Northampton avoid the drop
Welcome to the jungle, we got fun ‘n’ games! Cobblers’ fans have been taking up battle stations this week as their team got stuck into the dirty business of a relegation skirmish.
No struggles against relegation are as filthy as those to avoid the drop into non-league football and with Gary Johnson’s men clocking up a club record eighteen games without victory, an almighty scrap was on the cards against Stevenage (a club not exactly backwards in coming forwards) on Saturday.
Northampton perched a point above the drop zone going into the game, clinging onto the precipice while Barnet grabbed at their ankles trying to pull them down into the abyss
The gravity of the situation was not lost on a section of the Cobblers faithful who were concerned at the unsettling effect of new manager Gary Johnson on a beleaguered squad. Message board discussions abounded with the idea that Johnson had gone a little too Colonel Kurtz by “dropping grenades” in the dressing room and telling certain players that (in his words) have been “nicking a living” exactly what he thought of them.
Some argued that a stealth approach would be more effective in getting the best out of a group of players that was likely to break up as soon as the season was over. Indeed, it could be argued that Johnson’s gunboat diplomacy was not the smartest ploy given that certain players may still have been loyal to previous manager Ian Sampson (who was present) and resenting his dismissal.
Thankfully, Johnson had taken notes from the General Montgomery manual rather than the charge of the Light Brigade approach the Cobblers had taken up in recent heavy defeats to Bury and Accrington Stanley. Northampton came out all guns blazing against Graham Westley’s Stevenage side, an outfit noted for their supreme physical conditioning.
This physical strength, however, proved to be less significant than the Cobblers’ home advantage and more importantly the superior technical ability of one or two of Northampton’s players.
Indeed, Liam Davis, perhaps Northampton’s chief underachiever this season, brought his A-game when it counted with a terrific left footed drive after only three minutes, which fizzed past Chris Day.
The goal highlighted Davis’ ability to ghost past opponents and invigorated a Northampton side whose mental frailty often undermines their footballing ability.
Not that Stevenage (in contrast) were anything to write home about. From the very outset it seemed as if they had been drilled into gaining advantage through old fashioned spoiling tactics and underhand tricks such as moving the ball forward a couple of feet from where free kicks were committed and wandering in advance of throw in positions.
This would be all well and good if they were a top level team, attempting to gain an extra one-per-cent advantage from every encounter but with their general game being so lacklustre they came across like a blustering 1950’s non league outfit.
Indeed, Stevenage boss Graham Westley, who looks like a used car salesman and makes his players train for twelve hours a day while pulling lorries with their teeth, ran around the touchline like a demented competitive dad at sports day, screeching at his lads to grind their opponents into the dust.
It was no surprise then that Luke Foster was sent off after thirty-seven minutes after a stamping motion tackle which was inappropriate considering the uneven pitch and gusty conditions, neither the red card shown to John Mousinho for a jump tackle right in front of competitive pop Westley who was no doubt frothing at the mouth.
Gary Johnson on the other hand was happy to see his side merely win and they went about their task with a professional attitude. Perhaps it was the posh team meal at the Marriot in Northampton that had provided nourishment to the Cobblers players? Given that they are used to eating at the Red Hot Buffet at Sixfields (all you can eat £5.50) anything is an improvement.
Whatever the case, Northampton were able to show off a little of the technical ability which had gone awol in the dark months after Christmas last year. With a dry pitch, the likes of Kevin Thornton, who would be a Championship player if his fitness matched his ability on the ball, unpicked the Boro midfield with a series of clever passes. Likewise Michael Jacobs, whose dribbling and left foot crossing is above average for League Two and Sean Harrad, whose work ethic is as admirable as his ability to produce telling first time shots.
Stevenage’s frustration grew throughout the game and peaked as a Chris Beardsley shot beat Chris Dunn only to hit the bar and bounce out almost exactly as it had done in the previous fixture at Broadhall Way. On that occasion as in this, the “goal” wasn’t given and the Cobblers were able to achieve a crucial double against the Hertfordshire side, which sustained their league status.
This was firmly cemented on fifty-nine minutes when Irish trickster Thornton seized onto a through ball which penetrated Stevenage’s stretched defence. Chris Day managed to save from the oncoming Thornton but Michael Uwezu, the pint sized former Fulham player calmly sidefooted the rebound home with his left foot.
News had filtered through from Accrington that Stanley were two-one up against Barnet and with a further Accrington goal on sixty-six minutes the fans in claret and white knew they had dodged joining local rivals Luton in football’s stinky old cellar (a.k.a The Blue Square Premier).
Stewards began frantic announcements forbidding a pitch invasion but considering they had failed to prevent a man in a wheelchair entering the field of play during the previous game (see youtube) they were unable to prevent an ecstatic and rapturously relieved Cobblers army from coming on at the final whistle.
Of course, as soon as they had entered the playing surface, they didn’t know what to do with themselves. It was however symbolic, Stevenage had been repelled.
Cobblers fans are always fighting for something, we just haven’t worked out what it is yet.