Cobblers kick off their 2019-20 campaign against Walsall on Saturday and Keith Curle has made no secret of his desire to get out of England’s basement division. “Ultimately I’m here because I need a promotion on my CV” said the Northampton boss at the end of last season which saw Town scrape to 15th position out of 24 in League 2.
Since then, Curle has gone all Miley Cyrus and taken a wrecking ball to the Northampton squad inherited from the sacked Dean Austin. Having closed his eyes and swung, 12 players have come in, draining the Chairman’s pen so much that Kelvin Thomas now signs new players with a tiny biro borrowed from the bookies.
But has Curle, who came as the man from Del Monte to pre-season by doffing a panama hat, created a rod for his own back by talking up promotion? The answer as the fruit connoisseur used to say on the Del Monte adverts is, yes. Mention promotion and Cobblers fans are all over it. After last season and the disaster of Dean Austin, few expected a tilt at League 1 but now the P word has been uttered, the shoe army will treat any defeats as points dropped towards promotion and that brings another p word: pressure.
Promotion sides tell you when they are ready, they aren’t made to order, even with Curle’s little black book of Football League freebies. More often than not, teams that go up to League 1 do so on the back of a strong budget, consistency, being well run or with a smoking hot strike force up front, sometimes a combination.
If we cut to the chase there are good eight sides that fit stand out at promotion candidates more than the Cobblers. Mansfield look shoe ins for promotion with a cast iron budget, while Plymouth will be pains in the backsides from the off. Bradford City are bookies’ favourites for the title and managed by the savvy Gary Bowyer. It would be no surprise to see the Bantams strengthen further in the January transfer window and clinch a top 3 place.
Exeter City, a brilliantly well run fan-owned outfit look likely for a playoff tilt after after several seasons being there or thereabouts whilst being run on no debt. (Take note NTFC).
Below that, Dale Vince’s eco project at Forest Green should begin to bear fruit. A a well funded club with a fluid playing style, Rovers should be well placed for a playoff push. Salford City, another outfit with the rich football heritage, will show that romance isn’t dead by claiming a playoff place and showing that success isn’t always about money. Insert laughter emoji.
Scunthorpe United are as solid as their nickname the Iron suggests and their recent 2-0 pre-season win over League 1 Lincoln City was eye-catching. They look good value at 5/2 for promotion.
That leaves Northampton scrapping outside the playoff pack with the likes of sturdy Newport County and Stevenage, who Cobblers can learn from in terms of punching above their weight, whilst the Walsall opener will be a bellwether with regards Town’s ability.
Curle has signed some decent players, and assist king Nicky Adams is an obvious standout. Couple him up with man mountain Harry Smith and you have an obvious route to goal, albeit in industrial fashion. Alan McCormack, looks like the sort of midfield enforcer that Town have missed for years. However, 45 minutes in pre-season is hardly ideal and keeping the former Luton man, previously plagued by injuries, fit at the age of 35, is going to be tough going.
Up top, Matt Warbuton is exciting Town fans having gone through a lethal period in the Spanish pre-season tour as he hit the net while fans hit the sangria. Confidence will be a big thing for the former teacher who has made the step up from National League North level.
The strange sidelining of hot-shot Junior Morias means that there are few other obvious avenues for natural finishing in the Cobblers’ squad which may make for an anxious early season if Town don’t find the route to team effort goals.
In defence, Charlie Goode has been bestowed huge faith from gaffer Curle, not only in a 3 year contract but by being made team captain at the age of just 23. Former centre-back Ash Taylor was roasted for his on the ball ability so it will be interested to see how Goode, criticised for his overall play by some at former club Scunthorpe, will handle being at the core of the Town defence.
Keith Curle’s greatest conflict will be with continuity, being as consistent as Labour’s Brexit policy. The mysterious one doesn’t appear to know if he wants his side to boss the ball patiently or go with a Boothroyd-esque pinball approach of battering the opposition goal and feeding on rebounds. Again, there are question marks on whether Curle is as focused on impacting on matches as stopping the opposition and how this will impact beating the league’s top sides.
This is epitomised by the issue of whether to go with 4 or 5 at the back. The 3-5-2 formation seems Curle’s go-to setup but is ripe for the counter attack in behind Town’s wing-backs as Colchester showed last term to devastating effect. Curle tinkered with 4 at the back in the friendly win v Milton Keynes but will Cobblers be able to control possession convincingly when teams go like for like?
Watching a whole new defence on the back foot, as they will be at times, will make interesting viewing.
Consistency of selection also seems an issue for Curle. Last season, an unchanged Curle side was as rare hens’ teeth and at points it seemed that he was keeping a poor side on their toes by making as many changes as possible. This is now his squad and Curle’s man management will be put to the test.
Keith Curle undoubtedly knows how to pick a side that is a bugger to play against and relegation seems a total no-no which hasn’t been the case under previous allegedly competent bosses. Chris Wilder’s title winning season came as a bolt out of the blue and something similar would be more than welcome but on appraisal there may be too many potential stumbling blocks to consider Cobblers as true promotion candidates.
A whole new side can fall apart as easily as holding together. Keeping a squad, smattered with ageing legs, injury free, will be difficult, particularly with new training pitches bedding in at Moulton.
Cobblers fans’ moods are more up and down more than a Royal Navy submarine that has spotted a Swedish nudist beach and have pinged from desperation to delight in a patchy pre-season. Defeat at Brackley and pre-season results mean nothing but victory over Milton Keynes and we’re going up as Champions.
That may make for a volatile crowd that could easily get on the back of Keith Curle who was hardly a resounding choice in the first place.
Keeping the whole squad happy and progressing will be a challenge too, particularly the young talent of Jay Williams, Shaun McWilliams and Morgan Roberts who need game time as much as anybody.
The bigger question is whether Northampton Town are geared up for League 1 football and higher? Having only just secured some training pitches away from the public eye and no end in sight on completing a mediocre East stand the club is, in terms of facilities, stuck in the 1990’s while not too distant neighbours Luton Town are building a new 17,500 capacity stadium and plying their trade in the Championship.
In the last accounts the club debt to associated companies stood at £3.8 million and you do wonder about the club board’s willingness to inject money indefinitely if the stadium redevelopment and any associated land deal do not go though. This could have an effect on sustained momentum.
Looking at Bury things could be worse however and there will be plenty of games to look forward to with the match-day experience at Sixfields better than it’s ever been. Life in higher divisions isn’t always a bed of roses as fans of Newcastle, Bolton and Coventry will tell you.
9th place sounds about right, tantalisingly short of the playoffs.
Cobblers 2019/20 predictions.
FA Cup: Round 3
League Cup: Round 2
Top Scorer: Harry Smith
League 2 prediction.