Oxford United boss Michael Appleton is looking forward to resuming his club’s ‘healthy rivalry’ against the Cobblers at Sixfields on Saturday (ko 3pm).
The Us manager antagonised Town’s players and supporters last season with his bizarre insistence that his team were the ‘best in league two’, despite two defeats to Chris Wilder’s side, who won the title by a 13-point margin, with Oxford a distant second.
The former Portsmouth boss perhaps foolishly cranked it up again ahead of the Boxing Day clash earlier this season, and was left with more egg on his face as Marc Richards’ late goal earned Town another 1-0 win - their third win by that margin in a row.
Sensibly, ahead of this weekend’s trip to Sixfields, Oxford’s first since September 2015, Appleton has abandoned his usual rhetoric, and has gone for a more respectful tone.
Not that it will save him from the inevitable stick he is sure to get from the Cobblers supporters.
Looking ahead to his team’s trip across the county border, Appleton said: “There is a rivalry, and I would like to think it is a healthy one.
There is a rivalry, and I would like to think it is a healthy one. The reality is we came up through league two into this division, and it has been one of those where I think over the three years I have been here it has always been a competitive gameOxford United boss Michael Appleton
“The reality is we came up through league two into this division, and it has been one of those where I think over the three years I have been here it has always been a competitive game.
“They have always been very, very close games and I am sure it will be no different on Saturday.
“I would like to think, and hope, that we can get that first goal in the game because I think it is crucial against a side like Northampton.
“If we do that, then they have to really come out and play us.”
Oxford and Appleton travel to Northampton in a position of strength, as they are six points better off than the Cobblers having played one game less.
They have impressed and had a good season following their promotion, and are still in with an outside chance of making the Sky Bet League One play-offs with eight games remaining.
They also have a trip to Wembley to look forward to, as they take on Coventry City in the final of the Checkatrade Trophy next weekend, and Appleton and his players were busy with media duties on Thursday ahead of that north London clash.
As well as playing the Cobblers, the Us also have to play Bury in another league one encounter next Tuesday, and the Kassam Stadium boss insists he and his players will be giving both of those fixtures 100 per cent attention.
Asked about any possibility of people taking their eye off the ball ahead of Wembley, Appleton told the Oxford Mail: “It certainly doesn’t distract me.
“Trying to keep that away from the players can be difficult at times, but there’s no-one more selfish than a professional footballer.
“Ultimately they would only ever use that as an excuse, because all they care about is making sure they play and perform really well.
“As long as we keep the environment the same and make sure they are prepared properly for the opposition, then I don’t expect any difference in terms of performance.
“We’ve got some big games between now and the end of the season – and to be fair none bigger than the one on Saturday.”
And on those play-off chances?
“Our aspiration is to finish as high as we can,” said Appleton.
“I know some people are constantly talking and getting excited about hyping up the play-offs and possibility of it happening.
“But the reality of it is we have to try and get as many points as we can, and we are playing catch up, we are not a team that is in control of our destiny.
“Even if we win our next eight games we are not a team in control of our destiny, so it is about trying to pick up as many points as we can and see where we are at.”
A big crowd is expected at Sixfields on Saturday, with Oxford having sold out their 1,400 allocation, and supporters of both teams are being urged to arrive early.
A 15,000 crowd is also expected just down the road at Franklin’s Gardens as Saints host Leicester Tigers in the Aviva Premiership, also at 3pm.
As at all EFL matches this weekend, there will be a minute’s silence as a mark of respect to the victims of the terrorist attack in London on Wednesday.