It was not quite the scenes of three years ago – the overriding emotion was one of relief rather than unconfined joy – but for a flickering, glorious moment at Stevenage on Saturday, Cobblers and their fans may as well have been back in 2016.
It did not matter that Town are enduring another difficult season. It didn’t matter that they’ve had a tough couple of years. There was no title on the line and no unbeaten run to protect on this occasion, but few people cared when Andy Williams stood in for Ricky Holmes and played the part of last-gasp hero at the Lamex Stadium.
You can’t beat a stoppage-time winner. Few things come close. Even in a season that is petering out and heading for a disappointing finish, scoring in the last minute, away from home, brings joy like nothing else.
Saturday’s contest at the Lamex followed a similar pattern to many games involving Northampton this season as two evenly-matched sides cancelled each other out for the most part, with clear-cut chances at a premium.
A draw, by that measure, would probably have been fair, but these are the type of games Cobblers will need to win if they are to challenge for promotion next season so now is as good a place as any to start.
In terms of searching for positives, the defence offered a big one. Goalkeeper David Cornell’s light workload has become a refreshing theme in recent weeks and Saturday at Stevenage was his quietest afternoon for some time, at least in terms of saves made, as his defence produced perhaps their most assured display of the season.
It could be claimed that Cornell has been forced into strenuous action only three times in Town’s past four games; twice against Crawley, once at Tranmere and not at all at either Stevenage or Lincoln.
Of course, he’s conceded three goals during that time, but the improvement in his side’s defending is unmistakable. If Curle can maintain that solid base while adding to their firepower in attack, he may be onto something.
The fact Cornell’s services were rarely required did, in part, owe to Stevenage’s lack of guile and creativity in the final third, but Northampton still defended resolutely, and with John-Joe O’Toole and Jordan Turnbull battling away in midfield, the home side struggled to work shooting opportunities, particularly in the second-half.
Earlier, Town’s bright start was rewarded by Joe Powell’s first senior goal 19 minutes in. Showing more attacking intent than they did at home to Crawley last week, Cobblers pressed high, forced a mistake and Hoskins’ composure picked out Powell, who also remained calm to slot past Paul Farman.
Hoskins, a livewire throughout, was close with two efforts either side of Powell’s goal, but the visitors were on the back foot for the final 20 minutes of the first-half as the impressive, if at times erratic, Ilias Chair spearheaded Stevenage’s best spell of the game.
He had three attempts in all before half-time, including one superb free-kick that landed just wide, and also sent in a couple of teasing cross that forced Town into some desperate last-ditch defending as David Buchanan, Charlie Goode and Ash Taylor all made important blocks.
Northampton did a better job of nullifying Chair’s threat in the second period when Stevenage dominated possession but failed to create anything of note. Alex Revell’s header, an all-too simple finish 13 minutes from time, came out of nothing.
A 16th league draw of the season seemed certain when the game entered stoppage-time, but Williams had a point to prove to his manager and he was not about to give up this opportunity.
It could be argued that Cornell has been forced into strenuous action only three times in Town’s past four games; twice against Crawley, once at Tranmere and not at all at either Stevenage or Lincoln. The improvement in his side’s defending is unmistakable.
He’s had a strange first campaign at the Cobblers, has Williams. The 32-year-old is the club’s top scorer and yet he’s become a fringe player in the past few weeks, with Hoskins preferred to him. It’s now over a month since his last start.
He’s not a footballer who takes kindly to being left out of the team. He becomes grouchy and frustrated more so than most, and Curle’s challenge is to harness that frustration and turn it into a positive on the pitch. It worked at Stevenage when Williams threatened more in his 20-minute cameo than any of his team-mates had in the previous 70, bar maybe Hoskins.
Seeing a good header well saved by Farman soon after Revell’s leveller, his winning goal showed determination and desire to battle past two defenders and then composure to apply a cool finish. The wonderful scenes that followed were reminiscent of three years ago and now Williams will be hoping he’s done enough to earn a start at Crewe next weekend.
The Cobblers have now won at Tranmere, Stevenage and Colchester this term, three sides who have all held realistic promotion ambitions, albeit to varying degrees. They’ve also drawn at leaders Lincoln and in-form Exeter, and convincingly beaten eighth-placed Carlisle United on home turf. It’s an impressive set of results and only adds to the feeling that they’ve missed an opportunity this season.
Curle has a long way to go until he wins over all the sceptics but it’s easy to forget where the Cobblers were when he took over and just how much of a struggle it had been to even win matches, let alone sustain a play-off challenge.
In the 24 league games before he was appointed, Cobblers had won three, drawn nine and lost 12, conceding a mighty 40 goals in the process. In the 24 league games he has overseen, they have eight wins, 11 draws and just five defeats, conceding 29 goals.
Whilst it’s been a slow process and scepticism clearly still remains in some quarters, going from regularly losing to regularly winning takes time and there’s no doubt Town have made progress, even if it’s been punctuated by occasional setbacks.
They are now harder to beat for one thing, as emphasised by their remarkable amount of draws this season, and they stay in matches for far longer, meaning it only takes one moment to turn one point into three, as Williams proved on Saturday.
If you create a League Two table between Curle’s appointment and the present day, Town would have 35 points from 24 games - the equivalent of 68 points over a season - and sit only three points adrift of sixth place. A decent, if unspectacular, points haul.
There are reasons for both optimism and caution and you can make a case for sitting on either side of the fence, but Curle and his players certainly deserve credit for turning things around after their alarming defeat to Colchester United, which raised relegation fears to an all-time high.
Two draws and two wins in their four games since, three of which have been away at teams chasing promotion, represents an excellent return. Not many saw it coming. The question is: can they keep it up?