Northampton Town 2 Bristol Rovers 3 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
Although this last-gasp defeat to a very slick Bristol Rovers outfit should not raise any alarm bells in itself, it did provide us with proof, if it were needed, that Rob Page's Cobblers are still very much a work in progress.
The opening quarter of the season has largely been a positive one for Page and his side but it wouldn’t be entirely true to claim that everything has gone swimmingly and there aren’t legitimate reasons to feel improvement is needed in certain areas.
The most troubling aspect of these first 11 games is the negativity that has seemingly crept into Northampton’s game this season.
Having been such a front foot team last year, the Cobblers have become more reactive than proactive this term, backed up by the fact that only two teams in League One have had fewer shots in the opening 11 games.
Their repeated tendency to sit back and allow the opposition to dominate, especially after taking an early lead, has become more and more apparent as the season has wore on, particularly away from home.
But it was also evident on Saturday when Alex Revell’s eighth-minute opener was followed by a scrappy, disjointed first-half which was characterised by mistakes and soft fouls.
And because Northampton were reluctant to push up and commit men forward, the first-half descended into a cagey affair between two teams unwilling to take a risk, Sam Hoskins the only player to go vaguely close when hitting the side-netting.
The same could not be said of the second period which was a chaotic, frantic contest played at breathless pace.
That was all because Rovers came out a different side and took the game to their hosts, committing men forward and playing with aggression, energy and verve as they attacked with regularity and showed more desire to win the game. .
Cobblers, by contrast, lost their shape, their discipline and were easily overrun in midfield
The gaps were there for all to see and Rovers gleefully exploited as they were generously afforded the freedom of Sixfields, and it’s a wonder why Page took so long to change things, waiting until after his side were inevitably pegged back by an admittedly unfortunate own goal.
Town were crying out for Jak McCourt’s industry and tenacity in midfield so they could wrestle back control and prevent Rovers from finding so much freedom.
John-Joe O’Toole and Matty Taylor laboured, overpowered by a quicker and stronger side who were simply too slick and had too much firepower, and a defence that has been so robust this season suddenly looked vulnerable as Peter Hartley headed the visitors into a deserved lead.
The second-half continued to be a thrilling one for the neutral, particularly after Revell’s second of the match drew Town level and set up an action-packed final 20 minutes when the three points could have headed to either side.
But if truth be told, Rovers were the side who always carried the greater threat and only a truly sensational save from Adam Smith kept Northampton in the game, before he pulled off another fine stop late on.
Then came the decisive moment - an injury to the referee.
A delay in play followed, the new ref harshly dismissed Gabriel Zakuani and Rovers snatched the winner when Chelsea loanee Charlie Colkett drilled through the legs of Smith in stoppage time.
It was a cruel blow for the Cobblers but one that had been coming throughout the second-half as they suffered a first home league defeat of 2016.
Still, considering Northampton were 10th in League Two at the equivalent stage last season, all is not lost.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Kept his side in the game with one world-class save from Gaffney, followed by another fine stop from eventual match-winner Colkett. Deserved to be on the winning side... 8
Brendan Moloney - Did well up against quality opposition and in the face of some pretty constant Rovers pressure... 7
Zander Diamond - Gave away a few needless, soft fouls in poor areas but largely did well given he had little protection from his midfield... 7
Gabriel Zakuani - Was on course for a man of the match display until a harsh red card. A one-man defence at times, heading and clearing everything... 7
David Buchanan - Terrific block epitomised the kind of desperate last-ditch defending Northampton were forced into at times. Left everything out there... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Poor against his former club. Overrun and loose in possession. Needed to be more disciplined when Rovers were strolling through Northampton’s non-existent midfield... 5
Matty Taylor - Sloppy clearances put his side under pressure on another day where his influence waned. Couldn’t get to grips with Rovers’ powerful midfield... 5
Sam Hoskins - Missed a decent opening just before half-time, which proved pivotal, in another solid if unspectacular showing... 6
Harry Beautyman - Hardly featured in the game before his inevitable withdrawal... 5
Paul Anderson - Floated around and threatened to come to life without ever having a real impact on the game... 6
Alex Revell - Didn’t come to Sixfields with the reputation of an out and out goalscorer but now up to eight for the season after two very well-taken goals here... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Marc Richards - 6
Kenji Gorre - 7
Jak McCourt - 6