Friday, 3 May 2013

It's only half-time...

So, how are we all feeling then?
Optimistic? Pessimistic? Fair to middling? All a bit 'meh'?
I have to admit my own frame of mind has varied between all four of those states since the end of last night's game.
The bottom line is that we were lucky to get away with 1-0, and we are still in the game, despite a pretty average overall performance.
I have seen our display described as 'awful', and various worse adjectives than that which would require liberal use of the asterisk on a family-friendly blog such as this.
Personally, I don't think it was that bad. Average, okay, not great yes, but awful, terrible or worse? No, I don't think so.
Several key players failed to make much of an impression on the game, and lost their individual battles, which had a big bearing on the result, and that was especially true in the wide areas.
Mark Yates made what some might suggest was a bold decision to play two forwards in Paul Benson and Byron Harrison, and employ again the 4-4-2 which succeeded at Sixfields in December.
It worked then thanks to the supply - Darren Carter had a particularly good game that day - but in the 90 minutes last night we gave the pair of them only two decent passes.
Both of those came from Keith Lowe, the ball to Benson for his golden chance straight after the Northampton goal, and then a cross which Benson headed at Nicholls, also in the first half.
But that was that.
Conversely, there is the argument that we played 4-4-2 in a game where the main priority is not to lose - while last week, in a game we had to win to stand a chance of a top-three place, he played 4-5-1...
Everyone knows we struggle to score goals, and much of that blame is laid at the strikers' door.
Harrison is now copping flak because he has only scored once in nine starts, and the clamour is that Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy should get a chance on Sunday.
But would they fare any better? I doubt it very much.
Northampton's win last night was set up by their wide players, and Chris Hackett in particular.
Every time he got the ball, he had one thing in mind - beat his man, and get a cross into our six yard box, looking for Big Bayo.
He did it very well. I would say about 70 per cent of his crosses hit their target and Bayo should have a had a hat-trick. Browny made two saves, one fabulous and one a bit fortunate, and there was a second-half header which went over the bar.
Sido had his hands full, and poor Billy Jones when he came on was given an even more torrid time.
Contrast that with Northampton's full-backs - who were midfielder Ben Tozer and centre-half Lee Collins, but were barely tested by our wide men.
Jermaine McGlashan got past his man once, and shot, forcing Lee Nicholls into an easy tip-over, deep in the second half.
But he compounded his miserable display by getting caught offside and earned himself a right earful from Jason Taylor - and rightly so. Rather him than me on that one.
No crosses at all - and the same was true for Kaid Mohamed.
Both are frightening to defenders with the ball at their feet running at them, but neither has what Hackett, and the likes of Jennison Myrie-Williams have got - end product.
They might score more goals than Hackett or Myrie-Williams will over the course of a season, but their prime job in the team is to supply crosses for the forwards, and they are not doing that.
Neither, on too many occasions last night, did they do the hard yards and help out their overworked full-backs, putting added pressure on our back four.
Jermaine also needs to be careful. He is starting to get into that habit of throwing himself down whenever he loses the ball in the hope of getting a free-kick or penalty.
Referees seem to be becoming aware of it and he will start getting a reputation as a diver, which won't help him or the team, so it needs to be addressed somehow.
The back four had their work cut out all night, but for the most part I thought they stood up to it well.
Steve Elliott and Michael Hector had their hands full with Bayo early on, but I felt that after around 20 minutes they got to grips (in more ways than one) with him.
Losing Hector was a massive blow. I thought it was a head injury when he first went down, then when he crumpled again after coming back on it was obvious there was a problem.
Quite how the referee Mick Russell could rule that he had fouled Clarke Carlisle while sustaining badly bruised ribs in the process is beyond me...
Hector's loss was a blow, and we will muss him if he is out on Sunday. Keith Lowe took time to settle in alongside Steve Elliott, but then did okay, and we know he won't let us down.
While the wingers were having an off-day, so did Marlon Pack. He has been superb since January, but last night he was barely in the game from an influential point of view, bar one cross which Benson nearly got on to at the far post.
We know Northampton are very direct, so the midfields were never going to be in the game much - but when they were Luke Guttridge and Ben Harding had the better of it.
Pack had few chances to get on the ball, while alongside him Russ Penn - after an over-exuberant start when he was in danger of getting a bit carried away - settled in to another all-action show.
The goal we conceded was a poor one though. Bayo had time to take it on his chest, and hook it round to Hackett, who beat his man and crossed to Roy O'Donovan, who was able to volley it goalwards.
Scott Brown got a hand to it and couldn't keep it out. It didn't seem that fierce a shot, and I think deep down that Browny, by his standards this season, will feel he should have done better.
But despite all that pressure, Browny only had one other save to make - the trouble is, so did Nicholls in reality, the one from McGlashan's one moment of impact on the game.
The rest of the time, we gave Nicholls routine catches or what little threat we had was mopped up easily enough by their back four. That needs to change on Sunday, or we are done for.
In the second half, we offered little coming forward. I thought Benson and Harrison linked well in the first half, but it was a struggle in the second.
Overall, the display mirrored our whole season - all hard work, and a bit of a slog, and not the easiest, most flowing performance to watch.
The supporters at Sixfields were superb. The noise levels were excellent, even after we fell behind, and even when we were under the cosh, the encouragement kept coming. More of the same on Sunday.
They were also restrained (bar the smoke flare) when Northampton fans invaded the pitch to celebrate their first-leg success (the key words here being 'first leg'...) which was mostly good natured I think, bar the usual bravado from a few taunting our fans.
But there is hope that these 'celebrations' could blow up in their faces in two days time..
We got away with a 1-0 defeat. Northampton could have been out of sight, as Yatesy, Penn and Benson all admitted after the game.
On the plus side, Their away record is not great, even worse than ours, while we have a good home record.
However, on the other hand, we have to score twice in 90, or 120 minutes. We have scored twice in our last 360 minutes, one of those from a centre-back and one from a central midfield player. Not a great omen is it?
So, in the next 48 hours or so, Yatesy has to come up with a formula to combat their direct style while freeing up some supply to our starved strikers, or our season is over. Good luck with that gaffer.
It's now or never...