The first of many things to say about this harrowing defeat at Mansfield Town on another dark Saturday afternoon is that the final 4-0 scoreline fails to accurately depict the difference between the two teams over these 90 minutes.
No, for that to be the case, Mansfield would needed to have scored another two or three goals. At least. Only then would their dominance and superiority, and Town’s incompetence and ineptitude, be truly exposed by the scoreline.
Where to start? What more can you say that hasn’t been said already over the past 12 months? The challenge is to find new ways to talk about the same failings, the same mistakes and the same outcomes. It’s essentially a cut and paste job.
It is barely worth repeating what undid the Cobblers on Saturday because it has happened countless times during the past year: defensive deficiencies, mental fragility and a toothless attack. An example of the first led to the second while the third was evident throughout the 90 minutes. Problem-solving is an important part of football but Northampton’s going problems are only worsening, not being solved.
The Cobblers are now bordering on a crisis. The players are beleaguered, yet another manager is under mounting pressure and the sense of unrest among supporters is approaching an all-time high. When anger turns to apathy, you have a serious problem.
You cannot blame the fans for feeling that way given what has happened over the past 12 months. Just when you think their side can’t possibly sink any lower, they find new ways to disappoint. It is not fair to keep asking fans for their support and hard-earned money when they are receiving precious little in return.
On Saturday, it was simply unacceptable. Let’s not make any mistake, this was not a Mansfield team in sparkling form. They had just two league wins all season before Saturday and were languishing down in 16th, with manager David Flitcroft under real pressure from his own upset fanbase. They were hardly full of confidence themselves.
The most damning thing you can say is that the scoreline didn’t flatter Mansfield, and it wouldn’t have flattered them had they scored another two, three or even four goals. That’s how one-sided this game was. That’s how comprehensively outplayed and out-fought Northampton were, especially during the second-half.
For all the horror of the final score and its ramifications, the first-half was actually quite even. Although far from a classic, Cobblers at least limited their hosts to few opportunities until injury-time while creating several chances of their own, albeit only half ones. Of course those went begging.
The second-half, though, was an entirely different story. Every time you looked up Mansfield were attacking. They repeatedly strolled through Town’s vacant midfield and ran rings around a horribly exposed defence who were picked apart with consummate ease time and time and time again.
The four goals the Stags scored, all the result of defensive errors, do not even account for the excellent of Northampton goalkeeper David Cornell who made four or five terrific stops either side of half-time.
But Cornell himself was at fault for one, arguably two, of the home side’s goals. After Hakeem Odoffin had retreated and retreated and retreated to afford Timi Elsnik the space to run 60 yards unattended and blast in the fifth-minute breakthrough, Cornell’s decision to use his feet instead of his hands allowed Danny Rose to block and then tap home the crucial, game-killing second goal.
From there it turned ugly. Cornell was also beaten at his near post for CJ Hamilton’s third after Town’s defence missed their tackles, and then Rose added the final dose of pain, left unmarked to rub salt into the wounds four minutes from time.
Abject performances and dismal results have become the norm over the past 12 months and there seems to be no way to break the cycle, no matter the division and no matter the manager. Since losing 6-0 to Bristol Rovers last October, the Cobblers have conceded at least three goals on 10 different occasions. And that does not even account for other inept displays, like in the home defeats to Rochdale and Gillingham last season.
The Cobblers are now bordering on a crisis. The players are beleaguered, another manager is under mounting pressure and the sense of unrest among supporters is approaching an all-time high. When anger turns to apathy, you have a serious problem.
Much of the focus will once again be on Town’s defensive frailties but while Cornell was either making smart stops or watching balls fly past him, Mansfield’s Bobby Olejnik was merely a spectator at the other end, reduced to one meaningful and yet straightforward save late in the first-half.
Town’s attacking threat in recent weeks has fizzled out at an alarming rate. While the blow of disappointing results earlier in the season was softened by decent performances and a vastly improved creative output, now the Cobblers have reverted to their last season self. They had no identity and no structure on Saturday as attacking players barely fed off scraps.
Matt Crooks has shouldered much of the creative burden so when his name did not feature on the team sheet due to a knock picked up in training, there were already concerns. It turned out those concerns were legitimate when two half chances were all Northampton could muster at the One Call Stadium.
Sam Hoskins and Kevin van Veen is the latest partnership to be tried up front but there’s little sign of it working. Hoskins struggles to win aerial duels against far bigger, far more imposing defenders while van Veen creates the illusion of challenging for headers but actually wins very few.
Van Veen was hooked at half-time as Dean Austin’s patience with the Dutchman ran out but in truth any of Northampton’s 11 players could have been taken off. It certainly appears many of them will pay the price for this pitiful showing on Tuesday evening if Austin’s remarkably animated and emotional post-match interview is anything to go by.
His anger and frustration were clear in both his face and in his voice, let alone his words. There was a clear shift too; from protecting his underperforming players to accusing them of letting him and the club down. He will no longer tolerate these kind of performances. His team selection for Tuesday, should be still be in charge, will be interesting.
But it is Austin who will take much of the slack and he may well face the sack too. This was the sort of performance and defeat that has seen off many managers in the past, but it is hard to see anything changing in the long-term whatever happens to the man in the dugout.
A new manager may well bring the so-called bounce effect with him and spark a temporary uplift in results but when that wears off, what next? Does the cycle continue? When do you draw the line? Four men have come and gone since Chris Wilder worked his magic and yet the malaise only deepens.
It’s not as if the players are not playing for Austin – they most certainly are – and it’s not as if Town have been outplayed every week this season – bar Saturday, of course – so why would a different manager make much difference? Whether the problem is a shortage of quality among the playing squad, a lack of confidence or mental fragility, that will not suddenly change under a new manager. It will take time.
Pragmatically speaking, though, you cannot change the entire playing squad. You can’t sack 20 players. If results and performance continue in this vein, Austin will at some point pay the price.
It is, however, no more than a quick fix. The problems are now so ingrained that it is increasingly difficult to see a solution.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Kept Cobblers in the game with four excellent saves, two either side of half-time, but his decision to use his feet instead of his hands presented Rose with the crucial second goal, killing off Town and sparking an ugly final half-hour. Too easily beaten at his near post by Hamilton for the third too... 5
Hakeem Odoffin - Had to engage with Elsnik and not retreat, which allowed the Mansfield man to roam 50 yards up field and then blast in their fifth-minute opener. Never convinced from that point on, seemed unsure of his positioning... 4
Ash Taylor - Left unprotected by those in front of him but didn’t display the kind of leadership and dominance his team required. Was given the run around by Mansfield’s forward line with Rose in particular regularly proving elusive... 4
Leon Barnett - An early elbow on Rose had home fans baying for red and he may well have been wishing he received it given what was to come. Had no answer to Mansfield’s relentless attacks as the defence was cut to ribbons time and again. His poor clearance led to the second... 4
David Buchanan - Had a tough time up against Hamilton with the final two goals both coming from that right side as the home team repeatedly found far too much space to pick their passes and find their spots... 4
Sam Foley - Played as well as anyone in the first-half, winning tackles and covering plenty of ground, but he squandered a decent chance and then looked lost amid the home side’s second-half dominance as Town’s midfield went missing... 5
John-Joe O’Toole - Probably best player in claret on the day, though that’s not an accolade to be especially proud of. Was somewhere near his best in the opening half as he made himself a nuisance and got stuck in. Again, however, the midfield became totally overrun after half-time... 5 CHRON STAR MAN
Billy Waters - Made a relatively bright start as he found space and created a couple of half openings but became a non-existent in the second period when Cobblers barely registered an attack, let along a shot, of note... 4
Dean Bowditch - Offered very little either in attack or defence with his tendency to drift inside from the left-wing creating an imbalance within the team. The current 4-4-2 system doesn’t suit his style as he’s not really a genuine winger... 4
Kevin van Veen - Had Northampton’s best two chances but his shots lacked power and precision in both instances. Contributed little else and Austin’s patience with him eventually ran out as he was hooked at half-time... 4
Sam Hoskins - The decision to move him into a forward role continues to show little sign of paying dividends. He struggles to impose himself against physically against stronger, bigger defenders and it was an easy afternoon for the home back four... 4
Andy Williams - 5
Jack Bridge - 5