Much-changed Cobblers demonstrate their depth and versatility despite Pompey defeat - verdict, reaction and highlights

Without wanting to go overboard after what was ultimately a defeat at Fratton Park on Tuesday, this Trophy tie against holders Portsmouth represented another productive and positive evening for the Cobblers.

Wednesday, 4th December 2019, 12:29 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th December 2019, 12:51 pm
Jay Williams and Matty Warburton were handed much-needed minutes at Fratton Park, while teenager Michael Harding made his senior debut. Picture: Pete Norton

You wouldn't have guessed manager Keith Curle had rung the changes - eight in total - during the first-half when Town, for large parts, held the upper-hand over their Championship-chasing counterparts.

In fairness, Pompey too made sweeping changes and their side also contained several fringe players but they still had, on paper, the better and more experienced players and yet they were perhaps fortunate to be level at the break.

In the second-half, the home side's superior fitness, more so than their quality, made the difference. Of Town's outfield players to start on Tuesday, only three had completed 90 minutes in any game in November.

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And whilst the defeat might have spelled the end of their excellent eight-game unbeaten run, for Curle, there were certainly more positives than negatives.

His team passed with purpose and precision in the first-half and deserved the lead handed to them by Michael Harriman's well-crafted goal on 11 minutes, and even after Leon Maloney levelled, Billy Waters had a fine chance to restore the away side's lead following another incisive move.

Ultimately, Marcus Harness' crashing volley was enough to take Pompey through and in the end only Steve Arnold's sharp reflexes kept the margin of defeat to one goal.

But Curle now has serious depth to pick from and although the current regulars continue to churn out good performances and positive results in the league, it'd only take one slip to open the door to others.

Both Harriman and Arnold enjoyed their best games for the club while for an hour it was as if stand-in captain Ryan Watson, starting for the first time in three months, had never been away.

"When we were building the squad in the summer we always had one eye on being competitive and being able to change formations if and when we needed," said Curle afterwards.

"We known we have a competitive squad and we know we can change formations and change systems when required.

"But what we need to do is make sure we keep up the level of fitness to where it has to be because at any given moment, any one of these players can be playing on Saturday and they know the levels that are needed are high."

It was another proud night for the academy on Tuesday with a third of Town's matchday squad having progressed through the club's youth ranks.

Shaun McWilliams, back from his appendix operation, and Scott Pollock started in central midfield while 18-year-old Mike Harding made his senior debut as a second-half substitute.

"We got young Mikey on the pitch and we also got some good minutes into Scotty Pollock and Shaun McWilliams," added Curle.

"They're the younger element of the group but we need those players and we need them to be fit because we've got a busy period coming up."