Colchester United 1 Northampton Town 2 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
It was more distressing than it should have been but the needlessly tense finish to Saturday's encounter with Colchester United should not detract from what was an accomplished performance and merited victory as the Cobblers belatedly kick-started their spluttering season into life.
The three points gained in Essex were as deserved as they were timely on a day when Town finally turned words into action and a good display into victory with the type of professional and assured showing that portrayed a team full of confidence and riding high, not one coming off a wretched 12 months.
While the form guide may suggest this was a result to raise eyebrows, for anyone who’s been paying attention to Town’s performances so far this season – bar Tuesday’s aberration at Morecambe – it should not come as any great surprise.
It had been a campaign of mixed signals going into this clash at Colchester with generally encouraging displays offset by poor results and sloppy mistakes, but if their dire defeat to Morecambe in midweek was reason for alarm, Saturday’s vastly-improved outing gives cause for optimism.
The three points came as huge relief as much as anything, particularly for manager Dean Austin who would have been feeling increasingly anxious as he chased that elusive first victory of the campaign.
Austin, though, has always conveyed a sense of assurance and calm, confident that things will come good as long as his team keep doing the right things, and his faith was rewarded on Saturday. There were – and still are – legitimate concerns and it goes without saying that one swallow doesn’t make a summer but if those 90 minutes in East Essex are a taste of what is to come, all will be rosy come May.
It could be argued the Cobblers played better in last weekend’s draw with Cambridge United, and even the opening-day loss to Lincoln, but such is the way opinions can become distorted by results in football, it ultimately matters not as long as three points are secured.
The pattern for this season so far had been: play well, create chances, miss chances, concede a sloppy goal and then struggle to respond before falling to defeat. It was feared, at half-time of Saturday’s encounter, that history was about to repeat itself.
For the first 45 minutes, the visitors dominated. Kevin van Veen signalled their intentions just 30 seconds in when narrowly clearing the crossbar while Jack Bridge stung the palms of Dillon Barnes, Sam Hoskins dragged wide and Sam Foley blazed over.
Foley, a real battler in midfield, was one of the star performers as he did the hard graft in midfield to allow Northampton’s front players to shine, one of those being Junior Morias who, on his first league start for the club, caused Colchester problems with his movement and link-up play.
For all their superior play, though, the goalless scoreline made for a familiar feeling at half-time.
But most games have a defining moment and this one was no different. It came three minutes into the second-half when Town, bidding to regain their first-half supremacy, hit the front through Matt Crooks’ classy solo strike.
The midfielder displayed three attributes – touch, power and ruthlessness – in one swift move to find the bottom corner of Barnes’ goal and hand Town the advantage they had merited based on the opening 45 minutes.
The goal was came at a timely moment as it raised confidence levels and eased Northampton back into their groove, and though Colchester improved as the second-half wore on, they carried next to no goal threat bar a 10-minute spurt of activity.
Game management has not been Town’s forte this season having conceded goals at bad times but, on this occasion, they maintained a firm grip on proceedings. And when United’s increasingly desperate approach breached Ash Taylor and Aaron Pierre, David Cornell was on hand to brilliantly deny Harry Pell and Luke Norris.
As the hosts threw bodies forward, space opened up on the counter-attack and Cobblers eventually took advantage with a pressure-reliving second goal, though not before van Veen had been denied by a goal-line clearance and John-Joe O’Toole saw a stonewall penalty turned down.
Town’s second goal was a prime example of the type of football Austin wants his team to play: crisp, purposeful and incisive. The space was there as Colchester pressed and Town gleefully exploited it with Hoskins and Andy Williams combining for Billy Waters to tap in his first goal for the club and seal the points, despite Pierre’s unfortunate mishap at the other end.
What might be overlooked when analysing this game is the defensive aspect of Northampton’s performance. Only Lincoln had scored more than Colchester’s nine goals in League Two this season prior to Saturday – aided by a six-goal haul against Crewe just four days earlier – and yet they were restricted to impressively few clear chances for the first hour in Essex.
Naturally, United’s pressure grew as their need for a goal increased but still chances were few and far between with only Pell and Norris able to seriously worry Cornell.
Reaching the conclusion that Cobblers have turned a corner and are now on a one-way street up the League Two table on the evidence of one victory would be rash and premature, but this performance, if nothing else, adds weight to the theory that Austin is piecing together a team full of potential and promise.
Of their five league games to date, they’ve performed well in three, OK in one and poorly in the other. If that ratio continues for the next 41 fixtures, there’ll be plenty more to cheer this season.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Kicking requires work but his shot-stopping doesn’t. Followed Tuesday’s fine display at Morecambe with two match-winning stops here, brilliantly denying Pell and then Norris at 1-0. Has now done enough to warrant an extended run as Town’s number one... 8
Shay Facey - His presence in the team adds nous, composure and an extra layer of solidity to the back four. Hardly offered United a sniff down his side and ventured forward whenever the opportunity arose, providing the odd overlapping run... 7
Ash Taylor - Has struggled to recapture his form of last season so far but this was the kind of authoritative showing the team needs from him more often. Towering and commanding at the heart of defence, helping Town fend off Colchester’s increasingly direct and desperate approach... 7
Aaron Pierre - Didn’t deserve the misfortune of having an own goal next to his name after a no-nonsense performance as he minimised the risks and made no glaring errors. Equally as dominant as Taylor in ensuring Cornell was not overworked... 7
David Buchanan - Was in for a busy time with the majority of Colchester’s attacks coming down Town’s left as the hosts overloaded that side frequently. Did his utmost to limit the damage with important blocks and tackles... 7
Sam Foley - Scurried around midfield picking up the pieces and constantly winning possession back, giving players in front of him the freedom to do their stuff. Also used the ball well. Not flashy but effective and hugely valuable in this victory. Will take some budging from the team... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Matt Crooks - Just a class act when he’s on-song, as he was for the most part here. Comfortable in possession as he controlled things from the centre of the park. Scored the all-important opener when he demonstrated superb control, powerful running and pinpoint finishing to find the bottom corner... 8
Jack Bridge - Given the nod by Austin for his first league start of the season and backed up his manager’s call with a promising display. His early stinger tested Barnes’ handling and also picked out Foley with a lovely chipped cross. Signs he’s finding his feet... 7
Sam Hoskins - Bright in patches as he surged up and down the right flank throughout the 90 minutes. Danced past two defenders and shot just wide in his best moment and also played a key role in the second goal, finding Williams with a perfect through pass... 7
Junior Morias - Gave Cobblers an extra dimension in attack with his movement and pace on his first league start. Took up some dangerous positions all across the front line and was always looking to link up with team-mates, particularly van Veen. Will give opposing defences plenty of headaches this season... 8
Kevin van Veen - His 82 minutes were bookended by good chances but couldn’t convert either this time, firing narrowly over just 30 seconds in and then denied by a goal-line clearance in the closing stages. Looks sharp and primed for more goals though... 7
Billy Waters - Popped up in the right place to bag his first goal for the club and clam nerves... 7
Andy Williams - Provided the assist for the second, even if he meant it as a shot... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Key in reliving late pressure and was denied a certain penalty... 6