It’s playoff day at Sixfields and Northampton Town prepare for a sell-out crowd as Cobblers try to de-feather the Robins. Actually scratch that, Cobblers are getting ready to take on Cheltenham in an empty Sixfields, with the roar of the crowd missing but the allure of Wembley in the air.
Football in many way is about closeness, at odds with the social distancing of the covid-19 crisis. Hard tackles and the proximity of fans to each other and the pitch is what football is all about so it will no doubt be a strange event tonight.
In many ways it’s the team that adjust to the unusual settings that will come out on top over the two games. Fitness will also play a part with the coronavirus hiatus forcing players to keep in shape in any way they can.
On paper, Cheltenham are favourites to progress, being a clear 6 points ahead of the Cobblers when the League 2 season ground to a halt. Michael Duff’s side were hunting down the top 3 whereas Keith Curle’s Cobblers had Port Vale breathing down their neck in the last playoff place.
However, all that goes out of the window now like a TV in a Rolling Stones hotel suite and Cobblers have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Cheltenham are the better footballing side on the deck but Northampton can hurt anyone with their direct style and danger from set pieces.
The game looks to be an even match up tactically, both sides utilise a wing-back system and it is likely that whoever wins the central midfield battle will win out overall.
Both managers are keeping their cards close to their chests with regards starting elevens but Curle will be hoping that the injury plagued Alan McCormack stays safe right up to kick-off. The Irishman has the ability to control the centre-midfield and pick out intelligent passes and it is crucial he stays on the pitch over the 2 legs.
If McCormack starts to flag that may make space for Cheltenham’s talented midfielders Ryan Broom and Jake Doyle-Hayes to surge on and change the game. But Cobblers have Arsenal loanee James Olayinka in the fold and the 19-year old is a talented ball carrier of his own. This could be an end to end encounter.
Match management will be key and it will be interesting to see how a gung-ho Curle manages a tie over 180 minutes rather than the standard 90. Cobblers have lost a fair few points in the final 20 minutes from leading positions so it will be crucial that they keep things tight right up to the final whistle of the return game at Whadden Road.
Cheltenham have a solid back 3 including former Cobbler Ben Tozer and the Robins rearguard will have to be resolute to withstand what is likely to be an aerial bombardment from Northampton. Nicky Adams will be a focal point for Cobblers as he always is and the Cheltenham defence will have to be on point throughout to cope with Northampton’s artillery attack.
Northampton could have the mental edge, having seen off Cheltenham in the 2013 playoff semi-final. Luke Guttridge stunned the Robins fans with a long range screamer back then and Cobblers have vast experience of competing in the playoffs in the past 30 years.
Of course, there will be no fans in attendance so it will be interesting to see which team can rouse itself from going behind with no supporters to roar them on. Let’s not forget, many players will be out of contract as soon as this is all over too so we’ll see if every competitor finds that extra yard when they may already know that they will be leaving their respective club.
Weather conditions may play into Northampton’s hands with a deluge of rain ahead of the first leg softening the ground, potentially hampering Cheltenham’s passing instincts.
In many ways this is ghost playoffs but the spirit of the fans is strong with thousands watching on at home and relishing this unexpected end to the season.
I expect a very close 1st leg finishing as a 1-1 draw. Then everything will be up for grabs in the second leg as Cobblers and Cheltenham collide.