The Cobblers have lost games by bigger margins over the past 18 months but it’s possible they have not lost one in such embarrassingly inept circumstances as this frankly terrible 2-1 defeat to relegation-threatened, crisis-hit Port Vale.
For 44 minutes, it was all going so well. The Cobblers had not been devastating but they were in control and in command, leading through Sam Hoskins’ early opener and a man up thanks to Leon Legge’s cynical pull back on Andy Williams.
They looked certain to capture three points and collect a fifth win in seven games, keeping alive faint play-off dreams in the process and maintaining a positive vibe as the season approaches its conclusion.
But then it all unravelled in spectacular fashion. What followed in the subsequent 46 minutes was a stark reminder of the work manager Keith Curle must still do. He’s made progress, no doubt, but not nearly enough to satisfy supporters in the long-term.
Clueless and static in possession and shapeless out of it, Town were run ragged by 10-man Port Vale. This is a team that quickly runs out of ideas when the onus is on them to attack and take games to the opposition. If you were watching from afar, you’d have thought Vale had the extra man such was their superiority in the second-half.
Northampton’s recent eight-game unbeaten run was all well and good but it gave a false perception of how good this current squad is and the amount of changes that are required in the summer. On the evidence of Saturday, a mass clear-out and major overhaul is desperately needed.
As for dissecting this game, where do you start? Factoring in circumstances, opposition and the notion players are playing for their futures, it was as bad as it gets. The scoreline will not grab headlines but there’s a case to be made this was Town’s worst, most incompetent defeat of the season.
They began brightly enough but Sam Hoskins’ fifth-minute opener was not built on in the way it should have been. While the better side, Northampton stuttered and stumbled their way through the opening half, creating only one real moment of note when Jack Bridge started and ended their best move, only to slash wide.
Legge’s red card – a simple decision for referee Neil Hair – should have encouraged the home side further but it had the opposite effect. It lifted the visitors and Cobblers, suddenly with more time and space on the ball, had no idea how to react. They panicked.
With the first-half almost up, Marvin Sordell lost possession on halfway, Vale broke and David Worrall was allowed to race between David Buchanan and Aaron Pierre before slotting past David Cornell.
Still, Northampton had an extra man and could regroup at half-time so surely everything would be fine? Far from it. A disastrous second-half laid bare their shortcomings. So poor were the Cobblers, they never remotely threatened a second goal, either before or after Tom Pope’s spot-kick with 15 minutes to go. For Vale, a vital win. For Town, plenty of food for thought.
The key to playing against 10 men is keeping possession, remaining patient and dragging opposing players out of position by passing and moving. The Cobblers did none of that. The passing was either overly cautious or inexcusably wayward, making life extremely comfortable for the 10-man visitors.
The fact that visiting goalkeeper Scott Brown did not have a save to make, either before or after half-time, told the story. Bridge slashed wide and Pierre scuffed a close-range effort but, other than Sam Hoskins’ early goal, Vale’s defence enjoyed a relatively straightforward afternoon.
The problem of creativity and ingenuity in the final third is not a new one. It was an issue when Matt Crooks and Kevin van Veen were at the club and their exits have only exacerbated it. Unless Bridge conjures up something all by himself or an opponent makes an error, Town are far too reliant on set-pieces.
This is a team that quickly runs out of ideas when the onus is on them to attack and take games to the opposition. If you were watching from afar, you’d have thought Vale had the extra man such was their superiority in the second-half.
Curle’s post-match interview was one of a manager who has reached the end of his tether with this group of players. He has largely remained measured, patient and protective in the media but Saturday’s performance and result was the end of the line. It was simply indefensible.
There were no lighthearted remarks or attempts at humour. He never once tried to put a positive spin on it. That would have been an impossible task in any case. An overhaul has always seemed likely in the summer and Curle’s words on Saturday only made that more inevitable.
While he deserves credit for steadying the ship and steering Cobblers into mid-table, the next challenge will be to lead a promotion challenge. Even accounting for the expected overhaul in the summer, Saturday’s dismal defeat suggested they are a long, long way short.