It might not have been a battering but Cheltenham Town put in a finger licking good performance to see off Northampton in the 1st leg of the League 2 playoff semi-final at Sixfields.
The outcome could have been different if Ryan Watson had put away a 16th minute penalty but the Cobblers midfielder telegraphed his spot-kick and it was repelled by the agile Owen Evans.
Events might have further deviated if Cobblers had a plan B other than the ultra-direct style nicknamed “Curle-Ball” but that wasn’t the case and Cheltenham eased into dominating the meaningful play on the deck.
Part of Northampton’s success this season has been in getting in their opponents faces, not really the done thing after the Covid-19 restart and with both sides pressing lighter than usual, it came down to who were the better footballing team and that proved to be the away side from Gloucestershire.
The centre of the park was always going to be the key battle-ground and the Robins took the impetus there with Ryan Broom moving the ball well, while loanee Jake Doyle-Hayes showed his Aston Villa schooling via quietly effective work around the centre-circle.
Cheltenham had the lead on 26 minutes from a well-worked corner, good movement by Charlie Raglan and leaden footed Cobblers zonal marking. Raglan was a live to a well whipped Doyle-Hayes corner to flick the ball beyond Steve Arnold, leaving static Cobblers defenders scratching their heads.
With Cheltenham bossing possession, it was at this point that Cobblers required tactical flexibility but there was little as the long ball continued to be eaten up by the Cheltenham defence like a belly buster breakfast after a week of fasting. Cobblers play like trying to put together an Ikea flat pack without reading the instructions. They know the outcome they want but don’t seem to bother with the basic nuts and bolts.
The one bright spark for Northampton was borrowed Arsenal attacking midfielder James Olayinka, a tricky player with street football skills who showed good feet and shot strength to sting the palms of Evans from range just short of half-time.
Cobblers went into the half-time break with a similar level of silence as they would with this sort of performance in a full Sixfields. The cardboard cutout pet dogs in the stands meanwhile were howling for something better in the second half.
Alas, it didn’t seem to materialise and on 67 minutes, just as Cobblers could perhaps build a way back in, their two best players on paper were withdrawn. Irish terrier midfielder Alan McCormack made way for Paul Anderson while the free-running Callum Morton was replaced by Andy Williams.
There were question marks beforehand over how long the injury prone McCormack would last and Cobblers really needed the Dubliner in the game till the end. West Brom loanee Morton’s withdrawal was questionable with the ginger haired forward a more willing runner than Forest Gump and capable of scoring from nothing.
Meanwhile, Scott Pollock looked on from a socially distanced substitutes bench, the Cobblers player known for his technique and passing ability but an unused option by Curle.
Robins’ boss Duff’s team-talk could easily have been “we are better than Northampton, just play your football and we’ll win” and Cobblers just didn’t do enough to challenge that concept.
Cheltenham grabbed their second with 4 to play when Jonte Smith jinked through the Cobblers defence and the Bermudan’s cross landed at the feet of Conor Thomas to slot home.
A 2-0 playoff away lead is a fearsome one for Cheltenham but Cobblers came back from a 3-1 deficit in the 1998 playoffs, showing it can be done.
Keith Curle will have to allow his adapt the range of his team’s passing, however, otherwise the Robins will make short work of Cobblers long ball game in the return match at Whadden Road on Monday.
Anderson (for McCormack) 5
Williams (for Morton) 5
Smith (for Oliver) 5