COMMENT: Everybody at Sixfields has to take responsibility for Cobblers' needless relegation
A day that started full of hope, excitement, anticipation and the Cobblers '˜going hunting', ended in gut-wrenching disappointment and frustration as Town were left empty-handed and all but relegated to Sky Bet League Two on Saturday.
The last-gasp 1-0 defeat at Walsall means that, barring a footballing miracle and a win by nine goals against Oldham Athletic this weekend, the Cobblers are back in the basement division of the Football League.
Looking at things in simplistic terms, it is pretty easy to see why the team has gone down, in that they concede too many goals at one end, and don’t score enough at the other - which is a recipe for relegation right there.
But, of course, things go much, much deeper than that, and now that the drop is as good as rubber-stamped, the post-mortem on what has been a pretty dismal eight months, and perhaps even longer than that, can really begin.
So how did we get here?
How did possibly the most expensively assembled squad in the club’s history fail in the task it was bought to do?
Certainly, I doubt any Cobblers fan would have anticipated what was going to unfold when, last June, it was announced by the club that heavy financial investment was coming its way from Chinese company 5USport.
That money coming in completely changed the summer recruitment process.
I had spoken with then manager Justin Edinburgh prior to the news of the investment, and we discussed who his targets were as he went about strengthening a squad that only just avoided relegation a few weeks earlier.
But things moved on quickly, and in the end only a couple of the seven or eight players he named actually ended up signing.
Following the investment, the sights were raised and higher calibre players were brought in, and in some cases bought in.
Players such as Matt Crooks from Rangers, Ash Taylor from Aberdeen, Leon Barnett from Bury signed up, and there were loan deals for Matt Grimes and Chris Long from Premier League clubs Swansea City and Burnley, and Regan Poole from Manchester United.
Things were looking good, optimism was high, but pre-season and the opening games of the campaign in August were troubled, with Edinburgh struggling to get any sort of performance out of his players.
The manager paid the price as he was sacked before the first month of the season was out, with Town having lost their four league games - including being tanked 4-1 at home by Peterborough United - and out of the Capital One Cup.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was then brought in by chairman Kelvin Thomas, and hopes were high the man who enjoyed success at league one and two level with Burton Albion would get the Cobblers’ listing ship moving back on an even keel.
Early signs were encouraging, but the same old problems that Edinburgh encountered soon re-emerged, and the January transfer window couldn’t come quick enough.
Again, there was heavy investment as the sizeable Town squad was rebooted and refreshed - with that money we now know being put in by the board, as the funds from 5USport had dried up.
Nine players came in, money was paid out for Shay Facey, Joe Bunney and Kevin van Veen, a host of players were moved on, including skipper Marc Richards, and again, the early signs were good.
January was possibly the best, sustained spell of the season for a team that at last had seemed to have found an attacking spark, and when AFC Wimbledon were beaten 3-1 on February 10, all looked rosy in the Cobblers garden... but then it all started to unravel.
A 10-match run without a win saw the team drop into the bottom four.
The fans got restless and weren’t happy, they turned on Hasselbaink on more than one occasion.
They cited his negative tactics as the reason for the team’s troubles, and the atmosphere for matches at Sixfields turned toxic, as the team stumbled to heavy and humbling home defeats to Rotherham United and Charlton Athletic.
The 2-0 Easter Monday derby defeat at Posh, the ninth in that run of 10 games without a victory, signalled the end for Hasselbaink, and his assistant, Dean Austin, was handed the unenviable job of trying to salvage the season with five games to go, and four wins still needed.
And after a disappointing loss at Blackpool in his first game, it seemed Austin had found the answer, with wins over Bury and Plymouth giving Town a sniff of survival.
The players were rejuvenated under Austin and his number two Jon Brady, but in the end it proved to be too much of a mountain for Town to climb, as the loss at Walsall on Saturday, in a game Town dominated and should have won, all but confirmed relegation.
So the Cobblers are a league two club again - but who is to blame?
Well, the fact is, everybody involved has to take some of the responsibility.
Edinburgh? His summer recruitment proved to be poor, despite the funds at his disposal.
He left behind an imbalanced squad, lacking width and pace in the attacking third.
It could be argued he brought in some good players, but the fact is he left behind a poor team.
Hasselbaink? Again, when given the chance to mould his own squad when handed a treasure chest in January, he pretty much blew it.
He brought in the players with the much-needed attacking flair in Hildeberto Pereira, Gboly Ariyibi, van Veen, Boris Mathis, but then failed to use them properly as Town’s attacking struggles continued.
The Dutchman was criticised for concentraing too much on stopping the opposition rather than utilising the tools he had at his disposal to cause other teams damage, and it is a valid point.
That, along with a failure to nail down a settled side, also clearly drained the confidence of the players at his disposal, who in some games appeared confused, uninterested and almost resigned to the fate of relegation.
Austin, to his great credit, managed to rectify that in a very short space of time, and the performance in the 2-0 Sixfields win over Plymouth Argyle showed exactly what this group of players is capable of.
On one hand that was great to see, on the other it was a massive frustration, as it was all just too little, too late.
Where had that sort of performance been hiding all season?
So what about the players?
The fact is, the standard they set for much of the season fell well below the sum of their parts.
Much of this squad is proven at league one level, many of them at levels higher than that, and they simply did not show that often enough.
There were games when they turned up and gave a tantalising glimpse of what they are capable of, but those matches were too few and far between.
There is no doubting the quality of the bulk of the players at the club, and I would not suggest they don’t care or don’t try, but for large chunks of the season there was definitely something missing.
That could of course be all down to management style, and Austin has certainly dragged something extra out of the players as a group that neither Edinburgh or Hasselbaink could, but I just feel they could have done more off their own bat on occasion.
And that must be a source of regret this morning, as they wake up to the fact they are now league two footballers.
What about Kelvin Thomas and the board?
Nobody can argue that the chairman and the directors haven’t given the managers 100 per cent backing at Sixfields, both prior to the investment of 5USport, and after that partnership ended.
I’m not going to go into what happened with 5USport, as when it comes to the infastructure of the club, I believe it is still in a good place.
Thomas, the directors David Bower and Mike Wailing, as well as chief executive James Whiting, are doing a good job off the pitch and the club is financially sound, regardless of the relegation, but the managerial appointments they have made must come under scrutiny.
Edinburgh and Hasselbaink, and Rob Page before them, were given more than healthy budgets to bring in the players they wanted, but the problem for Thomas is that all three of those appointments have proved to be bad ones.
The fact all three were only in the job for a matter of months, with eight months the longest stay, proves they were wrong choices, and although I accept that at the time each one looked a sound decision, when it comes to the crunch, the buck stops at the top.
The board has acted quickly on each occasion to bring those troubled reigns to an end, but the fact is, when it comes to hiring managers they have got things wrong since Chris Wilder (a penny for his thoughts?) left the club off the back of that remarkable league two title success in 2016.
Thomas simply has to get the next appointment right.
He can’t afford a fourth successive mistake, and the fate of Chesterfield this season, dropping into the National League just 12 months after relegation from league one, is a warning sign that has to be heeded.
Anyway, enough of the doom and gloom, what’s done is done, and the club simply has no choice but to regroup, and focus on a fresh start and making a success of the league two campaign that will kick-off in August.
The result of the heavy investment of the past two transfer windows means there are already 23 players contracted for next season.
Some will be moved on, and others will arrive as the new manager, whoever that may be, will be given the chance to bring in fresh blood, but the nucleus of a very good team is in place, and one that should more than hold its own in league two.
For instance, how does this line-up sound for the opening day of next season?
Richard O’Donnell; Shay Facey, Taylor, Barnett, Dave Buchanan; Sam Foley, Crooks, Shaun McWilliams, Daniel Powell; John-Joe O’Toole, Sam Hoskins... pretty handy, eh?
There are obviously stacks of other options for whoever is in charge as well, and you can throw the likes of Aaron Pierre, Jordan Turnbull, Joe Bunney, Jack Bridge, van Veen into the mix, as well as returning loan men Billy Waters, Dean Bowditch and Joe Iaciofano.
It’s certainly a solid foundation for any new boss to work with, whether that be Austin or somebody else, and there is the added bonus of a crop of talented youngsters coming through the academy.
So while this relegation is a painful and needless one, and a real kick in the teeth for everybody connected with the club, there is still plenty to be optimistic about.
It might just take a large chunk of this summer for it to feel like it.