It’s been a period of quiet progression for Keith Curle’s Cobblers as Christmas approaches. The Northampton gaffer has described this term as a building season and that is what he has got with Town 8 places above their mid-table finish last season and a full 8 points clear of where they were this time last year.
Cobblers find themselves in the final playoff position of 7th place but only a point off Cheltenham in the top 3 automatic promotion zone. Nothing has been plain sailing for Northampton though with a half-season built on graft. Town were winless in their first 4 games before a strong 3-1 win over fancied Plymouth Argyle showed the shoe army a bit of what Curle is all about. Town overwhelmed Plymouth with swift counter-attacking and 2 goals from Andy Williams sunk the Pilgrims.
Town’s next significant win came three games later when an unbeaten Newport County side were put to the sword at Sixfields. This was the game where unsung hero and Blackburn loanee Scott Wharton asserted himself on the team before becoming an ever present for the claret and whites.
Early October proved to be the biggest test of Curle’s 2019 as Town fell to a poor home defeat to Leyton Orient before being trounced 3-0 at Scunthorpe. Cultured midfielder Ryan Watson had earlier suffered a broken collarbone and there was a feeling that the wheels were coming off.
Make no mistake, the social media knives were out after the Scunny spanking as Cobblers went 2-0 down after just 15 minutes and then Kevin Van Veen put the tin-hat on things with a fine solo goal and in your face celebration in front of the Town travelling faithful.
Yet, Curle kept his nerve and Town went on a fine run late October run with a trio of 2-0 wins over Salford, former club Carlisle and Cambridge United. The game against Colin Calderwood’s U’s saw the back 3 of Charlie Goode, Scott Wharton and Jordan Turnbull, soon to become Curle’s mainstay, cemented.
Curle had experimented with variants of the Chris Wilder 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 but is was the imposition of 3 centre-backs that built the spine on which Town launch their lightening quick counters and Nicky Adams is able to find shelter to ping balls into the box.
Slowly but surely Town grew into November as Chippenham were eased aside in the FA Cup and individual talents began to stand out in a strong team. Alan McCormack was at his imperious best at Chippenham, schooling the plucky non-leaguers on how to control the midfield. Meanwhile, Charlie Goode, discarded at former club Scunthorpe, began to stand out as a defensive rock, gaining attention from higher league scouts with a series of nonchalant but equally skilful showings.
Then came the true high point of Town’s half-season when a very good Crewe Alexandra side were caned 4-1 at Sixfields. Ex-Cobbler David Artell would have got Kevin Keegan levels of satisfaction by beating his old side but lost the tactical battle to wiley old Curle. Cobblers won the on pitch battle too with a powerful performance that had Alexandra on the ropes. Unsung hero Wharton bagged a brace with the second a lower-league classic set piece struck home on the volley after a perfectly placed Adams’ assist. Curle ran the technical area in his Adidas Gazelles while Sam Hoskins bounded forwards like a springbok.
The match was a great advertisement for League 2 and showed Town as real players in the division as they moved into the playoff positions. Then, Grimsby were undone by yet another Wharton goal, as the centre-half was featured in the FIFA video game Team Of The Week for his efforts while money-ball signing Vadaine Oliver showed that he is one of the best target-men in League 2 with a goal of his own.
Last week saw a close margin defeat to promotion chasing Exeter, a loss that probably came at a good time for Town. There’s nothing worse than complacency going into the crucial Christmas period and the 3-2 reverse reminded Curle that his 3-5-2 tactics are not invincible.
Curle was then able to shuffle the pack and grind out a 1-0 against another well respected team in Forest Green Rovers. The victory sent a message to those wondering if Cobblers have the minerals to pin down a promotion place in a very competitive market.
Now they go into the festive period with a great chance of tasting League 1 next season. Of course, the job is still half done and Curle will have to consolidate his work so far. Question marks remain on what sort of team Town will be if, god forbid, their two key players in the form of Alan McCormack and Nicky Adams were out of the side at the same time?
Town’s possession stats are also up and down with Town allowing Forest Green 64% of the ball last weekend. Cobblers lead the way in the EFL in time spent in front in games but that’s a shallow statistic when there’s 6 teams above you in League 2. The only table that matters in the second half of the season will be the league table and Cobblers are very well placed. There’s plenty to work on but plenty to be thankful for. Have a good Christmas.
High Point: Northampton 4-1 Crewe.
Low point: Scunthorpe 3-0 Northampton.
Player of the season so far: Alan McCormack.
Most Underrated: Sam Hoskins.
Most improved: Charlie Goode.
Needs improvement: Reece Hall-Johnson.
Standout goal: Wharton’s second v Crewe.