The Cobblers may have returned to the relegation zone with Saturday’s absorbing 1-1 draw against Blackburn Rovers but if their dogged, disciplined performance sets the benchmark for the second half of the season, it’s unlikely they’ll still be there by the time May comes around.
Saturday’s game marked the halfway point of the campaign and suffice to say Northampton are not where many were hoping – or even expecting – them to be when predictions were made back in August, but their two most recent performances offer encouragement that 2018 will be a significant improvement on the past 12 months.
While they head into Christmas third from bottom and a point adrift of safety, the way they took the game to Blackburn for so long, never giving their high-flying visitors an inch in what was a surprisingly even encounter, bodes well, providing they can repeat the dose in games against sides whose squads aren’t quite so expensively assembled, sickness bug or not.
After a slow start to the campaign, Blackburn are now mounting their expected charge for the title thanks to six straight wins and 15 goals in five away games but on Saturday they were halted in their tracks by Sam Foley’s opportunism and Northampton’s fighting spirit.
The Cobblers, having weathered a fast Rovers start, edged the opening 45 minutes and then squandered a fine chance to make it two early in the second, neither Chris Long or Foley able to scramble in after goalkeeper David Raya Martin had gone walkabouts.
Long, though frustrated by that miss and an earlier one when denied by Martin following a sweeping Cobblers move, played a tough role superbly as he led the line with energy and tenacity to keep Rovers’ back four on their toes throughout; the fact their two centre-backs were both booked for poor first-half challenges on the striker was testament to that.
Foley too was terrific on the right-wing where, out of position, he battled valiantly for 90 minutes and displayed tremendous work ethic to give his right-back protection while always carrying a threat in attack.
Frustratingly, a moment of hesitant defending presented Blackburn’s star player, Bradley Dack, with an opening to equalise and he duly took it, firing a crisp low shot into the bottom corner.
The visitors’ expected onslaught did not materialise, however. Instead of Dack’s goal being the cue to push on and dominate, Blackburn dropped back. And instead of retreating and waiting for the inevitable, the Cobblers admirably pushed on and gave as they got.
In fact, they were the better team for the subsequent 20 minutes despite not creating any real chances and it was not until the final 10 when Rovers finally clicked into gear and pinned Town back.
Defensively, the Cobblers were both organised and robust. Three of the back four – Brendan Moloney, Ash Taylor and David Buchanan – produced key blocks at different stages of the first-half while the other – Aaron Pierre – provided the assist for Foley’s goal and was on course for his best game for the club until injury cut short his participation.
Taylor in particular was outstanding. After being his usual dependable self for 80 minutes, he was in his element for the final 10, defending the box with aggression and determination to reduce Blackburn to only one clear chance as Craig Conway unfathomably shot wide having rounded David Cornell.
There was, however, still time left for a dose of late drama as Cornell, who had an impressively commanding game between the sticks, gave away and then kept out a penalty.
By full-time, this was most definitely a result that belongs in the points gained category and it’s one which could prove valuable when the prizes are given out. Still in the relegation zone though, the Cobblers have shown us too many false dawns this season. Halfway through the season, Saturday has to be the benchmark for the next 23 games.
While they head into Christmas third from bottom and a point adrift of safety, the way they took the game to Blackburn for so long, never giving their high-flying visitors an inch in what was a surprisingly even game, bodes well, providing they can repeat the dose in games against sides whose squads aren’t quite so expensively assembled
How they rated...
David Cornell - Bounced back from last week’s wobble with perhaps his best display in Cobblers colours, commanding off his line to pluck crosses out of the air and relieve the pressure. Redeemed himself after bringing down Antonsson late on, expertly keeping out the same man’s spot-kick... 8
Brendan Moloney - Fantastic early block from Smallwood’s shot set the tone for him and his side, while his energy was a feature on the right side where he pushed Rovers back and added width to Town’s play... 7
Ash Taylor - Was a rock at the back once again, nothing seemed to go past him and really came to the fore late on when he stood strong to repel Blackburn’s barrage and lead his side to a well-deserved point... 8
Aaron Pierre - Somehow found himself unmarked to tee up Foley for the opener before his game was cut short by a groin injury... 7
David Buchanan - Conway tricked and teased him all afternoon but very rarely gave an inch, one late incident apart, and produced a superb block from Dack just before half-time... 7
Sam Foley - Now has two goals in three games and his opportunistic close-range finish was the least he deserved for another hard-working performance. Won possession back countless times as he hustled relentlessly up and down the right side all game... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Lewis McGugan - Reduced to glimpses but still lit up the game with some classy touches and exquisite vision, though did tire late on... 7
Matt Grimes - Was a busy man in Town’s midfield but stuck to the task well and buzzed about admirably, pinching the ball back and always showing for a pass. Well-directed corner created the goal... 8
George Smith - Good off the ball, not so much on it. Provided an outlet on the left wing and kept Blackburn’s right-back on the retreat but his high work ethic took its toll as his influence diminished.. 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Unsurprisingly was at the heart of almost everything that Town did well. Got in the faces of Blackburn and was the link between Long and everyone else... 7
Chris Long - An absolute workhorse up front as he chased every loose ball down. Hold up play was also effective, none more so than when he started and almost finished a wonderful sweeping move just prior to Foley’s opener. Was a pest for Blackburn all game... 8
Regan Poole - Slotted in nicely following Pierre’s early withdrawal, though hesitated at the crucial moment for Dack’s leveller... 6
Sam Hoskins - 6
Shaun McWilliams - 6