Northampton Town 1 Fleetwood Town 1 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
For an opening day fixture in a new division, under a new manager and with an almost entirely new-look team, this promising if somewhat rueful 1-1 draw against an admittedly underwhelming Fleetwood side was an encouraging start for the Rob Page era.
That’s not to say things are all rosy in the Cobblers garden – far from it, in fact – and it must be stressed that Fleetwood were not the most challenging of opening-day opponents, but given what has gone before and given the extent of the summer overhaul right through the club, there were enough positive signs to be confident of better things to come.
After all, the first few weeks of a new campaign rarely give much away in terms of how the season will ultimately unfold – anyone remember Dagenham last September? Or Barnet? – and the opening month or so is more about finding an effective system, gelling the new signings together and building the confidence and the platform for a successful campaign.
And on Saturday, whilst it was not the most convincing or cohesive of performances, there were sufficient signals that things are slowly clicking into place for Page and his new coaching team to build from.
So far, it’s been difficult to gauge where the Cobblers are currently at given the mass overhaul both on and off the pitch since Page’s arrival, but this game at least gave us some indication as to what we can expect over the next nine months.
More than anything, we found out more about six of the summer recruits who made their debuts. Naturally, those new signings will need time to gel, but even so partnerships were already beginning to display hints of life.
Aaron Phillips and Harry Beautyman provided a threat down the right in the first-half, despite the latter’s tendency to drift inside, while Matty Taylor produced flashes of his class in midfield and he will only get better and sharper with more game-time.
The defence portrayed far more assurance than it ever did during pre-season, with Gabriel Zakuani in particular impressing as the former Posh man slotted seamlessly in; he already seems to be a significant upgrade on last year’s central defensive options.
The major concern remains over where the goals will come from because whilst the chances were their on Saturday, they were too few and far between and rarely did they stem from good Northampton play, instead coming from set-pieces or poor Fleetwood defending.
The fleet-footed Kenji Gorre will be exciting to watch but he alone is not enough to create the chances and supply the goals needed if Northampton are to go far this season.
A decidedly unconvincing pre-season campaign had meant there was an air of trepidation going into Saturday’s League One curtain-raiser and understandably so because Northampton’s tepid performances against non-league opposition, albeit only in friendlies, had warranted genuine concern.
But there was little concerning about their first-half display on Saturday when they played at a high tempo, got on the front foot and took the game to Fleetwood.
They led through Chris Neal’s unfortunate own goal and though chances did not arrive in their droves, the Cobblers had enough of the game and saw enough of Neal’s net to put the match to bed.
But then, after a strong first-half, they rather lost their way in a second period display that perhaps reaffirmed the theory that 4-4-2 will not seem a sustainable long-term system, especially when you have two similar strikers partnered together, a central midfielder by trade out on the wing and too many immobile players through the middle.
But you feel this is not how Page will eventually line-up once he has all the pieces in place and a fully fit squad at his disposal.
Back to Saturday when the afternoon’s pivotal moment can be traced back to the stroke of half-time when Taylor and Revell combined well to slip through Beautyman, whose zipped cross was turned over by Gorre with the goal at his mercy.
Had that gone in, the game would surely have been up for Fleetwood who would have gone into half-time two goals down and deflated.
But, at just one behind, they were always likely to rally and despite barely ever threatening Adam Smith all afternoon, the visitors did snatch a point to take back to Lancashire through Victor Nirennold’s far-post header six minutes after the interval.
After some more toing and froing following the equaliser, all the late pressure came from Northampton but with Revell and Richards up front, their approach play became too predictable and they were easily rebuffed by Fleetwood who, aside from one glorious chance for Richards, held on without scare.
Nevertheless, this performance allied with an opening-day point, which extends the club record unbeaten run to 25, represents a solid if unspectacular start.
The problem Page has, however, is that some fans will continually compare him and his team to last season’s unprecedented success, and that is simply not a realistic or fair exception.
This is a new era with new players and a new style of play. It will not all be perfect, at least for the time being, but the process has only just begun, and just like when Chris Wilder was appointed, it took a while for everything to click into place.
So there we have it: not brilliant, not a continuation of last season’s thrilling success just yet, but it’s a start and that’s something. One down, 45 to go.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Only real contribution was to pick the ball out of the net. Had little else to do... 6
Aaron Phillips - As assured as he’s looked since signing but got caught slightly out of position for Fleetwood’s equaliser. Will at least provide stiff competition for Moloney... 6
Zander Diamond - Good partner for the busy Zakuani and the two were only put under sustained pressure once the lively Devante Cole was introduced late on... 7
Gabriel Zakuani - A significant upgrade on Cobblers’ defensive options from last season with his pace, aggression and no-nonsense style of defending. A tad unfortunate to see his back header fall kindly for Fleetwood’s leveller.. 7
David Buchanan - A new season but his performance was a throwback to last campaign. Solid in defence and always willing to get forward... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - On paper, his partnership with Taylor has the makings of an exciting one for Cobblers fans but it will need some more work on this evidence... 6
Matthew Taylor - Thrown straight in despite not having a pre-season but although his rustiness was apparent at times, he showed his quality with some classy touches, laser-like passing and wicked set-piece delivery. Will only get sharper and better with games... 7
Harry Beautyman - Terrific work ethic and provided a real threat on the right before fading out of the game. Should have more influence if and when he’s moved into the middle... 7
Kenji Gorre - Produced flashes of what he can bring to the table this season with his quick feet, slick skill and unpredictability but will need to deliver a more consistent end product and be stronger on the ball... 6
Marc Richards - Looked off the pace throughout, none more so than when he missed one golden chance that he’d have buried 99 times out of 100... 5
Alex Revell - Another of the new boys who never stopped running all afternoon. Great strike for the opening goal, even if he won’t be credited with it... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Alfie Potter - 6
Sam Hoskins - 6