Cobblers’ relegation is a wasted opportunity

Poor recruitment and loss of key players the chief reasons behind return to League Two

In many ways, Saturday’s limp 3-0 defeat at home to Blackpool was a perfectly befitting manner for Cobblers’ relegation from League One to be confirmed.

The game followed a pattern we have seen time and time again this season and accurately illustrated why they will be making an immediate return to League Two. The Cobblers started OK and appeared to be well in the game but conceded a sloppy and avoidable goal and lacked the quality or cutting edge to ever get back into the contest.

Two late Blackpool goals as Town pushed on gave the scoreline a one-sided and slightly unfair feel but the truth is this relegation is the natural end point of a deeply underwhelming campaign.

What went so horribly wrong? It can all be traced back to the summer and what happened following Town’s thrilling play-off success.

The club somewhat snuck into League One through the back door last summer when they pinched the final play-off spot and went on to beat both Cheltenham and Exeter in thrilling fashion. In some ways, though, they were victims of their own success.

A delayed end to the season meant a quick turnaround and they were always playing catch up in the transfer market, but the loss of so many important men from last season, admittedly out of their control in most cases, immediately put them on the back foot.

As so often in football, it all boils down to recruitment. Get that right and invariably everything else falls into place, regardless of manager, division or stature.

Cobblers, led by Keith Curle and Simon Tracey, did get it right in the summer of 2019 and they reaped the rewards as the likes of Charlie Goode, Vadaine Oliver and Callum Morton came from nowhere to play starring roles in their exhilarating run to promotion.

But roll on 12 months and they demonstrated how not to make the transition from one league to another. Losing key players is one thing, failing to adequately replace them is another.

As in 2016 after Chris Wilder, Ricky Holmes and Nicky Adams all departed, momentum from winning promotion was lost and Town had to completely rebuild. Not only that, but rebuild in the middle of a pandemic when the transfer market was at its most volatile.

Whatever the reasons or excuses though, the club did not get it right in the summer of 2020. Better recruitment in January gave them a fighting chance but it was too little too late. You feel had they started the season with the squad they have at present, they may well have survived.

With that said, they still had their chances to survive. They proved they can mix it with some of the best teams in the division by impressive wins over Portsmouth, Oxford and Ipswich, but consistency – or lack of it – severely hampered their chances.

There are four games that most stand out – the defeats to relegation rivals Wigan, Burton, Swindon and AFC Wimbledon. The decisive goal in each of those games came after the 70th minute. The Cobblers did not play particularly well in any of them but should have taken at least a point from each.

Failure to do so always meant surviving was a tall order and whilst you cannot question their fight or commitment, they lacked the quality to churn out results consistently to match the spectacular late-season form of Wigan and Wimbledon.

However, although relegation is naturally disappointing, it does not necessarily mean everything is broken. Town do need to look at their internal structure and in particular recruitment and how they can replace players when they leave, but ripping it up and starting again is not the solution.

The biggest question that needs answering right now is who takes permanent charge. Jon Brady has done an admirable job since stepping up from the youth team and he is a contender for the full-time role should he want it.

But whether it’s Brady or not, the Cobblers must consider the big picture and look at the long-term with this next appointment, not a quick fix that Curle was in 2018. It might mean a transition period and a season of rebuilding – though that’s certainly not a necessity – but if it helps their overall aim to become an established League One club in the future, then so be it.

A thriving manager in non-league or a young coach who’s done the hard yards and worked his way up would be preferable. If the right appointment is coupled with a tweak of the club’s structure to better sustain themselves in the long-term, then this season will not be for nothing.