By Gerry Prewett
Last season Northampton Town were runaway Champions of Division Two and Rovers were delighted to follow on their coattails with a late push for an automatic promotion spot.
The incredible run included a fine 2-2 draw at Sixfields. Remarkably Rovers had opened the season with a home defeat by the East Midlands team and to rub salt into Rovers’ wounds it was John-Joe O’Toole who headed the Cobblers winning goal.
Rovers bettered that performance this season when they came away from Sixfields with all three points after a dramatic 3-2 victory. Since that defeat the Cobblers have fallen away from the high standards they had set. That Rovers defeat was the first of four games where they picked up just one point. They recovered some ground with successive victories before another poor run; the next 9 games saw defeats and just two victories.
Northampton initially began well and took the lead five minutes before half-time when Paul Anderson created space on the left and delivered an inviting cross that was excellently headed home by Alex Revell to end his 15-match goal drought.
But a relatively even opening 45 minutes then made way for a totally one-sided second as Bradford battered their hosts who were penned back and unable to get out of their own penalty area. Inevitably, that pressure yielded results as Mark Marshall sweet finish brought them level on 73 minutes before City sealed all three points when Jody Hiwula converted from close-range. It was nothing more than the Bantams deserved for their utterly dominant second-half showing against a Northampton side that lacked ideas and energy and spent most of the game defending.
Speaking after the game Cobblers Boss Rob Page said, “I’m very disappointed. We were on the front foot first-half and I thought we coped with how they played. They made two changes at half-time which improved them and we know what Marshall and Hanson are all about. The changes made them better and we lost Aaron Phillips who pulled his hamstring so we had to put Zander Diamond on to compete with them.”
“What disappoints me most today is that sometimes you have a group of players that are too honest and who want to defend and sometimes they want to camp on the edge of the box but sometimes attack is the best form of defence. I said to them that their honesty will cost you against good teams that have quality to break you down and Bradford certainly did that.”
“We just invited pressure. I was screaming on the sidelines to us up the pitch and I wanted to get Revs and Rico up there so when we got the ball we had somebody competing to stop Bradford having wave after wave of attack. We allowed them to do it for 45 minutes which is really really disappointing.”
As members of the old Third Division (South) Rovers have a long tradition of games against the Cobblers. The first meeting between the clubs took place in the Southern League in 1907/08 season Rovers ran out 1-0 winners at the County Ground on 11 January 1908.
The first League games took place in one week in 1921. The first game saw Rovers win 2-1 at the County Ground on 12 March with goals by Sid Leigh and Billy Palmer and Bill Thomas scoring for the home team. On 19 March Rovers doubled the dose with a 4-2 home win, Harry Boxley, Billy Palmer and a double by Ellis Crompton for the Pirates with George Whitworth and a John Bethune own goal for the Cobblers. In the first four post-World War II meetings between the teams the away team won the lot!
The 1989/90 Championship season probably summed up the difference between a winning and losing team. In the game at Twerton Park on 29th October 1989, Bobby Brown was running the Rovers defence ragged and the undefeated home record looked in danger. Goals by Devon White and Paul Nixon had the game tied at 2-2.
Late in the game Devon White was controversially brought down in the box and Ian Holloway converted the penalty to give the Gas an unlikely lead. Then with the seconds ticking away an unlucky Trevor Quow guided a clearance into his own net to give the final score of 4-2. It was all 6 points to Rovers largely due to their 'never say die' spirit, after another Ian Holloway penalty secured a 2-1 win at the County Ground.
The previous time Rovers had 'done the double' over the Cobblers was back in 1967/68 season. Two goals in the home game by Stuart Taylor secured the points at Eastville. However it was the game at the County Ground that had been so remarkable.
Rovers’ away record was nothing to shout about, of their first 7 away games they had won 1 drawn 2 and lost 4, the Cobblers had won 5 of their previous 6 games. Converted Left Half Ray Mabbutt had a field day in the County Ground mud.
Frank Large gave the home team an early lead but Rovers were quickly level when a Johnny Williams pile driver was parried by Harvey straight to Mabbutt, who stabbed the ball home. Soon after Large was brought down in the box and Mackin scored from the spot past Ronnie Briggs. It fell to Bobby Jones scoring against his old club to restore Rovers to parity.
A 30-yard shot from Johnny Williams gave Rovers a 3-2 lead but that man Large made sure things were all square by half time. It was some while into the second-half before the goals started to roll in again, Mabbutt accepting a simple tap in past Bryan Harvey before Large scored the Cobblers fourth goal and completed his hat trick. Not to be outdone Mabbutt scored once more to complete the only hat trick of his career and to give Rovers an incredible 5-4 away win
In the 1997/98 Play-Off Semi-Finals, having secured a 3-1 home win many Rovers fans were already booking tickets for Wembley. However the Cobblers thought (quite rightly, as it turned out) that their away goal, scored late in the game, would be crucial. Peter Beadle (penalty), Frankie Bennett and Barry Hayles scored for Rovers and John Gayle scored the late Cobblers goal. So it turned out, the 3-0 reverse at Sixfields was stunning. Carl Heggs, Ian Clarkson and Ray Warburton ensured that it was the Midlands team who went through.
One player sure to receive a hot reception is former Rovers top scorer John-Joe O’Toole who, unsurprisingly has been attracting the attention of Referees and O’Toole feels it is unwarranted.
After picking up nine bookings in the first 29 games last season, O’Toole is already on 12 cautions in the same amount of games of the current campaign, putting him within three yellow cards of a three-game suspension.
But while the player accepts he must learn to keep his emotions in check, O’Toole also feels referees are being overly picky when it comes to dishing out yellow cards. “I could stand here and blame referees but people will just say I need to look at myself. But I’m a passionate player and I don’t shy away from a tackle.”
“It’s hard when you feel hard done by and you’re working hard and you feel like the man in black isn’t pulling his weight or doing his job properly. It’s hard to take sometimes and sometimes I’ve lost my cool but I think I’ve been a bit unlucky with a couple, I’ve got to be honest. You make a couple of tackles early on and you get booked for them and you just want to pull your hair out. Maybe I should shave my hair off!”
Looking to strengthen his squad Page has been given the go-ahead to make further loan signings, having already signed Millwall winger Gregg Wylde and Crystal Palace central midfielder Hiram Boateng on loan until the end of the season.
The most urgent area that needs strengthening is at right-back, with both Aaron Phillips and Brendan Moloney expected to be out until at least February with hamstring and knee injuries respectively. Zander Diamond was forced to cover at right-back in the second half of Monday’s 2-1 defeat to Bradford City and struggled, and the Scot is now expected to return to the more familiar surroundings of central defence to replace Gaby Zakuani, who is on international duty with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Page is also believed to be close to strengthening the Cobblers attack, with the deal for one striker already agreed, although it may not be signed off before this weekend at the request of his current club. Another striker is also on the Cobblers boss’s radar, as he tries to pep up his side’s goal power. Wylde - who came on as a second-half substitute against the Bantams - and Boateng are both in line to make their full debuts on Saturday, with Page likely to reshape his team.