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Turn the clock back to Summer 2017, and an exciting new era at Northampton Town was underway.
Having survived in League One comfortably last season, Justin Edinburgh was financially backed in the summer window and recruited seemingly well, bringing in over 10 new faces with a wealth of League One experience, including the likes of Matt Crooks, Yasser Kasim, Dean Bowditch and Daniel Powell.
Furthermore, chairman Kelvin Thomas had secured an exciting new business partnership with Chinese investors 5U sport, who purchased a 60% share in the club.
Things were looking up for the Cobblers, and the goal of reaching the Championship was seemingly getting closer, as the club were financially secure, had backing from overseas investors and had, on paper at least, a very talented side.
Despite the serious investment in the playing side, Justin Edinburgh failed to get the best out of his side after attempting to switch from a diamond formation to a 5-3-2, using Brendan Moloney and David Buchanan as wing backs, who struggled in this system. Four defeats from the first four games had Kelvin Thomas worried about his investment, and Justin Edinburgh was relieved of his duties following a 4-1 defeat at home to Peterborough United.
Club legend Graham Carr was bought in as a club director to attempt to steady the ship, and the man the club turned to increase the fortunes was former Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Leeds striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, formerly manager of Burton Albion and QPR, and arguably the biggest name to ever manage the club.
Hasselbaink got off to the best of possible starts, winning two out of two, and it finally appeared as though Northampton had hit the jackpot and struck it third time lucky, following the disappointments of Rob Page and Justin Edinburgh, and that a season of consolidation was to come for this talented side. Potentially a playoff push was the cry. Things were starting to look up.
Yet, I sit here now in April, with just 5 games to go and relegation almost a foregone conclusion, the Chinese investors having pulled out of the club, and the development of the East Stand still non-existent, and I wonder where it has all went wrong for Northampton, and for Jimmy, who was sacked on Easter Monday, and the club stare relegation in the face and now look for their 4th manager in just 2 seasons.
So, what went wrong for Jimmy?
One of the reasons for Jimmy’s failure is his constant chopping and changing with the side and formation, and failing to know his best 11.
In football, managers tend to know what system they prefer and will utilise the players to match the system, for example, Chris Wilder’s Cobblers side would regularly field a 4-2-3-1 formation, and you knew what you were going to get each week. For Jimmy, however, this didn’t happen, and every week 3 or 4 changes were made to the line-up, with players often filling in holes out of position.
We had Alex Revell, Matt Crooks, Sam Foley and the forgotten full back Raheem Hanley all deputising on the wings. Initially, this was out of his hands following the insufficient squad left by Edinburgh, and it was forgiven because they weren’t Jimmy’s players, but after signing yet another 9 players in the January window, we still had players out of position, and Jimmy still didn’t know his best XI. We’ve played a diamond, a back three, 433 and two up front, often switching 3 or 4 times a game. After 35 games in charge of the club, Jimmy was still struggling to piece together is best side.
Players like Sam Foley, Sam Hoskins and Shaun McWilliams were regulars, starting games consistently, and then suddenly found themselves frozen out with no explanation. Similarly, new left back Joe Bunney was struggling for form, moved to wing back and had arguably his best game for the club, and was then dropped for the following two games, again without explanation. Furthermore, the lack of width was addressed with the signings of Gboly Ariyibi and Hildeberto Pereira, yet those two are yet to start a game together, with Ariyibi often left out of the starting XI, and Pereira used in field as part of a midfield three. Its been a mess at times, and in fairness to Jimmy, he made his changes to try and get results, but you could see that the confidence from players was drained as a result of his constant changes.
Another thing which led to his decline is his treatment of players. After falling out with Alex Revell and Marc Richards, both leaving the club as a result, and isolating club captain David Buchanan, the fans were never going to take to him.
Furthermore, there’s been an over-reliance on John-Joe O’Toole. The stats when he plays vs when he doesn’t tell the full story, and Jimmy has failed to find another talismanic figure. During the promotion campaign two years ago, if Ricky Holmes had an off-day, Marc Richards would step up, if he didn’t, John-Joe would, if he didn’t, someone else would, and that’s been lacking this season. To be perfectly honest, if John-Joe O’Toole wasn’t playing, we could nearly kiss goodbye to winning. The nearest thing to him is probably Matt Crooks, so if nether is in the side, then the result is basically a foregone conclusion.
Jimmy’s January recruitment was also poor. Kevin Van Veen has spent nearly the whole time on the treatment table, Jordan Turnbull has looked average at best, Joe Bunney has struggled, Ariyibi has shown glimpses and Periera has had more bookings than assists. And it is in recruitment where the problems lie deeper than Jimmy.
Since promotion to League One, there’s been over 30 new arrivals at Northampton Town, and I can honestly say I’m struggling to name 5 who have genuinely improved the Cobblers.
The side this season is unrecognisable from the side last season, players who were bought in this summer left in January, and this revolving door policy has been a major contributing factor to the poor performances. This suggests an underlying issue at the club, and one which needs to be resolved, as yet another turnover of players is needed in the summer, even if the miracle of survival does happen.
Throw into the mix the Chinese investors pulling the plug on the partnership over ‘overseas financial restrictions’, and this has been a season to forget for the Shoe Army.
The most frustrating thing of all is that the potential is there for this club. Just two years ago, Northampton stormed to the League Two title in record fashion, and then managed to attract players of Matt Taylor’s calibre to the club as a result. This summer, we did manage to attract a lucrative business venture from Chinese investors, and Kelvin Thomas constantly reiterates the potential for Northampton to be a Championship side.
And of course, there is the overlying issue of the East Stand, which has been dragging on now for nearly 5 years, and the less said about that the better.
So, who next for the cobblers? In recent years, the club have been managed by Gary Johnson, Aidy Boothroyd, Rob Page, Justin Edinburgh and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. The thing these all have in common? Out of contract appointments. The one successful manager in recent times? Chris Wilder. Paid for from Oxford. I think this says enough.
Whoever Kelvin and Carr turn to, they’ve got a monumental task on their hands, but the passionate Shoe Army will get behind them. Kelvin Thomas reiterates that this club is still financially secure, and the decision to pay off Jimmy’s three-year contract early reflects that, so the potential is definitely there for this club to write off the last two years and start again, regardless of what League they’re in.
In the meantime, the club need the fans more than ever, and the entire Shoe Army need to get behind caretaker manager Dean Austin and Jon Brady, the men handed the reigns until the summer, as the fight for survival reaches crunch time.