Football League Round Up: Hurrah For Heckingbottom

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 25 February 2018, 09:50

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) picks out four talking points from the latest round of Football League games, with a focus on Northampton's draw with managerless Oxford, who are reportedly set to appoint Craig Bellamy as their new boss.

Northampton’s game of two halves

The final score of 0-0 was not the most accurate representation of Northampton Town's clash with Oxford United, which saw a plethora of chances that had the potential to yield a thriller on another day.

Northampton's start encapsulated this: they had a lot of men pressing in central areas, which were dominated by midfielders, Matt namesakes Crooks and Grimes. Gboly Ariyibi's pace on the left caused problems for Todd Kane, while Sam Hoskins’ dynamism on the right channel made him a prominent figure early on.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink might consider himself unlucky that the shooting boots he enjoyed during his playing career weren’t worn by Chris Long, who missed two presentable chances.

He turned Crooks’ 11th-minute cross over the bar after some good interplay between the duo, seven minutes before the Burnley loanee rolled a one-on-one chance wide of the far post. Crooks also came close on the half hour, nutmegging his man on the edge of the box before firing just wide of the bottom corner.

The Cobblers had to ride out a few opposition breakaways in the first half, but they came under far more pressure when roles were reversed after the interval. Hasselbaink’s side showed none of the aggression we saw from them in the earlier stages, instead camping in their defensive third.

The hosts may not have been helped by the dearth of forwards ready to come on and lead from the front, as the manager alluded too: “If I had a second striker on the bench I would have brought him on but Kevin Van Veen is injured and Boris Mathis was taken ill on Friday.”

However, Northampton’s second half decline also offers an indication into the make-up of the squad. Left-back Joe Bunney, midfielders Grimes and Crooks, wide man Ariyibi and number 10 John-Joe O’Toole have all – at various stages of their careers – played in roles that give them tactical freedom to flourish in the final third.

Those players thrived when the game is being played on their own terms – we saw that early on – but what they may be less comfortable with is managing games when it isn’t going smoothly. That was reflected in the midfield's reluctance to close down quickly; most players retreated and showed their opponents too much respect.

Northampton can take heart from the performance of centre-back Ash Taylor, who should take much of the credit for the team’s clean sheet in what was not the most convincing defensive display.

Hasselbaink is working with a talented but possibly imbalanced collection of individuals, which he must now convert into a fully functioning team.

Positives for the Yellows

Oxford appeared to have marginally the better-rounded side in that match, even if they weren’t given the space to show it in the early stages.

They were perhaps fortunate to stay level, with inexperienced full-backs in Todd Kane and Ashley Smith-Brown, on loan from Chelsea and Man City respectively, bailed out by solid defending from centre-backs Rob Dickie and the experienced John Mousinho.

Interim boss Derek Fazakerley though saw his side steadily grow into the game. Attacking midfielder James Henry had been their best player, even during the trickier spells, the ex-Wolves man showing elusive movement.

Because he didn’t start as a winger, he was hard to pick up when he drifted into the right channel and the confusion led to more space for Isaac Buckley-Ricketts and Kane. The latter had two narrowly off-target efforts and on 21 minutes, his cross to the back-post found the technically gifted Ricardinho, whose effort forced a goal-line clearance.

Oxford dictated terms after the break and even more so once Gino Van Kessel and Wes Thomas entered for the final 18 minutes. The former, who replaced Henry due to a knock, offered plenty of energy, as did Thomas, who provided more dynamic movement than the disappointing Jonathan Obika.

The fresh duo’s ferocious pressing allowed Ryan Ledson and Alex Mowatt to pick up second balls, while Kane was increasingly impressive at right-back. His swinging cross was glanced just shy of the far post after another clever Ricardinho run, before Thomas nodded agonizingly wide from Mowatt’s delivery.

The finishing touch eluded The Yellows, but the impressive way they sustained pressure makes one wonder why they had lost five of the preceding six games and have any fears of relegation. Craig Bellamy is heavy favourite to take the manager’s job at the Kassam Stadium and should he land it, he will have a potentially exciting side to work with.

Hecky’s great weekend

Paul Heckingbottom was expecting to celebrate victory with fans on Wednesday night, when his side led by one goal at Derby in injury-time, but poor defending saw them forced to settle for a 2-2 draw. Instead, he thanked the travellers for their support and gave them a look that seemed to convey the message: “there’s more to come”.

The performance in the East Midlands was undoubtedly a step forward but as far as Leeds United’s play-off hopes were concerned, victory over fellow outsiders Brentford was a must. Thankfully, they got just that thanks to Liam Cooper’s header.

It was fitting that Cooper – who was excellent at centre-back alongside Pontus Jansson – scored the only goal of the game, which required a strong defensive display from The Whites. Wide man Ezgjan Alioski delivered the free-kick for the ex-Chesterfield man’s 31st minute header, but he was also praised for his work ethic, making as many as eight tackles whilst covering a lot of ground.

Similar praise could be handed to fellow wide man Stuart Dallas, who showed typical tenacity while even midfielder Kalvin Phillips went a small way to answering his critics. In a more attacking sense, Leeds had relied in recent weeks on the clinical finishing of Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who was denied his customary goal just after the hour mark only by a goal-line clearance.

Now though, the loanee has a companion looking to share the limelight: Samuel Saiz has returned from suspension and the flair, control and confidence he brings to this Leeds attack makes them a completely different proposition.

This could be an excellent weekend for Heckingbottom side: should Bristol City draw or lose tomorrow’s Severnside Derby, they will have ended it as the only side between sixth and 11th to win. The gap between Leeds and the play-off places is a mere five points – maybe, just maybe – the top six dream is back on.

Ellison rolls back the years

Kevin Ellison raced onto a loose ball, knocked it past a centre-back and unleash an exquisite finish over the goalkeeper from a tight-angle, netting a brace in a 4-2 win for Morecambe at Wycombe Wanderers.

Read the above sentence without knowledge of Ellison’s age and you might have guessed that he’s a youngster making his name in English football. In fact, his name was being made back in 1996, when he started at Southport.

In the subsequent 22 years, the Liverpudlian has shown great professionalism to remain a key factor behind Morecambe’s EFL existence; on and off the pitch. What Jim Bentley’s side might lack in extrinsic financial advantages, they must make up for in belief and having big characters like Ellison – and Bentley himself – helps cultivate the required spirit.

And the Shrimps have plenty of that, regardless of what the six-game winless run after New Years’ Day might imply. They created the better chances at Luton, gained a well-earned point at Newport, then later dominated the first half in a goalless draw at Port Vale. Gregg Wylde, who produced the best effort in Burslem, delivered a man-of-the-match display against Forest Green and only late goals saw the team drop points against Stevenage and Mansfield.

While it might have been a surprise to some to see the Lancashire outfit win 4-2 at Wycombe, who are in excellent form, they might have been due a bounce of the ball. Ex-Chairboy Garry Thompson also entered the fray at Adams Park, as Bentley sees him as a key figure at the age of 37: always respect your elders.

Managers Departed

Last man down

Graham Westley
Graham Westley
16th February
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