Even accounting for the notoriously volatile world of modern football where optimists can so quickly become pessimists, allowing this opening-day defeat to Lincoln City, as frustrating as it was, to burst the bubble which had been carefully re-constructed over the summer would be remarkably premature.
Admittedly, you can see why some might feel it’s a case of ‘here we go again’ even just one game in. No goals, no points and a home defeat on Cobblers’ first day back in the division below was hardly the start they wanted, planned or needed given the wretched season they have just come off. Supporters have simply grown tired of losing.
Pointing fingers and criticising everyone and everything would be the easy thing to do – that sometimes seems the permanent setting for many fans in this high-pressure, results-dominated culture – but it’s harder to take out the emotion and look at it rationally and see that Town, for all their flaws, did not play badly on Saturday. Far from it.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Lincoln, beaten in the play-off semi-finals back in May and Checkatrade Trophy holders, are on the rise and have been hotly-tipped to contend for the title this season. If those predictions prove to be correct, then Cobblers, based on how yesterday’s game played out, will be right up there too.
But such is the emphasis placed on results in the cut-throat world of modern football, perceptions are so often skewed by scorelines when it comes evaluating performances and assessing how a game actually unfolded. It is seldom that black and white.
This was a case in point.
Yes, it’s true, the Cobblers did not perform brilliantly on Saturday and neither did they pepper Lincoln with free-flowing, attacking football that yielded well-worked chances galore. It’s also true that they lost their way once behind and ran out of ideas, something we’ve seen in the no-so-recent past.
In that respect, it was concerning. Indeed, there were echoes of 12 months ago when pre-season optimism swiftly drained away with an opening-day defeat, but the only similarity to that day in Shrewsbury was the final scoreline.
Because while there were traits in their play which still lingered from last season, the performance in general was markedly different and clearly more encouraging. Whereas last season opposition goalkeepers barely broke sweat and could stroll through 90 minutes without having to make, on Saturday Lincoln’s Josh Vickers was indisputably man of the match and by some distance too.
Town had more chances in Saturday’s encounter alone than in the whole of the first four games under Justin Edinburgh before he was sacked. Creating chances is much harder, in theory, than scoring them. If you put the ball in the right areas often enough for long enough, goals will inevitably come.
It’s finding a regular route to goal on a consistent basis which ultimately holds the key, though, and that is challenge for the Cobblers over the coming weeks and months.
On Saturday, the first opening fell the way of John-Joe O’Toole, who couldn’t quite force the ball home from six yards out, before Vickers’ one-man battle against the Cobblers saw him deny Sam Hoskins and Daniel Powell in quick succession, the Cobblers duo both lacking conviction at the crucial moment.
Vickers made a smart stop with his legs to keep out Powell for a second time later in the half and after Matt Green scored Lincoln’s only chance of the goal – the only time Town lost concentration in an otherwise disciplined defensive performance – Vickers triumphed in a personal duel with Andy Williams, though in truth the home debutant should have done better on both occasions.
If Town take one of those three early chances, it is an entirely different game. Lincoln have to come out and take more risks, thus playing into Town’s hands who have space to exploit and could well have added more goals, making for a drastically different mood at full-time. It just goes to show the importance of scoring the first goal in these games.
Such is the emphasis placed on results in the cut-throat world of modern football, perceptions are so often skewed by scorelines when it comes evaluating performances and assessing how a game actually unfolded. It’s rarely that black and white.
Of course, there is no point pondering ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might have beens’ if chances continue to go begging and points continue to be frittered away. Eventually, Town will have to score them. But for a first game of the season, the performance itself was more positive than negative.
But just as it should not be all doom and gloom, it would also be both disingenuous and dangerous to suggest wins are only a matter of time for Dean Austin’s men because long-term concerns remain, chief among which is out wide.
For the third year running it feels as if Northampton are starting a new season short on genuine wingers. Powell and Jack Bridge are capable players and the likes of Hoskins and Billy Waters can also play wide, but when faced with a packed defence like Lincoln – and they won’t be the only team to do that this season – you require pace, skill and directness to beat defenders and put quality balls into the box. Austin could also do with a dead-ball specialist because set-piece goals at this level so often prove the difference.
Lincoln are the masters of the art. They are not the sort of side you want to fall behind to and they duly used all the tricks in the book to take the sting out of the game once ahead, happy to soak up pressure and force their hosts into desperation mode. As a result, Town’s play became more erratic.
Obviously, Cobblers are not the finished article and clearly there are aspects of their performance that require work over these next few weeks, but that was always going to be the case.
Even Imps boss Danny Cowley confessed his side required both a big slice of luck and the brilliance of their goalkeeper to claim all three points. He was also quick to talk up Northampton’s chances this season, so don’t let one game, as disappointing as he result was, cloud what should be a positive campaign.
By the same token, however, performances can only spare you for so long if results do not eventually follow. Cobblers are a team that have forgotten how to win and win consistently so they will need to re-learn how to do it quickly before the atmosphere becomes terminally negative and the naysayers are in full voice.
For now, let’s have some perspective.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Given the nod over Ward and didn’t do himself much harm, though neither was he able to push his cause as Lincoln struggled to test him bar Green’s well-placed header. Communication with his defenders needs to be clearer at times... 6
Hakeem Odoffin - Steady as you like on debut. Composed and tidy on the ball with the odd darting run forward to help out in attack, and was solid in defence, making two timely interceptions. Will hopefully have the confidence and ability to make more overlapping runs and create an extra outlet in attack in the future... 7
Ash Taylor - Led a solid defensive performance for much of the game despite not looking entirely comfortable, but was punished the one time he let his guard down. Green eluded him and ruthlessly took advantage in what was Lincoln’s only chance of the 90 minutes... 5
Aaron Pierre - Was in for a tough afternoon against Akinde, Green and then Rhead later on but coped well, using his physical power and aerial prowess to prevent Lincoln from playing to their strengths... 7
David Buchanan - Could perhaps have got tighter to Eardley and prevent the cross coming in for Lincoln’s goal but that would be nit-picking in an otherwise solid display performance that raised few alarms... 6
Matt Crooks - The most influential player on the pitch and was involved in Town’s best moments. Produced some lovely touches of class and terrific close control to create space and chances for his team, but to no avail... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Shaun McWilliams - Cruelly-timed injury just when he looked set for a run in the team and showcase his undoubted talent. Pulled hamstring so could be a while until we see him back... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Dropped back alongside Crooks once McWilliams departed and bossed the midfield for the first hour before fading late on. Missed an early half chance... 6
Daniel Powell - Occasionally lacks conviction when it comes to crunch time, highlighted by his glaring miss in the first-half having been gifted the chance on a plate. Cobblers need more quality from him in wide areas... 5
Sam Hoskins - Question marks have always hovered over his end product and finishing ability and did little to answer those here, missing one of the many clear openings to fall Town’s way. His sharp movement and sometimes clever footwork mean little without that crucial final pass or finish... 5
Andy Williams - Hardly anything came his way until late on when his patience was rewarded with two late chances, but couldn’t take either. Unable to get the direction or power on his header and then shot too close to Vickers when clean through in stoppage-time... 5
Jack Bridge - Ineffective in the number 10 role but had more influence in the second-half. Looked to be direct and get balls into the box.. 6
Dean Bowditch - 6