That Keith Curle has made positive strides during his two months in charge of the Cobblers is an irrefutable fact, but nevertheless Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Grimsby, avoidable and frustrating in equal measure, was an important reminder that his work has only just begun.
That didn’t look like being the case when 36 minutes were on the clock, at which point the Cobblers led 1-0 and were decidedly in the box seat against their lowly visitors, but a goal from nothing prompted a total sea-change. Town’s momentum was punctured, they subsequently lost their way and the overriding emotion at full-time was ultimately one of frustration.
The result was the same but this was the reverse of last week’s draw at Exeter City. Instead of twice coming from behind, the Cobblers twice let the lead slip. Instead of it feeling like a point gained, it felt like two dropped. Again, though, the outcome was fair and one few could argue about.
Four goals and a red card may give the impression it was a dramatic, action-packed afternoon at the PTS but those facts paint a horribly misleading picture. In reality, the game was low on excitement and even lower on quality, continually blighted by mistakes. It epitomised why both teams currently sit in the lower half of the EFL’s bottom division.
The contest all hinged on a 10-minute period before half-time. First, David Buchanan narrowly failed to turn in Kevin van Veen’s cross. Then, Charles Vernam levelled out of the blue. Finally, Grimsby goalkeeper James McKeown produced a world-class save to somehow deny Andy Williams a second. Instead of leading by two, or even three, Northampton were level at half-time and had to do it all over again.
It’s easy to forget amid the sloppiness, lethargy and general disappointment of the second-half that the Cobblers actually played well in the first 35 minutes, regularly pinning their visitors back and creating a series of presentable opportunities. As we’ve seen before this season though, failure to take chances so often ends in regret.
That’s why phrases like ‘goals change games’ exist. While such cliches are overused to the point they become meaningless, there’s often an element of truth to them and that was perfectly demonstrated during 90 see-saw minutes on Saturday.
Grimsby’s equaliser, scored after Vernam was afforded too much space to bring down a cross, cut inside and fire home, did two things: it lifted the visitors and deflated the hosts. From then on, it was a struggle for both teams to make much headway.
Of course, it can be argued that one goal should not negatively effect a team to such an extent but the Cobblers are are yet to fully emerge from a precarious position following two tough years. Their confidence remains brittle and the rebuilding phase under Curle is still at an early stage, so any setback will perhaps have a more telling impact than it should.
You feel had Town rammed home their first-half supremacy and added a second goal to Williams’ thumping early opener, they’d have run out convincing and deserving winners and there’d be little to grumble about come full-time.
But the fact they didn’t made for a second period seriously lacking in quality, excitement or entertainment, at least until the final 15 minutes when van Veen, Cardwell and latterly Danny Collins – dubiously sent off for a professional foul – gave everyone something to talk about.
So in the end –unlike at Exeter – this result represents two points dropped and a reminder that Northampton still have a long way to go to get to where they want to: mounting a promotion challenge. Reinforcements in January will help but first they have to get there still in touch with those in the play-offs.
Curle’s Cobblers have so far been characterised by simplicity. His focus on doing the basics and cutting out silly mistakes have contributed to Town’s turnaround in form, particularly in defence.
It will be a concern, therefore, that their problems at the back have made a sudden and unwelcome re-emergence in recent weeks with sloppy mistakes and needless mishaps costing goals and points. From conceding five goals in his first nine games in charge, they’ve shipped seven in the last three and it could well have been more if not for some wasteful finishing from opponents.
Four goals and a red card may give the impression it was a dramatic, action-packed afternoon at the PTS but those facts paint a horribly misleading picture. In reality, the game was low on excitement and even lower on quality
On Saturday, their problems largely stemmed from Grimsby’s left side where Ben Pringle was given too much space to roam free between Town’s centre-backs and wing-backs, as he did to set up Vernam’s first-half goal. In the second, poor decision-making and some frankly atrocious passing put them under pressure before a catalogue of errors allowed Cardwell to slam home.
Just five minutes earlier, van Veen’s terrific free-kick – the one moment of real quality throughout – looked to have bailed out the Cobblers and handed them three points they would scarcely have deserved, only for two points to swiftly perish. Ahkeem Rose should have made it worse too, left unmarked to head over in the dying moments.
Curle will want to make sure those defensive mistakes are stamped out and to do that it may mean personnel changes or a formation switch. With Sam Foley back in the team to pick up the pieces and get through plenty of ugly work in midfield, it might be worth returning to Aaron Pierre and Jordan Turnbull in a back four, even if Ash Taylor, back in the team, was unfairly scapegoated by some for Saturday’s disappointment.
One positive to come out of this draw was the fact Northampton played badly and yet still managed to avoid defeat. But other teams are unlikely to be quite so generous. As Curle conceded at full-time, an improvement will be needed.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Two of Grimsby’s four shots on target ended in goals, neither of which he can be blamed for. Saved by Hoskins’ clearance when out of position and kicking was erratic at times... 6
Ash Taylor - First start in nearly two months as Curle switched systems and returned to three at the back. Won plenty of headers throughout but struggled with the ball at his feet, not that he received much help from those around him. Unlucky not to have won a penalty... 6
Jordan Turnbull - Again, as at Exeter last weekend, unfortunate to have been the one sacrificed as Curle made a tactical switch in the second-half, showing his disappointment when withdrawn. Did what he had to before then... 6
Aaron Pierre - Not his best afternoon. Could have got tighter when Vernam netted and was then drawn to the ball, losing his man, in allowing Cardwell the space to blast in Grimsby’s second equaliser... 5
Sam Hoskins - Whipped in two or three inviting crosses in the first-half and also recovered brilliantly to clear off the line seconds after Vernam’s equaliser. Less prominent in the second, stifled by the team’s general sluggishness... 7
David Buchanan - Once again Cobblers scored from one his corners, delivered well for Williams to eventually convert. Twice nearly scored himself as he ventured into some unusually advanced positions. Sent in another fine cross that ended in McKeown’s spectacular save... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Sam Foley - Showed in patches why he’s been a key miss over the past few weeks. Got through plenty of unseen but important work in the middle of the pitch. Great tenacity for the early goal and also won the free-kick for the second... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - The wait for him to rediscover his best form continues. Never stamped his mark on the game and was sloppy in possession... 5
Shaun McWilliams - Full of energy and running as always, and was pivotal during Town’s strong first 30 minutes, but faded thereafter as balls regularly flew over his head... 6
Kevin van Veen - His terrific free-kick didn’t belong in an otherwise scratchy game bereft of such quality and excitement. Fine strike arrowed into the bottom corner from 25 yards. Only gripe was that it didn’t turn out to be the winning goal... 7
Andy Williams - No need for the dubious goals committee to get involved this week as he emphatically rifled home just four minutes in. Would have had a second if not for the remarkable efforts of McKeown. Unfortunate to be taken off and, akin to Turnbull earlier, let his frustrations be known... 7
Shay Facey - Conceded two needless free-kicks, one of which led to the equaliser... 5
Daniel Powell - 6
Jay Williams - 6