Bristol Rovers 1 Northampton Town 1 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
The idea of a Dutch striker called Kevin scoring a crucial goal in a crucial game to earn the Cobblers a crucial point on the road is one that has seemed perfectly reasonable ever since the closing of the January transfer window.
Except, in this particular instance, following Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Bristol Rovers, the name of the Dutch striker in question is one that very few, if any, Northampton fans would have even heard of prior to 3pm on Thursday afternoon when he signed for the club as a free agent. And yet, just 48 hours later, 90 seconds was all it took for the Cobblers to have a new, unexpected player upon which to pin their survival hopes.
Without being disrespectful to him, the arrival of Kevin Luckassen, formerly of SKN St. Pölten, Slovan Liberec and Ross County, hardly stirred up much excitement among fans. At the time, his signing appeared more of a back-up option for manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink whose desire to have four strikers in his ranks has been clear for a while.
With Kevin van Veen injured, Boris Mathis yet to make an impression and an awful lot of pressure placed on the young shoulders of Chris Long, the decision to bring in Luckassen almost felt a move out of desperation.
But any fears that he would be another name to add to the list of bit-part players that have built up at Sixfields over the past six months were banished within two minutes of his debut. Thrown on as a second-half substitute as Northampton chased an equaliser at the Memorial Stadium, Luckassen made his sizeable presence felt instantly.
Brendan Moloney, having scampered down the right, supplied the cross and Luckassen did the rest, out-muscling two defenders and using the back of his head to find the bottom corner. It was not the most conventional of headers but how it found the net was not important. The fact it beat Sam Slocombe in the home goal, and the fact the Cobblers held on, was all that mattered.
But while his goal was a welcome surprise and a timely boost for Town, there was far more to Luckassen’s performance. His strength and sheer physical size caused problems for Rovers for the entire 30 minutes he was on the pitch as he produced the type of powerful hold-up play that the Cobblers have not had all season. Previously, Hasselbaink has had to rely on John-Joe O’Toole to play higher up and link with Long. Now, if Saturday is a sign of things to come, Luckassen’s target man attributes can be the perfect foil for whoever he plays with.
There is also another benefit to this because while the cameo of Luckassen and the full-time result represented the positives for Northampton on Saturday, this game was not without its drawbacks.
Matt Crooks’ unfortunate, and rather soft, red card was the overriding disappointment. His recent form has been key to Town’s run of two defeats in 10 but he now faces three games out. Ill-discipline is becoming a real concern for the former Rangers midfielder, even if his sending off on Saturday was harsh.
However, with another striker signed, and with van Veen due to return from injury, O’Toole can return to his deeper role and play alongside Matt Grimes, a position that he thrived in under Chris Wilder, with two out-and-out front men leading the line.
That approach was certainly working for the 15 minutes between Luckassen’s leveller and Crooks’ red on Saturday when the game was in the balance, and had Sam Hoskins’ well-struck volley been two inches to the left, Northampton might have returned home with all three points.
Going back to Saturday, this was an odd game that did not follow any particular pattern. You could make a case for claiming that the Cobblers were both deserving of their point and also fortunate not to be out of sight by the time Luckassen dragged them level.
The visitors started this game well, enjoyed a good spell in the middle and ended it by defending stoutly to keep Rovers at bay. In-between those periods, however, the home side could have been out of sight as they constantly gained the upper-hand in one specific area of the pitch: their right flank. Left-back Joe Bunney had been identified as a potential weak link and Rovers duly made hay. It was no surprise when Kyle Bennett’s 34th minute opener all stemmed from a cross from that side of the pitch.
Away from the goal, Jordan Turnbull produced a heroic goal-line clearance from Liam Sercombe, Ash Taylor was his predictable dominant self and Richard O’Donnell superbly tipped Dominic Telford’s low shot around the post in stoppage-time. Even then, Town had to rely on Ellis Harrison scooping over from just six yards when it looked easier to score.
Despite those chances, though, you always felt that Town were in this game and had a sniff, even at 1-0 down and under the cosh, and that represents a stark contrast to previous away games this season when their attacking threat has been non-existent.
In the first-half, Slocombe denied Long on two occasions, and in the second, Luckassen’s header was followed by Sam Hoskins volleying wide while the visitors also wasting several counter-attacking opportunities as Hildeberto Pereira impressed off the bench.
In comparison to their last two games against Bristol Rovers, this was certainly a drastic improvement. After 25 minutes of Town’s previous trip to the west country, they were 4-0 down in no time and facing a hammering. Eight months later, in this season’s reverse fixture, it ended in an even greater humiliation.
The two similarities between this game and that one was the timing of Rovers’ opener – around the 35-minute mark – and the fact Town ended a player light after Crooks followed Alex Revell in seeing red.
But that’s where the comparisons stop. Unlike those previous two encounters, on Saturday the Cobblers knuckled down and battled to a valiant and important point, one which keeps them out of the bottom four.
Town continue to pick up decent results and keep their points tally ticking over but their problem might be the teams around them. Rochdale’s impressive win at Rotherham drags them to within seven points, still with four games in hand, and even Bury, despite for so long looking cut adrift, are not going down without a fight.
Oxford United, defeated by Wimbledon, could yet get pulled into trouble and there are plenty of other teams who will be nervously looking over their shoulders.
But Northampton can only focus on themselves and with successive home games against two teams in the top four next up, they have their own issues to worry about.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - Was generally well shielded by the men in front of him but came to the fore when required, making a tremendous late save from Telford to preserve a point. Was unfortunate with Bennett’s opener having brilliantly thwarted Harrison’s initial effort just moments before... 7
Brendan Moloney - Almost a spectator for the first 45 minutes such was the relentless way Rovers constantly attacked down the other flank. Still, carried out his duties as you’d expect and then delivered a pinpoint cross for the equaliser... 7
Ash Taylor - A true captain’s performance in the final 20 minutes. Seemingly first to everything, both aerially and on the floor, to lead his side’s rearguard action and leave the home side frustrated. Brilliant block from Gaffney typified his attitude... 8
Jordan Turnbull - Started positively and only improved as the game wore on. Made some important headed interventions in the first-half and then produced a wonderful goal-line clearance from Sercombe at a pivotal point in the second, just moments before Town levelled it up... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Joe Bunney - It was little surprise that the home side’s opener stemmed from his position. Clear that his side was identified as a potential weakness and Rovers made hay, constantly getting to the byline and whipping in crosses, eventually resulting in Bennett’s goal. Improved in the second-half... 5
Matt Grimes - Another workmanlike, industrious performance at the base of midfield. Was more about the ugly side of the game for him here as Rovers dominated possession, though will be disappointed with his set-piece delivery... 7
Matt Crooks - Was having another decent game before his unfortunate, and rather harsh, red card. First booking was soft in the extreme but, on a yellow, he had to be more cautious thereafter. Discipline has become a real problem for him and now he must watch the next three games from the sidelines.. 5
Sam Hoskins - A diligent worker and a real team-player, both of which shone through here. Didn’t always possess the quality in attack but never let his head drop and put in a real defensive shift, especially in the last 20. Almost put Town ahead with the one chance that fell his way too, volleying fractionally wide midway through the second-half... 7
Gboly Ariyibi - Threatened as much as anyone in orange in the opening 45 minutes but couldn’t get enough of the ball in the right areas. Became more about defending and helping his under pressure left-back... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - A peripheral figure on his old stomping crowd, his threat successfully nullified and negated by Rovers. Even so, his withdrawal at half-time raise a few eyebrows... 6
Chris Long - Cobblers can’t afford him to miss the chances he did in the first-half, twice thwarted by the gloves of Sercombe from either side of the penalty box. Was less involved after that before being taken off but there were signed he might enjoy playing with Luckassen... 6
Hildeberto Pereira - Needlessly booked for dissent again but his contribution as a half-time substitute was largely a positive one, picked up possession in good areas and was often the one to lead Town’s counter-attacks... 7
Kevin Luckassen - Could hardly have dreamt of a better debut, heading his side level with his first touch for the club. Fantastic hold-up play too, showing strength and power which hints at more to come... 8
Shay Facey - 6