Cheltenham Town 3 Northampton Town 1 – match review and highlights
As well as the Cobblers have done to turn things around and move up the table in recent weeks, there was always a lingering sense that their mad late dash for a play-off spot would prove a step too far.
And those fears were realised in the Cotswolds on Saturday afternoon when Northampton came unstuck with a performance that was an untimely throwback to the dark old days, one riddled with defensive errors and short on attacking enterprise in defeat to Cheltenham Town.
The problem with playing catch-up is that so many pieces need to fall into place and it only takes one thing – such as the loss of two influential players for a tough away game – to derail your challenge and leave you needing a minor miracle.
That’s what happened to the Cobblers at Whaddon Road. Without Aaron Pierre and Jordan Turnbull, both of whom should at least be in the conversation for player of the season, they were disrupted, disjointed and deservedly beaten by in-form Cheltenham, surely ending any lingering hope of a top-seven finish this season.
When your goalkeeper is the overwhelming choice for man of the match in a game you’ve conceded three goals and lost comfortably, you know your afternoon probably hasn’t gone to plan.
There were, though, mitigating circumstances for Town’s poor showing at Whaddon Road. Up against a team in excellent home form, they were hit hard by the absences of Turnbull and Pierre while Timi Elsnik’s call-up to Slovenia meant two academy graduates started, bringing Keith Curle’s team selection back under the microscope for the first time in a while.
Instead of opting for the experience of Shay Facey or Charlie Goode at centre-back alongside Ash Taylor, Curle showed huge faith in 17-year-old Ryan Hughes by giving him his debut.
First and foremost, the Town boss should be commended in for having the willingness and bravery to hand chances to the club’s academy prospects even when the stakes are high. Too many other managers would take the easy, safe option.
It’s a fine balance, however, and on this occasion it was perhaps an unnecessary gamble to take when the margin for error is so small. Hughes produced enough glimpses to show he’s certainly one to keep an eye on but Luke Varney and Tyrone Barnett are a troublesome strike partnership for the most experienced of defenders, let along a teenager on debut.
Cheltenham’s menacing forward duo ensured it was a tough welcome to senior football for Hughes, whose life was not made any easier by his unusually out-of-sorts team-mates.
Sam Foely’s inexpiable pass in a poor area and Ash Taylor’s failure to cut out a low cross from Kevin Dawson allowed Varney to tap in the opener before Goode’s weak clearing header put Hughes in trouble and ultimately saw him concede a penalty when barging into Barnett. Varney made no mistake and from there it was always an uphill struggle.
One player to emerge with credit was goalkeeper David Cornell, which says plenty for how the Cobblers performed. He did superbly to deny Barnett inside 10 minutes and then Dawson on the hour while he was also alert to keep out Varney and Chris Clements.
That last save was in vain as Barnett headed home from the following corner to secure the win. Dean Bowditch’s 89th minute free-kick, though well-struck and well-placed, was nothing more than a consolation.
Theoretically, Town can still make the play-offs this season. Six wins and one draw from their final seven fixtures – an admittedly unlikely feat – would give them a decent chance but, even then, they’d be reliant on other results going their way.
The Cobblers’ hopes of bouncing straight back to League One are realistically over and whilst the final nail in their play-off coffin was inserted by Cheltenham at Whaddon Road on Saturday, the real damage had been done well in advance.
Early-season defeats to Morecambe and Cheltenham put them on the back foot and, after Curle steadied the ship with an immediate upturn in form following his appointment, failure to turn disappointing draws into wins against the likes of Stevenage, Swindon, Yeovil, Grimsby and Morecambe allowed too many teams to pull away and open up an unassailable advantage.
Now the Cobblers must ensure their season doesn’t fizzle out. There’s little real difference between finishing 10th and finishing 20th but how Town fare in their final seven fixtures will have a significant bearing on the mood and atmosphere over the summer and heading into next season.
They can’t afford to let their recent good work go to waste.
For player ratings, follow this link: Cheltenham 3 Cobblers 1 player ratings