It was tight and it was tense but, in the end, it was also entirely merited as the Cobblers just about clung on for three pressure-reliving points that ensured Rob Page made a happy return to Vale Park and steered his ship away from choppy waters.
After being unable to right recent wrongs at Stourbridge in the FA Cup last weekend, there was no getting away from the fact that this game at Port Vale represented a potentially critical stage in the context of Town’s season.
Irrespective of the performance, three points were almost a necessity given the extent of Northampton’s slide down League One because they’d alleviate growing discontent whilst a defeat would have ramped up the pressure another notch or two, especially when you consider the upcoming fixtures that include three of the current top five in the next four.
As it happened, Northampton coupled a convincing performance with a convincing victory, even if the scoreline suggests a much tighter game.
Five goals were scored but it could have been double that, particularly on the part of Northampton who did not give the impression of a team that hadn’t scored in over 350 minutes of football, such was their attacking threat and ability to cut through Vale almost at will.
Page deserves credit for this victory too, firstly for opting to tweak his approach by going 4-4-2 prior to kick-off before then switching things in the second-half when moving Sam Hoskins to a more central role, which played a key part in reversing the momentum and stifling the pressure Vale had been building.
Again, however, it seemed the Cobblers would be left to rue numerous missed opportunities when chance after chance went begging at various stages of the second period.
Alex Revell and Marc Richards were the main culprits, both at 1-0 and 1-1, but, finally, Hoskins pounced on a loose ball after a goalmouth scramble and Paul Anderson did likewise 10 minutes later which, allied to Gabriel Zakuani’s bullet first-half, saw Northampton to three precious and welcome points, albeit only after Rigino Cicilia had set up an anxious finale.
This was an enjoyable and intriguing contest throughout that saw Vale’s patient possession blunted by Town’s resilient defending, and it was the visitors who showed far more of a cutting edge up front.
For all their neat passing, Vale lacked much bite and their patient build-up play failed to result in clear-cut chances as they struggled to bring David Cornell into strenuous action.
The Cobblers, by contrast, saw less of the ball but carried much more of a threat, getting the ball forward quickly and incisively and using the duel threat of Revell and Richards to good effect.
It’s worth remembering that this is not an easy place to win. Indeed, only Coventry City have come away from Vale Park with three points this season prior to Town’s trip to Stoke-on-Trent and Page’s old stomping ground.
Much to his relief, it was an enjoyable return and the relief was clear for all to see afterwards.
Back up to 13th and the secure surroundings of mid-table, now the challenge is to kick-on and use this as a springboard for better things.
There remains several underlying issues, the most prominent of which is Northampton’s tendency to defend too deep at times and invite the opposition onto them, and they still remain unable to cut out sloppy goals - that’s now 14 league games without a clean sheet.
But the positives undoubtedly outweigh the negatives, at least on Saturday. Play-off push, mid-table obscurity or a relegation fight: where the Cobblers are destined to end up this season remains a mystery. More performances like this one, though, and the only way is up.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Impressive between the sticks. Decisive and showed good handling in tricky, wet conditions, one weak punch notwithstanding. Might have done better with Taylor’s opener but an otherwise promising display... 7
Aaron Phillips - One poor challenge and yellow card aside, this was an encouraging performance from the second-choice right-back, particularly in attack which has not always been his forte. Was solid and kept the threat from his side to a minimum... 8
Gabriel Zakuani - As a man mountain, he was the perfect man to have to repel Vale’s late aerial bombardment. Won header after header, not least the one which powered his side into a first-half lead. Also played a key role in the second... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Lewin Nyatanga - Terrific goal-saving block kept his side on level terms early on and that was the highlight of another serene display at the back... 8
David Buchanan - Toiled against the slippery Jones in the early stages but got better as the game progressed. Goal-line clearance ensured Town led at half-time... 7
Paul Anderson - Good work won the corner that led to Zakuani’s goal. Curled another shot wide before he was in the right place at the right time to poke in the game-clinching third... 7
Jak McCourt - His side were stretched at times but he worked hard in midfield and covered plenty of ground. Clocked up another booking for a poor tackle but his tenacity was important in Town turning the tide... 7
Matty Taylor - Trademark set-piece delivery led to the first two goals. Somewhat culpable for the equaliser, even if it was unfortunate... 7
Sam Hoskins - Deployed in a wider role and almost scored a sensational solo goal when running the length of the pitch before being denied by Alnwick. Become more of a prominent figure as the game wore on, none more so than when slotting home the crucial second... 8
Marc Richards - Missed two wonderful opportunities he’d usually gobble up, but he and Revell were a handful for the Vale back four all afternoon.... 7
Alex Revell - Should have ended his barren run on two separate occasions, planting a free header wide and then shooting too close to Alnwick, but overall his work ethic and all-round play was key in the victory... 7
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