Going out of the Carabao Cup does not constitute a disaster in itself but Tuesday’s penalty shoot-out defeat at Wycombe Wanderers still goes down as a missed opportunity for Cobblers to register that priceless first win of the season.
Trying to find positives in defeat has become a somewhat tedious task over these past 12 months but at least, at present, they are offering glimpses of encouragement to believe that a change of fortune is just around the corner.
We are certainly not at the stage of scraping the barrel despite another evening of frustration at Adams Park when Town’s exit from the EFL Cup generated a surprising amount of negative reaction.
Of course there are teething problems to overcome and rough edges to smooth out if Dean Austin’s men are to reverse the tide and return smiles to faces, but that was always likely to be the case after events of last season; you cannot just flick a switch and expect everything to be rosy again.
That’s not how football, and sport in general, works. Just as winning is an art form, losing is a habit and a difficult one to get out of, as the Cobblers are currently proving.
They have not been outplayed in any of their three games up to this point and yet they have just one point from two league fixtures and a premature cup exit to show for their efforts. If everything was equal, and with a little more confidence and belief, they could quite easily have six points and be in round two of the EFL Cup.
It is also the done thing in football to ignore circumstances and jump straight to conclusions so it’s important to point out two things after Tuesday’s penalty shoot-out defeat: firstly, this was a makeshift team consisting of players working their way to full fitness, and secondly, it was in a competition that represents little real value in the context of Town’s season.
The performance was not exactly disastrous either. Austin was full of praise in his post-match interview and in parts, the visitors did play well and show promise at Adams Park, particularly during a first-half when there was little between themselves and their League One hosts.
But in the endless quest for perfection, this fell someway short of the mark. Of their three games so far, it was perhaps their weakest display. That’s not to say they played poorly – they didn’t – but neither did they play with much cohesion or fluidity.
And for anyone seeking positives to take into the visit of Cambridge this weekend, it’s probably best to ignore what occurred between 50 and 80 minutes once Randell Williams’ well-placed header had Wycombe in front.
There are teething problems to overcome and rough edges to smooth out if Dean Austin’s men are to reverse the tide and return smiles to faces, but that was always likely to be the case after events of last season; you cannot just flick a switch and expect everything to be rosy again.
During this period, Northampton totally lost their way and it was only in the latter stages when the visitors rallied through Ash Taylor’s missed penalty – he might not take another one anytime soon – and Sam Hoskins’ leveller.
The spot-kicks offered a chance of progression to round two but it was not to be. Misses from Hoskins and Jordan Turnbull proved costly, though just why the referee allowed Wycombe goalkeeper Yves Ma-Kalambay to take an age between every penalty will remain a mystery. It was a blatant attempt at gamesmanship.
As for those players hoping to push their case for regular starts over the coming weeks, few made a notable impression.
Debutant Junior Morias was bright and busy alongside Billy Waters up front. He popped up all across the pitch, coming short to receive the ball and going long to stretch the play, but chances were at a premium. His best came when out-muscling and out-pacing the Wycombe defence to latch onto a hopeful through ball and screw wide from an acute angle.
Fellow summer signing Lewis Ward, meanwhile, was competent between the posts, neither outstanding nor shaky. He got down smartly to deny Craig Mackail-Smith’s fizzing shot and showed good handling to keep out a couple of other decent attempts.
Shay Facey was perhaps pick of the bunch at right-back. Looking fit and sharp, his two first-half interventions prevented certain goals and he now appears ready to return to the fold on a more permanent basis.
It seems the default response for some fans to accuse their team of not displaying the appropriate ‘passion’ or ‘fight’ when things start to go awry, but while the quality is up for debate at times, there should be no questioning Town’s attitude in the first three games, certainly on Tuesday.
It is, though, an opportunity missed. An opportunity to taste victory again, to build confidence and regain some momentum. The Cobblers can ill-afford to pass up many more.
How they rated...
Lewis Ward - Competent on his professional debut, doing his long-term prospects between the posts no harm. Not overly-worked by the hosts but handling was assured with three relatively straightforward stops. Williams’ bullet header would have been any ‘keeper. Will be disappointed not to have saved any of Wycombe’s eight penalties... 6
Shay Facey - Cleared Mackail-Smith’s dinked effort off the line and got a crucial touch to steer away Bloomdfield’s dangerous cross on his return to action. Played the full 90 and looks ready to reclaim the right-back spot... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Leon Barnett - Stood up well to the home side’s physical threat and was powerful in the air but perhaps could have read the danger earlier when Williams ghosted in to score... 6
Ash Taylor - At his peak when defending the penalty area so Wycombe’s often direct approach played right into his hands and he obliged, heading and clearing away countless crosses all evening long. Surprise penalty-taker and might not get another chance anytime soon, though it was more of a good save than a bad miss ... 7
Jordan Turnbull - He’s a capable defender who does the basics well but his passing can be erratic and he’s not the most attack-minded full-back so rarely offers the type of final third threat his team sometimes require. Missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out... 6
Jack Bridge - A player who is yet to really showcase his quality and grab a game by the scruff of the neck. Played the occasional incisive pass here and also missed Town’s best chance of the first-half when he couldn’t direct his free header far enough in the corner. Good work to win the penalty... 6
Sam Foley - Started well as he looked to pinch the ball back and get things moving forward but became a peripheral figure and saw less of the ball as time ticked away... 6
Matt Crooks - Sublime one minute, sloppy the next was the story of his night. Guilty of being too casual in possession and was fortunate not to be punished but, by the same token, he’s capable of turning on the style at any moment. Surprisingly didn’t take any of Town’s eight penalties... 6
Dean Bowditch - Lost count of the amount of times he drifted into space between the lines but didn’t receive possession. Debatable whether or not left-wing is his best position... 6
Billy Waters - Buzzed about the pitch as ever, going close with two early efforts and then setting up Bridge with a fine cross, however he struggled to impose himself against a very robust defence. Took the best penalty of anyone in the shoot-out... 6
Junior Morias - Looked eager to impress on debut and always sought out the ball, dropping deep and making runs in behind, but nothing really came off for him. Screwed a half chance wide... 7
Sam Hoskins - Crisp finish to pull Cobblers level but missed his kick in the shoot-out... 7