This time around it really was a case of cut the crap, win or bust. Nothing to do with the opposition, everything to do with our season and hanging on to the slim hope of making the play-offs. Three home games in a row had to begin with a victory if the long-awaited ‘run’ was to begin and home form not to wreck the season. And we did indeed get the win and the points. Not easily, not beautifully, but well enough. Everything was down to the first goal against determined and organised opposition and for once there were no gifts from us, or wonder strikes, and without fashioning clear-cut chances eventually our pressure told and a brace from Washington, the first from the spot, saw us home, despite Northampton pulling one back in stoppage time with only their second attempt on goal (and first on target).
The team showed four changes, two of them anticipated as Matthews wasn’t available after his injury on Saturday and with nobody surprised that Famewo was given a rest. The decision by Bowyer was to bring back Pratley after his suspension and put him into central defence, rather than Oshilaja, who is still out of favour (but on the bench). That meant in front of Amos, Gunter, Pearce, Pratley and Maatsen. With Watson assumed to be in front of the back four, we had Forster-Caskey plus a returning Morgan (for Smith) and Millar, with Stockley coming in for Aneke and Washington retaining his place but with it unclear whether he would be a second forward or in a wide position. On the bench for the defence would be Oshilaja, for midfield Shinnie, Smith and Jaiyesimi, with Aneke and Schwartz the alternatives up front.
It proved to be a basic 4-4-2 but with Millar operating on the right side, Morgan on the left. And after Northampton almost caught us napping in the first minute, briefly getting in behind, we were bright in the opening period, moving the ball well and on the front foot. We were happy to go long to Stockley, who was winning most in the air, or down the flanks, where Gunter and Maatsen were providing decent support to the wide men and Washington was finding space in the channels.
As on Saturday we struggled to turn good possession and positions into clear chances. A low cross from Gunter flashed across the goal without a touch, a Stockley header was gathered by their keeper, Washington set up Watson who shot over. Northampton did have what proved to be their only shot on goal until stoppage time before the half hour, when their guy got in behind again on our left side and fired it in hard across the goal but wide. And shortly after we had our best chance of the half as a corner was flicked on at the near post by Watson and Pearce just failed to get a meaningful contact to put it into the net.
Not long before the break, after Morgan had seen yellow for a pull back on a guy who had got beyond him, there was a potential turning point as the Northampton full-back who’d been causing a few problems jumped for the ball against Pearce in Aneke fashion and caught him with his arm. All down to interpretation as Aneke has seen red and yellow for similar challenges. The ref opted for a yellow, which was probably fair enough.
At half-time we were reasonably satisfied in that we’d given almost nothing away and could have been in front, deserved to be ahead on balance of play and attempts on goal. There was just the nagging doubt over whether we would fashion the chances to win the game.
The game changed (for the better) on the hour. Maatsen and Millar, who had changed wings to try his luck, combined down the left and won a corner. It was headed away but up in the air and Forster-Caskey saw an opening and ran strongly towards it. What happened next is also down to interpretation. Might be said their guy misreads the ball and takes JFC out, or that he was watching the ball and there was an unintentional coming together. If I’m honest I’d veer towards the latter, but it would have been a foul anywhere else on the pitch so a penalty seemed fair enough. There was a break while Forster-Caskey was helped up and as Northampton looked to stall, probably well aware of what happened on Saturday. But Washington kept his nerve and placed the spot kick wide to their keeper’s left, if not into the corner then low enough and wide enough to prevent him from getting anything on it.
After that Northampton had to change their gameplan, with Steve Brown pointing out that they were now leaving players up the pitch for possible breaks although in general we were not looking likely to let them in. Aneke came on for Stockley, who had begun the game very well but was looking tired as the game progressed, while Pratley managed to spark a minor altercation by moving across their guy as the ball was going through to Amos, taking a kick for his trouble.
Shinnie replaced Forster-Caskey with around 15 minutes of normal time left and by this time, although we looked solid defensively, you had the feeling that Northampton would have to start throwing everything at us sooner or later. Which made it all the sweeter when we gave ourselves a cushion with a goal fashioned from open play. Aneke, who had just seen a header turned over the bar, was played in close to the touchline. Everyone expected a hard, low cross but instead he checked back inside and laid it off for the incoming Shinnie. His shot was palmed away by the keeper but only to Washington, who calmly fired it low into the net.
No reason to suppose that Northampton might score twice in a game in which they had still had just the one shot. Smith and Schwartz came on for Morgan and Washington, denying him the chance of a hat-trick. We went into four minutes of stoppage time and when a good Maatsen block conceded a corner nobody was worried. Decent ball in, decent run not properly tracked, and their guy heads across Amos into the far corner. OK, just a couple of minutes to play out but crazily Aneke put in a poor challenge to get a yellow and give them a free-kick to lump into the box. It was headed on but fortunately Amos gathered and that was that.
Points secured. Have to say that Northampton did their homework and set up to keep things tight, probably assuming that we were prone to errors at the back at home. The difference was that this time we gave away nothing, which meant a very different game to others we’ve seen at The Valley this season. We can’t say we blew away the opposition but for once didn’t give ourselves a mountain to climb; and for that the defence and those around them take the credit. What the win will mean it is too early to say, we will find out more on Saturday.
Player Ratings (but with not much differentiation as nobody deserved a poor mark, everyone played their part):
Amos – 7/10. Didn’t have a save to make before they scored and he had no chance with that one. Otherwise made a few important claims to high balls to limit their threat from set-pieces.
Gunter – 7/10. Decent game, got forward to good effect too.
Pearce – 8/10. I’d just about make him man of the match again. Took the blows but dominated their forwards, aggressive challenges without overstepping the mark.
Pratley – 7/10. Made his contribution, good defensive work, and by and large kept out of trouble.
Maatsen – 7/10. Thought he looked more composed and focused than of late, good to see.
Millar – 7/10. Again not quite the match-winner but might have been, some excellent stuff especially when he switched to the left side, plus good covering back to help the defence.
Watson – 7/10. Good game, effective in protecting the back four and keeping play ticking over, unfortunate to get a yellow.
Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Effective, hard-working as ever, won the penalty through seeing an opening and putting himself in the position, sensibly withdrawn to save something for Saturday.
Morgan – 7/10. Good to see him back in favour, worked well down the left side in the first half although did get caught out once and paid for it with a yellow.
Stockley – 7/10. More threatening early in the game than later, couldn’t today turn arial dominance into goals.
Washington – 7/10. Much more involved than is sometimes the case, especially in the first half. Didn’t get flustered when the opportunities came his way.
Aneke – 7/10. An extra mark for the vision to set up Shinnie which led to our second goal, one less for a last-gasp challenge which gave Northampton the opportunity to put the ball into our box.
Shinnie – 7/10. Took over from JFC to good effect.
Smith & Schwartz – Not on long enough for marks.