Northampton 3 Southampton U21s 3 - match review, player ratings and highlights
By the end of this crazy night, Northampton's passage through to the next round of the Checkatrade Trophy had been secured. That, though, does not even begin to tell the tale of a drama-filled, logic-defying evening.
A world-class volley, a remarkable comeback, a third successive penalty shoot-out win and a place in the next round; this unloved and unpopular competition might not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s no denying it served up a thrilling spectacle at a saturated Sixfields on a mad Tuesday evening.
Just how the Cobblers got themselves out of jail and navigated their way past Southampton U21s to make the knock-out stages will forever remain a mystery. Still yet to win a game in the competition, and having been behind in all three group stage matches, they could not have taken a more convoluted route in progressing.
But the fact is, by hook or by crook, they squeaked through, at the expense of a stunned and crestfallen Southampton side who must still be wondering what on earth hit them.
Trying to make sense of this game is like attempting to solve a riddle; the Cobblers were so poor and so outplayed for 70 minutes that even the notion of a comeback seemed laughable, let alone the faintest bit possible.
Only needing a draw to qualify, they were given the run around by the slick passing and clever movement of Southampton’s young forwards, deservedly trailing 3-0 inside an hour and heading out of the competition with a whimper.
Yet here we are, with Town awaiting the outcome of Friday’s draw and Southampton left to stew on a unfathomable defeat that had looked so unlikely for so long.
There was even the added bonus of another shoot-out win as Northampton extended their terrific record from the spot to 13 successful penalties in 14 attempts to rubber-stamp second spot in South Group H, behind winners Peterborough United.
But the joyous emotions at full-time were in stark contrast to the agitated, exasperated mood around Sixfields barely 20 minutes earlier. Up to the point of Sam Foley’s goal 18 minutes from full-time, Northampton had been schooled by a talented, well-coached set of youngsters – and the fans’ audible groans of discontent left the players in doubt as to their increasing displeasure.
Whilst the visitors impressed, the Cobblers laboured. Their passing was slow and often negative, Marc Richards became too isolated too often and there was no cohesion throughout the team from back to front.
Of course, there were mitigating factors for their off-colour, ragged performance, not least the inclusion of several players short of match sharpness in a much-changed starting line-up.
So many of those picked by manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had barely featured in previous weeks, while Brendan Moloney and Matt Crooks were only just back from injury and Ryan McGivern was making his debut, eight months on from his last competitive game.
Even so, they have the ability and experience to produce far better than what they served up in the first 70 minutes, with their blushes spared only by a miraculous late rally.
The elusive Jake Hesketh was a nuisance for Town’s back four all evening and his two well-taken goals, added to by an equally adept finish from Jonathan Afolabi, had Southampton in complete control and heading for the knock-out stages with an hour played.
That’s when Hasselbaink rolled the dice, and all three of his substitutions made a difference. Matt Grimes brought drive and impetus from midfield, Chris Long added a different dimension up front and Lewis McGugan’s confidence and positivity on the ball, as well as his star quality, took Town through the gears.
Foley’s well-taken goal initially offered hope of a comeback, and that was built upon seven minutes from time in quite spectacular fashion.
If ever a goal deserved a grander stage, it was this one. With the ball dropping from a height, and on his supposedly weaker left-foot, McGugan showcased supreme technique and outrageous audacity to send a vicious, dipping, swerving volley crashing past a bamboozled and befuddled Alex McCarthy.
It was a goal of such skill that it belonged on far a greater stage, the clearest demonstration yet of McGugan’s obvious quality. It also brought the Cobblers to within striking distance of their now under siege visitors.
It still seemed it would be too little, too late as five minutes of stoppage-time eked away but, with the very last act of the game – and with goalkeeper David Cornell sent up in a last roll of the dice – Ash Taylor met Matt Grimes’ inswinging corner and sent a bullet header flying into McCarthy’s net.
There was not even time for referee Brett Huxtable to restart to the game, leaving Southampton’s crestfallen young players to learn a very harsh lesson: it’s never over until it’s over.
In the end, then, Northampton’s superior fitness and experience told, or maybe it was just luck coupled with an extra bit of quality, but the fact is they are through and Southampton are not.
Their unbeaten run now stands at five too, and the manner of Tuesday’s comeback should do wonders for their confidence and self-belief, even if there were question marks over how they found themselves in such a mess in the first place.
The Checkatrade Trophy is a curious, unpopular, even hated competition. It’s not difficult to see why it is so disliked by vast swathes of fans up and down the land.
But a good game of football is still a good game of football, regardless of the competition. And Tuesday night was most certainly that.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Conceded three goals but not at fault for any of them such was the visitors’ accuracy in front of goal, and if anything showed good handling on a slippery night... 6
Brendan Moloney - Made the odd forward foray and delivered a couple of teasing crosses but seemed a touch tentative on his first start for a few weeks, perhaps understandably... 6
Ash Taylor - Rare off night for the defender but any misgivings at the back, such as his hesitancy for the third goal, were atoned for with his bullet header in the very last act of the game, dramatically sending Town through... 6
Ryan McGivern - Not an ideal debut for the Northern Ireland international. Unable to cope with the slick movement of Southampton’s forward players, and then missed the target with his penalty. Clearly needs matches to find his stride... 5
George Smith - His occasional thrusts forward came to nothing but displayed a willingness to get on the ball and put himself about. Emerged from the game with about as much credit as anyone in the starting line-up... 6
Yaser Kasim - Saw plenty of the ball and dictated much of the play from deep but never really got his side moving in the right direction, often taking too long in possession and therefore slowing the game down... 5
Sam Foley - Made a sluggish start to the game but gradually improved as it wore on, and it was his excellent finish on the volley that finally spluttered Town into life... 7
Dean Bowditch - Struggled to make much of an impression from the right side of a front three. Tried to get himself involved by drifting centrally but appeared to force the issue a bit too much, not suited to a wide role... 5
Matt Crooks - Back in the team and his extra bit of quality shone through. Was on another level to nearly every other player on the pitch for an hour as he picked up some good positions in the final third, curling one beauty of a shot fractionally wide... 7
Raheem Hanley - His endeavour and determination to the cause were not in doubt but made little headway on the left where Town’s threat was almost non-existent. Positioning and quality were suspect, though can’t have been helped by the groans of an increasingly frustrated crowd... 5
Marc Richards - Unlikely to remember this night with much fondness on a personal level. Couldn’t make anything stick as he regularly found himself cut adrift from his team-mates and isolated up front. Was easy for the visiting defence to nullify his threat with so few bodies around him... 5
Matt Grimes - Had a positive impact as a second-half substitute and delivered a brilliant corner for Taylor’s equaliser. Also scored the first pen in the shoot-out... 7
Chris Long - His half-cleared cross fell to Foley and that ignited the comeback. Successful from the spot too... 7
Lewis McGugan - Had already helped bring the Cobblers to life when his incredible volley dipped and swerved its way beyond a bamboozled McCarthy. He then capped off the night by scoring the winning penalty... 7 CHRON STAR MAN