Trying to make sense of Northampton’s curious season has been difficult at the best of times but the twist it took on Saturday, when Plymouth Argyle were not the only ones left stunned by their highly accomplished performance and richly deserved victory, was by far the most unexpected yet.
In recent times, Sixfields has become accustomed to hosting one-sided matches between a team full of quality and confidence and another out of ideas and on the back foot. Two of the last three games there – Rotherham and Charlton – are fine examples and it was no different again on Saturday, except on this occasion it was the Cobblers, and not the away team, who bossed proceedings and claimed all the plaudits, deservedly so.
There is little else to be said about this game than the following: the last time Sixfields witnessed their side perform with such commitment, vigour and quality, Chris Wilder was the man in the home dugout.
It’s a bold claim to make but it’s also entirely accurate and one that few could disagree with. Two years and three managers have come and gone since Wilder left but this was a rare and sorely-needed throwback – both on the pitch and in the stands – to Town’s thrilling title-winning campaign. It was a brilliant performance and a brilliant atmosphere to go with it.
You see, the Cobblers did not just beat Plymouth, they battered them. If 2-0 could ever be classed as a thrashing, this was it. Those in the away end may claim their side played poorly but the truth is they were made to look poor by the quality, energy, commitment and desire of a transformed Cobblers team whose performance was a stark contrast to their previous home game when Charlton ran amok.
The only reason it did not end in a far heavier beating was simple: the inspired form of Remi Matthews. The Plymouth goalkeeper was arguably the man of the match and but for his raft of superb saves, his side would have lost by at least five, if not more. And make no mistake, 5-0 would not have flattered Northampton.
Even after their dramatic victory over Bury last week, the mood going into Saturday was one of apprehension. They were efficient in victory at Gigg Lane and then spectacular in comprehensively swatting aside the play-off chasing Pilgrims.
And this is what makes Saturday’s victory so impressive; that it came against a good side in good form and was achieved in such convincing style. Northampton’s previous four wins in 2018 have all been at the expense of teams either in poor form at the time – Bradford and Southend – or fellow relegation battlers – MK Dons and Wimbledon.
Not so here. Since winning the reverse fixture in November, Plymouth own the third best record of anyone in League One and it’s not as if they were stumbling given that they went into their clash at Sixfields on a run of just one defeat in 12 to sit outside the play-offs only by virtue of an inferior goal difference only.
So Derek Adams’ men were a side in good form, high on confidence and with something to play for. And yet they ran into an inspired Cobblers team and had no answers. They were blown away and, as Adams admitted afterwards, outplayed in all departments.
The quality and talent of Town’s individual players has never been in question, despite nuermous bleak showings, but this was the first time in nine months that they have reached their collective potential as a team. Even in previous wins this season – bar perhaps Oxford away – they were not especially convincing.
But from Shaun McWilliams’ bustling energy in midfield to Sam Hoskins’ tireless scampering up front to Daniel Powell’s driving runs and dangerous crosses and the back four’s refusal to give Argyle’s forward men anything to feed off, this was the true definition of a team performance.
It was a world away from recent home displays against Rotherham and Charlton, just as it was a world away from their dreary performance in the reverse fixture at Home Park. Sixfields played its part too. Encouraged by their side’s positive start, the volume levels increased with each sprint, each tackle and each successful pass.
Though Matthews was largely untested in the opening half-hour, the signs were there that his afternoon would soon get a lot busier and so it did. Northampton’s forwards harried from the front, the midfield two scampered about, the two wide players stretched the pitch and the defence competently dealt with what little threat Plymouth had to offer.
The Cobblers did not just beat Plymouth, they battered them. If 2-0 could ever be classed as a thrashing, this was it. Those in the away end may claim their side played poorly but the truth is they were made to look poor by the quality, energy, commitment and desire of a transformed Cobblers team
And then the chances arrived, thick and fast. The first resulted from a mistake by Plymouth skipper Gary Sawyer who passed straight to Hoskins who in turn was denied by Matthews in what was only the first chapter of a personal duel between the two.
Matthews did likewise from the same man’s flick shortly before half-time but the loose ball fell to Powell whose cross-cum-shot was directed into the bottom corner by John-Joe O’Toole for his sixth goal of the season.
But it was the way the Cobblers went about the second-half that was as refreshing as any other aspect of this performance. The expectancy might have been for them to withdraw as an attacking force and focus solely on defending. That, though, was most definitely not the case. Instead, they were even more effective going forward with Hoskins’ brilliant movement and electric pace the key to it all.
It is difficult to envisage such a display in previous regimes. Even if Town had played well and taken a lead into half-time, it’s doubtful whether or not they’ve have been able to maintain it, akin to the Shrewsbury home game when a 1-0 half-time lead turned into an anticlimactic 1-1 draw.
Against Plymouth, chance after chance just kept arriving. Hoskins latched onto McWilliams’ brilliant long pass and was foiled by the legs of Matthews, who then pulled off his best save of the lot as this time Grimes was the provider. His glorious through pass found Hoskins and he kept his composure to tee up Crooks, only for the goalkeeper to intervene.
The fear, naturally, was that they would rue these misses, and as it turned out a Plymouth player did indeed show Northampton how it was done. Unfortunately for Sonny Bradley though, it came at the wrong end as he diverted Powell’s low cross beyond his hapless keeper.
Time to shut up shop and see it out? Not so. O’Toole planted a free header straight at Matthews, Powell twice went close and there were other moments of excitement before Plymouth, finally, exerted some pressure, though not a lot of it.
The Cobblers have found it hard to marry defence with attack this season. When they try one, the other is often exposed. Again, though, they struck the perfect balance here. While they created countless chances at one end, they limited Plymouth to very few at the other. Richard O’Donnell’s first proper save came in injury-time.
There has always been a suspicion that there is a good team trying to get out and finally we have proof. The shackles were off and the result was a superb, brilliant performance that had everything: quality, energy, creativity, drive, determination, composure, commitment, flair and so much more. The obvious question is: where has this been for the past nine months?
Dean Austin, as much as anyone, deserves so much of the credit for his team’s dramatic turnaround. In just two weeks, he has somehow transformed the mood of one of doom and gloom to one of positivity and hope. He’s said the right things and now his team are playing the right way.
His decision to stick with Hoskins up front following the forward’s goal at Gigg Lane was fully vindicated. While Crooks and Powell relentlessly charged up and down the flanks, Hoskins regularly had the Plymouth defence back-peddling with his fleet-footed, penetrating forward movement.
Austin was also keen to bring back McWilliams and that too has paid dividends. After impressing against Bury, the teenager was peerless in central midfield where his display had a little bit of everything. It almost beggars belief that he’s only 19 years of age.
The fear, naturally, is that it has all come too late to save Northampton’s season. But even if that proves to be the case, two more performances like this one will go a long way to raising spirits and giving fans something to cling to going into next season, whichever division they’re in.
And it is not over just yet. Not only did they play well and win on Saturday, results elsewhere went their way. They were the only bottom seven team to win.
From being dead and buried just 10 days ago, the Cobblers suddenly have genuine hope and that hope was provided as much by their performance as it was by the result.
They say it’s better late than never and if they repeat the trick at Walsall and then on what could be a tense final day against Oldham at Sixfields, they might just have redemption.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - Used all of his experience and nous to take the sting out of the game when the situation called for it before earning his keep late on, producing a smart stop from Sarcevic to prevent a tense finish... 8
Shay Facey - His fine performance at right-back was all the more impressive given he came up against Plymouth’s danger man in Carey for much of the game. Didn’t always win the battle but kept him a lot quieter than most defenders will this season... 8
Ash Taylor - Snuffed out the danger whenever the ball came into his box, bar one instance when his goalkeeper bailed him out, and was a real leader in Town’s back four with one crucial block from Grant springing to mind. Looks to be relishing captain duties... 8
Leon Barnett - At his best when defending his own penalty area against high balls and that showed here as he was aerially commanding, making sure he was in the right place to get his head on crosses to stifle Plymouth’s threat... 8
David Buchanan - Solid as ever from the full-back whose commitment to the cause shone through again as he gave Plymouth - and Carey when he swapped sides - very little joy on his side. Always guaranteed to knuckle down and put a shift in, exactly what Town need in this situation... 8
Matt Grimes - His passing and work-rate were impressive in equal measure. One glorious long-range ball sent Hoskins racing away and his pass to Powell was instrumental in the second goal. Also did the simple stuff well, linking the play and hustling about the pitch. Unfortunate to be booked when slipping but wasn’t put off by that... 8
Shaun McWilliams - Remarkable performance for one so young. Did everything you want from a midfield player; he ran, he tackled, he harried, he passed, he defended. Begs the question, where has he been all season? Fully deserved his standing ovation... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Matt Crooks - One of several to be frustrated by the heroics of Matthews, denied by arguably the goalkeeper’s best save of the lot, but his relentless surges down the left flank constantly dragged Cobblers up the pitch and turned defence into attack, leading to chances and taking the pressure off. Huge boost if he stays fit for the remaining two games... 8
Daniel Powell - Grabbed the assists for both goals and they were just reward for a stellar performance on the ring-wing. Started on the left but shifted across and it proved a wise move as Argyle just couldn’t handle him... 9
John-Joe O’Toole - Back to his effective best. Was an irritant for the visitors throughout as he combined well with Hoskins and took up some excellent positions, none more so than when steering Powell’s cross into the bottom corner to break the deadlock. Could, maybe should, have had a second but his mere presence was key to victory... 8
Sam Hoskins - Could have had a hat-trick had it not been for Matthews but, finishing aside, this was a perfect demonstration of how to expose a high defensive line and stretch the game. Plymouth’s back four were unable to deal with his pace, movement and penetrating runs which always offered an outlet and were central to Town’s vastly improved overall showing... 8
Sam Foley - 7
Chris Long - 6
Jack Bridge - 6