OPINION: Fear of Cobblers slipping into relegation battle sees Page pay the price
It has been a long and painful few weeks, and today Rob Page has paid the price for the Cobblers' woeful recent form by losing his job as manager.
A run of eight defeats in 10 matches, including a 1-0 loss at non-League Stourbridge in the FA Cup second round, ensured the Welshman was already walking on thin ice, and Saturday’s 5-0 humiliation at Bristol Rovers saw it crack spectacularly underneath him.
A ill-chosen comment that attracted national headlines after the game didn’t help Page’s cause, but I am sure that will have had no influence on chairman Kelvin Thomas’s decision to sack the man he only employed a matter of seven months ago.
All teams, no matter how good they are, lose matches heavily. It’s part of the game.
But the chairman clearly felt change was needed to halt the club’s worrying slide towards the lower reaches of the Sky Bet League One table, and he has acted decisively.
It was always going to be difficult for Page to step into the sizeable shoes of former boss Chris Wilder, who had overseen one of the most memorable seasons in the club’s long history.
It wasn’t the most exciting or left-field of appointments, but with the Welshman having steered Port Vale to two mid-table finishes in league one in the previous two seasons, he was seen as a safe pair of hands.
He was seen as somebody to stabilise the club as it stepped up a level.
But, rightly or wrongly, expectations were perhaps a little higher than that.
Page was taking over a team that had just waltzed to the league two title, claiming 99 points in the process, and they finished 13 clear of second-placed Oxford United.
He was taking over a title-winning squad, and when he took the reins in May, signing a three-year deal, he was genuinely excited at the prospect, having quit Vale Park to switch to Sixfields.
But before he had even seen the inside of his new office, Page lost the services of a key player in Nicky Adams, and he then saw club talisman Ricky Holmes and midfielder Danny Rose head to pastures new before he had barely placed his feet under the table.
Page stated to me when he took the job he felt that it was a case of ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it’, but with those three leaving and the decision (not Page’s) to not follow up on loan arrangements for John Marquis, James Collins and Luke Prosser, some sort of rebuilding job was going to be required.
Recruitment in the summer was steady without being spectacular, with experience brought in with the likes of Alex Revell, Gaby Zakuani, Lewin Nyatanga, Paul Anderson and Matt Taylor signed on, while there were also younger faces introduced, with Aaron Phillips, Harry Beautyman, Jak McCourt. Kenji Gorre and David Cornell brought in.
As is the case at every club, some of those signings have worked, others haven’t, while key campaigners and popular players from the previous season were ignored and found themselves on the fringes of the first team, players such as Joel Byrom, Lawson D’Ath (who have both now been allowed to leave the club), Rod McDonald and Alfie Potter.
That decision has annoyed a lot of supporters as the campaign has worn on, particularly once results started to fall away from October onwards, as did the treatment of last season’s player of the year John-Joe O’Toole and goalkeeper Adam Smith, with both men finding themselves in and out of the team.
That in itself is not an issue, but in the past couple of months it was felt there were other players, who Page had signed, that were permanent fixtures in the team, regardless of form and effectiveness.
That led to more unrest among the Cobblers faithful, as did seemingly negative tactics, with the team regularly dropping deeper and deeper in the second half of matches, and the concession of costly late goals became a damaging habit.
It was all a far cry from the brand of swashbuckling, edge-of-your-seat football from the previous season.
Here we come to a major issue that many supporters had with Page, and that was he consistently stated that it was the players that were dictating the way the team sat back, allowing it to happen with their ‘decision making’.
It became something of a mantra in interviews, with the manager regularly stating the way the team was performing was down to the players, rather than any instruction from the sidelines.
The supporters didn’t want to hear that and, frankly, didn’t believe it.
They wanted to see and hear the manager taking resposibility and, perhaps more importantly, they wanted to see the manager being pro-active on the sidelines and making the decisions to change things in matches.
That didn’t happen often enough, and there have been several matches this season where the late winning or equalising goal from an opposition team has been inevitable to almost everybody looking on.
I wasn’t at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday, but from all reports it’s fair to say the day was a disaster from start to finish, and that performance is what has ultimately forced Thomas into making a decision he didn’t want to, and relieving the manager of his duties, placing Paul Wilkinson in temporary charge.
That is not a decision the chairman will have taken lightly, and definitely not one he wanted to make, as Page was his choice to take charge as recently as May.
It hasn’t worked out, and Page - who on a personal level has been great to deal with throughout his time at the club - and Thomas, will be be wondering quite how it has all gone so wrong in the past three months.
Because let’s not forget that this same set of Cobblers players, under the guidance of Page, were sitting fifth in league one as recently as October.
They were producing some exciting performances, some good football, scoring plenty of goals, and at that time everybody was looking up and perhaps daring to dream of another promotion.
And to an outsider, the team is still in a pretty good postion, sitting in mid-table and eight points above the drop zone, but anybody who watches the team knows it is disorganised, that the players are struggling and are desperately low on confidence.
A run of eight defeats in 10 league games means the team is in danger of going into freefall with everybody looking over their shoulders at the bottom four, and the nightmare prospect of a relegation battle over the final four months of the season.
That is something the club or Thomas can’t afford to seriously contemplate, not after all the brilliant work of the past 18 months, and that is why Rob Page today finds himself looking for a new job.