Walsall 1 Northampton Town 0 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
Confirmation of Northampton's now certain relegation from League One came in the most cruel, brutal fashion but, if truth be told, Saturday's last-gasp defeat to Walsall was just the culmination of a desperately disappointing campaign that always pointed towards this depressing outcome.
There were regrets to come out of their loss at the Bescot Stadium, as there are about any defeat. You could talk about missed chances, you could talk about misguided substitutions, you could talk about refereeing decisions and you could talk about bad luck, all of which would be fair on this particular afternoon.
But doing that would only paper over some pretty wide cracks and detract from the real issues that have left the Cobblers staring at an all-too-swift return to League Two. The fact is this relegation was eight months in the making and a consequence of poor decisions from top to bottom, inconsistent performances, muddled recruitment and a general lack of direction and forward-planning, both on and off the pitch.
From conceding a last-gasp winner on the opening day of the season at Shrewsbury to doing likewise on the afternoon when their relegation was effectively sealed, it has been a campaign full of frustration and disappointment, particularly towards the latter end.
The Cobblers played well against Walsall on Saturday – certainly better than they have done for most of the campaign – but it was still a performance and a result that reflected their shortcomings this season; a lack of genuine chances, an absence of a goalscorer, substitutions that backfired and a flaky defence which always seemed prone to giving up chances and, ultimately, goals.
That is, in a nutshell, why Town will be playing League Two football next season. It is no single person’s fault; it’s a collective failing from top to bottom, from the chairman to the managers to the payers.
You cannot say they didn’t give it a go and they weren’t up for the fight once Austin took charge. Their late win at Bury and subsequent celebrations, plus the following week’s fine performance in beating Plymouth, were proof of their determination to stay in the division.
Even against Walsall, Town played with grit and desire. They were up for the battle and gave it a good shot, bossing much of the game and only coming up short due to a combination of missed chances, controversial refereeing calls and sheer bad luck.
Matt Grimes and Daniel Powell both struck the inside of the woodwork, Matt Crooks saw an effort cleared off the line, had a strong penalty appeal waved away and then side-footed the best opportunity over when well-placed, and when the ball did go into the back of the net courtesy of Liam Roberts’ fumble, the referee’s whistle intervened.
The major talking point of this game was Austin’s changes. With Town still edging it heading into the final 12 minutes, he went for broke and replaced two midfielders – McWilliams and Crooks – with two strikers in Chris Long and Kevin van Veen. While his intentions were understandable given that victory would have been so crucial, taking off Town’s best two players was always a risk and it backfired.
Walsall grabbed the initiative for the first time in the game, ended on top and ultimately won the game through George Dobson’s 91st minute winner, sparking wildly contrasting emotions between the two sets of players and supporters.
It’s fair to criticise Austin for his substitutions but his rationale behind them was understandable and, in truth, Town were always playing a risky, dangerous game once they slipped so far adrift of safety with so little of the season remaining. Everything had to go their way and though Austin and his men gave it their best, it was always a long shot.
That said, on top of the crushing manner of their defeat at the Bescot, what made relegation here all the more galling was the realisation that, had they held on for a draw, it would actually have given them a real chance going into the final day of the season.
Heading into Saturday, it was generally accepted that victory was essential for Northampton to have any realistic chance of overhauling two of the three teams immediately above them.
But, as it turned out, results elsewhere – with Rochdale beaten and Oldham held at home – meant a draw would have kept them in the mix heading into the final day when victory over the Latics at Sixfields might have fended off the drop.
Alas, it was not to be. Ultimately this relegation is not of Austin’s making.
You can blame him for Saturday’s defeat, even if it’s a little harsh, but to be frank, if it wasn’t for Austin’s refreshingly positive attitude, his rejuvenating of players and his transforming of the atmosphere around Sixfields after taking the hot seat, Northampton would have been relegated with a whimper long ago.
He galvanised the fans and the fact they were given a lifeline and genuine hope made Saturday’s cruel defeat all the tougher to take. It was a painful, crushing way for the final nail to be inserted but there is no way anyone can say this is not what they deserve. They are one of the four worst teams in the division and their -34 goal difference, four worse than even rock-bottom Bury, is testament to that.
It should have been inconceivable that a team which so emphatically romped to the title just two seasons ago can go on to be relegated within 24 months, but that is now the grim reality facing this Northampton side, barring a final day miracle.
There are various things you can look back on and wonder what might have been.
What if John-Joe O’Toole had been fit from the start of the season?
What if the excellent Shaun McWilliams had been in the team sooner?
What if O’Toole had scored the late penalty at Rochdale?
And what if Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had been replaced by Dean Austin sooner?
The latter offers perhaps the most food for thought given how much the team have improved since.
The football towards the end of Hasselbaink’s reign was not of the free-flowing variety and it was the home defeat to Rotherham United which made most people’s minds up that he wasn’t the right man. A courageous draw with title hopefuls Shrewsbury followed three days later but that was just one of many false dawn as Town then lost tamely to Fleetwood, Charlton and Peterborough before Hasselbaink got the boot.
If the decision had been made sooner, would they have stayed up? Quite possibly. There’s no doubt that their last three performances have been among their best of the season. They’re creating more chances – arguably more in those three games than the previous 10 plus combined – and they look more solid in defence while individual players – such as McWilliams and Grimes – seem to be enjoying their football under Austin.
With Hasselbaink, it was almost too rigid and too structured. There was no flow about Northampton’s play and that was reflected in their shortage of goals and chances. That’s not the case any more but chairman Kelvin Thomas has to decide whether team’s improvement is purely down to Austin or the bounce effect you sometimes get with a new manager.
Relegated clubs always face difficult decisions and getting those decisions right is often the difference between challenging for an immediate promotion the following season – as Coventry, Wigan and Blackburn have done this time around – or falling further adrift a la Chesterfield and Port Vale, both of whom followed relegation to League Two with another survival battle, the former relegated to the National League for the first time in nearly a century.
But while it is not a foregone conclusion that Northampton will bounce back stronger, there are reasons to believe they can recover from this, most notably the fact that the squad is full of good players who only need the right manager to get the best out of them, as Austin has done over the past few weeks.
For now, though, it is a time for reflection.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - His only real work of the afternoon involved picking the ball out of the net for Dobson’s winner, such was Walsall’s lack of goal threat. Did stand up tall to block from Devlin and was good under high balls in claiming or punching crosses. Sharp off his line too... 7
Shay Facey - Scampered up and down the right all game, defending solidly and providing an outlet in attack. Combined with Crooks to good effect, setting him up for Town’s best chance of the contest... 7
Ash Taylor - Mostly untroubled as his defence comfortably nullified the home team’s threat, restricting them to few chances. Was sent up front in a desperate late roll of the dice but it backfired as Walsall capitalised on the extra space at the back to nick it... 6
Leon Barnett - Doesn’t always seem comfortable with ball at feet but he’s a good defender and played well for the most part here. Kept Bakayoko in his pocket as the two tussled throughout... 6
David Buchanan - Produced a vital block from Morris’ goalbound shot during a breathless start as he let little past him. Got forward at times too and was as distraught as anyone after full-time... 7
Matt Crooks - Town’s best, most dangerous player on the day. A constant menace on the right, regularly beating his man and creating problems for Walsall, though spurned two good openings when denied by a goal-line clearance and side-footing over. Momentum stalled following his withdrawal... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Shaun McWilliams - Another hugely impressive, mature performance well beyond his teenage years. So full of energy and tenacity in midfield, snapping into the challenges and breaking forward. Tidy in possession too... 8
Matt Grimes - Incredibly unfortunate when his overhit cross hit the woodwork - twice - and then cannoned onto Roberts before bouncing off the line. Good on the ball, producing one lovely pass to tee up Powell’s early chance, but set-pieces were a let down... 7
Daniel Powell - Also unlucky not to hand Town an early lead when hitting the inside of the post within two minutes. Showed a willingness to drive at his full-back even if it didn’t always come off... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - Battled admirably and threw himself around before visibly tiring in the closing stages. Town needed a chance to fall his way but it was not to be... 6
Sam Hoskins - A willing runner who never stopped trying to get in behind but didn’t have the service nor the strength to really trouble Walsall, whose big centre-backs marshalled him out of the game... 6
Kevin van Veen - 6
Chris Long - 6