It is often said that if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But since this will be the umpteenth attempt in the past 12 months alone to dissect and analyse what is going wrong at Northampton Town, that might not be a wise idea.
Of all the horrible, mind-numbing and abject defeats the Cobblers have suffered over the past 12 months, this one, inflicted by a previously out-of-form and currently managerless Cheltenham Town, must rank somewhere at the very top of the list.
Why was it so bad? Well, how long have you got? It was bad because of the pitiful defending. It was bad because of the supposedly weak nature of the opposition. It was bad because of the repeated nature of Town’s frailties. And most of all, it was bad for the fact all of their ongoing problems combined as one to create a perfect storm, one which did some serious damage on a wretched Saturday afternoon.
This was, all things considered, an extreme version of the 2018/19 Cobblers team. A bright start followed by missed chances followed by soft goals followed by a lack of response followed by the inevitable: defeat.
And the defending, well, it is reaching the point now where there are no adjectives left in the world to describe Town’s defending, if that’s what you can even call it these days. Slapstick and slapdash are probably best suited to this occasion but there are plenty more you could use, some of which can’t be printed. Poor, sloppy, hesitant, statuesque, haphazard. Take your pick.
Dean Austin, David Buchanan and Ash Taylor spoke of Northampton’s excellent start to the game in their post-match interviews and it’s true that they utterly bossed the opening quarter and were camped in their opponents’ half, creating three presentable opportunities in the process.
But it is no good playing well for 20 minutes if you do not score during that period and then fall apart the moment you concede, as the Cobblers did both here and at Morecambe.
The home team were indeed infinitely superior early on and had Cheltenham under sustained pressure but all of that good work was dashed in an instant thanks to a defence that has seemingly forgotten how to defend.
And so failure to score from early dominance once again hurt Town who could have been three up inside 10 minutes but instead found themselves one behind after 45 through Will Boyle’s simple finish. The Cheltenham man’s 6ft 3in frame found all the space in the world to tap home after 6ft 1in Johnny Mullins had also escaped the home defenders from a straightforward, rather hopeful punt into the box.
The free-kick itself was a needless one to give away. Shay Facey endured a tough afternoon, perhaps his toughest for the club so far, and his worst moment was still to come but we’ll get to that later.
So Boyle’s goal made this game a continuation of a familiar theme. Despite starting most games on top so far this season, the earliest the Cobblers have scored in seven league games is the 40th minute. Allowing the opposition to settle and gain a foothold is proving extremely costly.
A phrase Chris Wilder was often heard repeating during his hugely successful time at Northampton was how football games are decided by what happens in both boxes, not in-between. It’s a tired cliche but it’s also entirely accurate. While Cobblers dominate the middle third so often, missed chances and statuesque defending means it counts for precious little come the full-time whistle.
The Robins taught their hosts a lesson in the art of ruthlessness as one chance and one attack, in comparison to Town’s total control of possession, was all it took to hold a half-time lead.
There was no response to going behind, both before and after half-time. Northampton lost their way, lost belief and lost ideas. You could see the confidence seep away as Cheltenham warmed to their task and realise three points were there for the taking.
We are now seeing why a making a good start to the season was so essential. A couple of early wins would have broken the cycle of negativity and helped get fans back onside following last season’s disappointing events. Instead, the malaise has only deepened and a new low was hit on Saturday.
Then came a lifeline. An under-hit back pass saw Sam Hoskins tripped by Scott Flinders and the referee point to the spot. Kevin van Veen confidently converted. Surely now, the Cobblers, bailed out via a mistake from the opposition, would go through the gears and make their quality count. With Cheltenham content with a point, the onus was on the hosts to step up.
But no. By contrast, it was the Robins who assumed control. Town retreated into their shells and the visitors sense an opportunity to claim victory. And aided by some more desperate defending, that’s what they did.
The managerless Robins doubled their goal tally for the season when Conor Thomas converted from the spot after Facey’s clumsy foul and then Kelsey Mooney tapped in after no-one again took command from a corner, completing yet another miserable afternoon for the increasingly agitated home supporters.
It is hard to say what is the most pressing concern. While the defending and finishing are as bad as each other, the character and the mentality suggests the problems are deep-rooted and there’s no instant remedy.
Going 1-0 behind 36 minutes into a game, at home, should not cause such a state of panic but that’s what appeared to happen on Saturday. Austin’s men had been playing well beforehand. You cant allow one goal to have such a dramatic impact on the pattern of a game.
There will, and already has been, calls for the manager to go but that can’t always be the answer, even if six points from seven games is a poor return. Austin is Town’s fourth different manager in under two years. You can’t keep hiring and hiring. That just papers over the cracks and fails to get to the real heart of the issue.
The whole mentality of the club is gloom-ridden. Fans are frustrated and agitated, understandably, and players are desperately low on confidence. That is a poor combination and it’s why a good start to the season was essential.
A couple of early wins would have broken the cycle of negativity and helped get fans back onside following last season’s events. Instead, the malaise has only deepened and hit a new low on Saturday.
Changing managers won’t necessarily be the solution. It might work in the short-term but at some point you have to accept there’s no quick fix. The players and coaching staff have got themselves into this situation, it’s up to them to get out of it.
One bad game – shocking though it was – should not wipe out what happened previously when the Cobblers have played well and performed to a perfectly reasonable standard. Even on Saturday, they started positively before old problems returned.
It is making their periods of dominance count with goals that holds the key.
Do that and they’ll start winning. Start winning and confidence will return. With confidence comes a more positive, stronger mentality which in turn leads to more winning. Fans are happier. The mood is more upbeat.
That all sounds idealistic and far-fetched right now but it is the reality of the situation. Of course, alternatively, failing to score during dominant spells leaves you vulnerable. Just as winning breeds winning, losing breeds losing. As a consequence, confidence and belief drain away and that can make it look like you don’t care, or you’re not putting in the effort, or you’re not good enough.
From this observer’s perspective, none of those apply to this team. Ultimately there is nothing like winning and winning regularly. It is a tough situation for Austin, just as it would be a tough situation for a new manager coming in.
Unfortunately for the Cobblers, there is no simple solution.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Strictly speaking none of Cheltenham’s three goals were his fault but he could exude more authority from set-pieces given two of them were scored from so close in. Got agonisingly close to Thomas’ penalty... 6
Shay Facey - Will want to forget this one in a hurry. His worst 90 minutes in a Cobblers jersey by some distance. Needlessly conceded the free-kick which led to the first goal and then lazily stuck out a leg after Maddox breezed past him for the penalty. General play was off too as he misplaced passes and took the easy option in possession too often... 4
Ash Taylor - The skipper’s place in the team has come under scrutiny from some quarters this season and he endured another difficult afternoon here. Lost his man for the opener and didn’t take command at set-pieces in general. Shaky and hesitant for most of the afternoon... 4
Aaron Pierre - Turned into the Sixfields Beckenbauer for the first 25 minutes, spraying several superb balls out from the back. However, his day job is defending and at times he struggled, losing out to Mullins in the air and generally looking vulnerable whenever Cheltenham attacked in numbers... 5
David Buchanan - The best of the back four, which admittedly is not a ringing endorsement. Kept it simple when defending although allowed Mooney to get the wrong side of him to prod in the visitors’ third... 5
Sam Foley - The engine room for Town as he knitted things together in midfield, breaking up play effectively and using the ball simply but efficiently. Led several counter-attacks before he was surprisingly withdrawn moments after his side got back level... 6 CHRON STAR MAN
Matt Crooks - Showed what he can do in flashes, including one sublime crossfield ball that nearly got Hoskins in early, but flashes aren’t enough. Became a bystander when Town stopped playing it short and instead lumped long balls forward... 5
Sam Hoskins - As with his team, it was the same story. Has great ability to find space and receive possession in dangerous areas but it’s what he does – or doesn’t do – with the ball that frustrates. Great opportunism to win the penalty though... 5
Jack Bridge - Tested Flinders with a well-struck free-kick early on but that was his only significant contribution of the game. Decision-making and passing was off throughout... 5
John-Joe O’Toole - Returned to the team in a more advanced role, playing off the front man, but he just couldn’t get himself into the game as be barely received a decent pass. Even so, his half-time substitution came as a surprise... 5
Kevin van Veen - Looked a little lost as Town’s sole front man for the first hour. Beaten in the air and regularly ran into trouble, frustrating his team-mates. Dispatched the penalty well for his fourth of the season... 5
Daniel Powell - 6
Shaun McWiilliams - 6
Andy Williams - 6