How a team’s performance is judged so often depends on the final scoreline, and had either Marc Richards or Alex Revell converted from close-range in the final moments of Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Bradford, perhaps the outlook would have been different.
Instead, it was another disappointing day and another game without a goal and therefore the general mood around Sixfields was one of frustration, but if the Cobblers are able to reproduce this type of performance on a regular basis, with the addition of some extra quality in attack, a move up the table is inevitable.
Bradford may have left Sixfields with all three points to go third and within striking distance of top spot but they only did so after fending off a much-improved Northampton team who produced a performance unrecognisable to what they have served up in previous weeks this season, certainly prior to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s appointment.
But a contentious refereeing decision and one swing of Tony McMahon’s right leg condemned the Cobblers to a second 1-0 loss in the space of five days – and a sixth league defeat in nine games this season – but given that they have already played six of the current top 10 and all of the top four, it shouldn’t be time to panic just yet.
Despite there being encouragement, though, it’s the same old problems which continue to be their downfall. A lack of width, pace and creative match-winners have plagued them for 15 months and did so again on Saturday.
There were spells in the game when they had Bradford pinned back, yet they still created so little, though there were four decent – at least two of which should have been taken – opportunities to pinch a hard-earned and well-deserved point.
On the plus side, the Cobblers are now a far more disciplined, organised and structured team who are much harder to play against, which contrasts to countless previous games when opposing teams have sliced through them like a knife through butter.
The Bantams had to work extremely hard for their victory, unlike Peterborough, Charlton or a host of other teams in the past year, and they were only able to celebrate having soaked up sustained second-half pressure before surviving two late misses.
After taking a while to get going, Town had just about found their feet when the referee intervened. Anyone with a decent view inside Sixfields knew Brendan Moloney had won the ball, even one of Bradford’s player admitted so, but Graham Horwood thought otherwise and McMahon didn’t look back; curling a delightful free-kick up and over the wall and into the top corner.
Prior to that, Nicky Law, Charlie Wyke and Dominic Poleon threatened to strike early in a sluggish start by Northampton but once the first quarter was up, McMahon’s free-kick was just about the only attempt the visitors managed in the remaining 70 minutes.
But against the one of the meanest defences in the league, one which conceded only 43 goals in the entirety of last season, Northampton could ill-afford to fall a goal down, especially as it’s been 65 games since they themselves fell behind and came back to win a game (Stevenage, Ricky Holmes, 2-3).
Matt Crooks shot wide and Aaron Pierre headed off target on the cusp of half-time before they had to wait until the final few moments to properly threaten again after a heartening but toothless second-half; Revell and then Richards unable to convert when opportunity knocked.
Despite hardly creating a glut of chances, it felt as if Town at least gave it a real go in the second-half which is something they’ve not always done in past games. With a bit more quality and unpredictability in attack they could be a force in this division.
For the second time in a week Regan Poole was impressive in midfield. He built on Tuesday’s encouraging display at Wigan with an even better outing against Bradford. His ability to read the game so well allowed him to break up City’s play and halt the visitors in their tracks, and then he followed that up by showing good vision and technique in an attacking sense.
A contentious refereeing decision and one swing of Tony McMahon’s right foot condemned the Cobblers to a second 1-0 loss in the space of five days – and a sixth league defeat in nine games this season – but given that they have already played six of the current top 10 and all of the top four, it shouldn’t be time to panic just yet.
He now gives Hasselbaink an extra option in an already very competitive midfield, while Aaron Pierre also vindicated his selection by impressing as Ash Taylor’s partner in central defence.
But the biggest roar of the day was saved for the eagerly-awaited return of Sam Hoskins. Replacing Poole on 75 minutes to mark his first appearance in nearly nine months, it was fantastic to see Hoskins back in Cobblers claret.
And he showed glimpses of last season’s form. It’s not easy after such a serious and long-term injury but the fleet-footed forward wasn’t shy of throwing himself straight back in the thick of the action. If he can replicate the heights of last season, his pace, drive and directness will be a big asset to this Northampton team.
Because despite a generally promising display on Saturday, they are still short in certain areas, and improved performances will count for little if they have nothing to show for them, particularly in these coming weeks when they play teams who are similarly foundering at the bottom of Sky Bet League One.
How they rated...
Matt Ingram - Made two routine stops from Law and Wyke in the opening quarter before being rendered helpless by McMahon’s precision. Quick off his line to mop up the danger in a quiet second-half... 6
Brendan Moloney - Saved his team with two brilliant tackles in the second-half as City sensed a second on the break. His hesitancy to bomb forward, coupled with some poor crossing, suggest he may be a little low on confidence... 6
Ash Taylor - Heart would have been in his mouth when he poked Gilliead’s cross towards his own net but that was the only time he looked uneasy. Strong and assertive again at the heart of Town’s back four... 7
Aaron Pierre - Returned to the team in place of Barnett and justified his selection as he stood up to the task against a difficult opponent in Wyke. Comfortable either on the deck or in the air, and should surely now be Taylor’s regular partner... 7
David Buchanan - Was put on the back foot by City’s fast start when he came under early pressure but grew into the game as it progressed, and it was his wicked late cross that almost set up an equaliser as Revell headed wide... 6
Regan Poole - Backed up Tuesday’s promising display with an even better outing here. Tremendous vision, anticipation and work-rate in midfield, not to mention picking out the occasional fantastic pass. A stand-out candidate for man of the match... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Matt Grimes - Set-pieces were substandard, regularly failing to beat the first man, and despite continually seeking the ball and being central to the odd good passage of play, little came off for him on his probably his worst outing for the club to date... 6
Matt Crooks - Had one of his side’s four good chances on the day, placing a first-half shot wide via a deflection. Some neat touches but was also careless and lackadaisical in possession at times... 6
Daniel Powell - A frustrating afternoon. Again, like at Wigan, he received possession in dangerous areas without really capitalising on it, often forced backwards by the visitors. Needs to take the direct route more often... 6
Alex Revell - Had a real battle against City’s resilient back four, throwing himself about to win headers and flick-ons, setting away his strike partner with a great late chance. Headed wide himself moments earlier... 6
Chris Long - Was about as lively as anyone in Cobblers claret before being withdrawn with a hamstring problem... 6
Billy Waters - 6
Marc Richards - Squandered a last-gasp chance to equalise... 6
Sam Hoskins - First game back is never easy after a serious injury but wasn’t afraid to get stuck in and put himself about. Fantastic to see him out on the pitch again... 6