northampton Town v Sheffield United preview

Fixture: Northampton Town v Sheffield United, Sky Bet League One

Friday, 7th April 2017, 12:41 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:54 pm
THUMBS-UP: Chris Wilder acknowledges the Cobblers fans after the reverse fixture at Bramall Lane. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds

Date/time: Saturday, April 8, 3pm kick-off

Venue: Sixfields

Forecast: 17C, sunny

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Outs and doubts: Cobblers: John-Joe O’Toole (groin), Alex Revell (calf), Gabriel Zakuani (hamstring), Sam Hoskins (knee). United: Ethan Ebanks-Landell (ankle), Caolan Lavery (knee)

Betting: Northampton 4/1, draw 3/1, United 4/6

Form guide: Cobblers DDLWWW, Blades WWDWWW

Avg. goals scored/conceded per game: Northampton 1.4/1.6, United 1.9/1.1

Bramall Lane erupts after Kieron Freeman's late winner

Likely line-ups: Northampton (4-4-2): Smith; Phillips, Diamond, Nyatanga, Buchanan; McCourt, O’Toole, Taylor, Williams; Smith, Richards. United (3-5-2): Moore; Basham, Wright, O’Connell; Freeman, Coutts, Duffy, Fleck, Lafferty; Hanson, Sharp.

Man in the middle: Mark Heywood

Last time out: Rochdale 1 (Mendez-Laing) Northampton 1 (Anderson); Sheffield United 2 (Clarke, Fleck) Coventry 0

Most recent meeting: Saturday, December 31, 2016 – Sheffield United 1 (Freeman) Northampton Town 0

Old friends reunited

Record v United: P10 W0 D1 L9

Opposition view: Ahead of his return to Sixfields, Chris Wilder said: “It doesn’t do us any favours that we are playing Northampton, because I know how professional they are, and how professional Justin and his players are. It is going to be a full-house, and it should be a cracking atmosphere, and of course these are the games you want to be involved in.” Read our full interview with Chris Wilder here.

Cobblers connection: Whilst most of the attention will be on Chris Wilder this weekend, the importance of his number two, Alan Knill, should not be underestimated in the success of both Northampton last season nor Sheffield United this. Now an assistant, Knill originally started out as the main man when appointed by Rotherham United in 2006. He also took charge at Bury and then Scunthorpe, where he once turned down the opportunity to sign Jamie Vardy who at the time played for FC Halifax. Knill’s first job as an assistant was under Wilder at Northampton and the duo, about to enjoy their second successive promotion, have proved something of the dream team since.

James Heneghan’s preview: When the Sky Bet League One fixture list was released last summer, there was a certain air of inevitability that Chris Wilder’s much-anticipated return to Sixfields would be more than just a standard homecoming.

Bramall Lane erupts after Kieron Freeman's late winner

That is not how he nor the Cobblers have done things over the past few seasons, so as soon as Sheffield United’s visit to Northampton was confirmed for April, you felt there was a strong chance the game would have plenty riding on it and - for the Blades at least - that is most certainly the case.

Following Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Coventry, their 25th victory of the season and 12th successive game unbeaten, the Blades are now just three points away from completing something that has been inevitable for several months: promotion.

And it will be quite something if Wilder achieves promotion on the same weekend at the same ground as he did last year, only this time with different clubs.

Because it was on the corresponding weekend last season when Wilder’s Cobblers drew 2-2 with Bristol Rovers and clinched promotion to League One.

Twelve months later and back at Sixfields, he’s odds-on to repeat the trick.

When a manager returns to his old club he’s rarely afforded a warm welcome. With Wilder, there’s no doubt that will be the case and rightly so, but that’s as far as Northampton’s hospitality should extend to.

Old friends reunited

Having celebrated at Sixfields this time last year, the Cobblers will be desperate to prevent another team partying in their own backyard this time, not that there would be any ill-feeling towards the Blades who have, by almost any possible measure, been the division’s outstanding side.

For any Northampton fan fortunate enough to witness first-hand the remarkable success of last season, Wilder’s stunning impact on the Blades would have come as no surprise and it’s now a sure-fire thing that the former Cobblers boss will be the man to finally end United’s five-year stay in the third tier of English football.

It has not all been plain sailing, though. Indeed, for a brief few weeks it appeared Wilder’s dream move back to his boyhood club would end in disaster when the Blades sat rock-bottom and winless after four games.

But with just three league defeats since August and none in the past 12 games, United have rocketed up the table and romped clear of the chasing pack, sweeping towards promotion, the title and the Championship by beating all before them.

They are the division’s leading scorers with 76 goals, spearheaded by top marksman Billy Sharp, and they also boast the best goal difference.

Sharp is the most obvious danger man but they have quality all over the pitch, from Simon Moore in goal to John Fleck in midfield, and with the bit between their teeth and the ultimately prize in their sights, they will take quite some stopping this weekend.

The respective records of Wilder’s Sheffield United and Wilder’s Northampton are eerily similar at this stage of the season. After 41 games, Northampton had 88 points, 26 wins, scored 75 goals and conceded 43. In comparison, the Blades currently have 85 points, 25 wins, scored 78 goals and conceded 44. And both look destined to wrap up their promotion at Sixfields.

The Cobblers have endured a more turbulent campaign this time around but they too are heading in the right direction under Justin Edinburgh, if not quite at the same velocity as the razor-sharp Blades, and can use this game as a free hit and an opportunity to test themselves against the division’s finest.

Because while much of the focus from outsiders will centre on Wilder and United’s long awaited and long overdue return to the second tier, it should not be forgotten that this is also an important game for Northampton.

It’s true that no team in the past 12 seasons has been relegated with 51 points – Northampton’s current tally – but given the form of teams below them, you feel they could do with at least one more win to make absolutely sure.

Each of the last three games will present them with an excellent opportunity to do so, however they’d rather not leave it that long and risk things becoming too close for comfort.

So the importance of Saturday’s visit of the Blades and next Friday’s trip to the Den should not be downplayed, even if safety does seem all but certain.

Indeed, for those still concerned about the drop, take comfort in this statistic: only two sides since the turn of the century have been relegated with 51 points; Torquay United in 2004/05 and Bristol Rovers in 2000/2001.

For this weekend, Alex Revell and Luke Williams are both due to return to the Cobblers squad although John-Joe O’Toole’s persistent groin problem makes him a doubt.

Up to six players – Adam Smith, Brendan Moloney, Zander Diamond, David Buchanan, John-Joe O’Toole and Marc Richards – could feature against the man responsible for bringing them to Northampton and all six will be keen to ensure Wilder has to wait at least another week for his moment in the sun.

From boyhood supporter to ballboy to player and now manager, Wilder’s Sheffield United story is a fairytale in its own right, one certain to have a happy ending whatever unfolds at Sixfields on Saturday.

Few of a Cobblers persuasion will begrudge him such a moment and nor should they, even if does come at Northampton’s expense.

Perhaps, though, the ideal outcome on Saturday would be a Cobblers win and United’s promotion via results elsewhere, specifically at Oldham Athletic where third-placed Fleetwood are the visitors.

To do that, Northampton will have to pull off something they’ve never previously managed: beat Sheffield United. Saturday would be a good place to start. But as Cobblers fans know all too well, Wilder will do everything in his power to ensure that is not the case.

Prediction: Northampton Town 2 Sheffield United 2