A wave of cautious optimism has greeted new manager Chris Lucketti’s appointment and the club legend will be in thick of it from the get-go tomorrow in a must-win clash away to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s similarly struggling Northampton Town at Sixfields.
The Cobblers changed managers on the last day of August after losing each of their first four league games and Justin Edinburgh suffered the ignominy of being the first chief to be bombed out from the top 92 teams in the country, thus completing an annus horriblis for the former Gillingham boss. The legendary Dutch striker was able to temporarily change their fortunes upon his arrival but they have struggled for consistency since the initial bounce; the 6-0 October roasting by Bristol Rovers in front of a shell-shocked home crowd has been the nadir of a campaign that ought, on paper at least, have seen them higher based on the calibre of player signed in the summer and some of the talent already present at the end of 2016/2017.
The hosts are shorn of several key individuals for the weekend, the talismanic John-Joe O’Toole being the most notable absentee. They are also sweating on the fitness of centre-back Aaron Pierre and Saturday might just come too soon for him to feature in the squad. The most likely candidate to be in his place is a certain Leon Barnett. The former Shaker has largely had to be content to be on the bench this season but will be tasked with preventing knockdowns by Michael Smith to the attacking midfield trio behind the target man, as well as covering for the runs of Brendan Moloney; the right-back likes to get beyond his partner up the flank on the overlap and offer an outlet for crosses into the lone striker.
Ash Taylor will be uncomfortable in the left-sided of the two; he has a tendency to avoid using his weaker foot wherever possible. However, he can still be an extremely tough customer in the air and in both boxes to boot. Defensively, he will have his hands full trying to shackle Smith whilst being mindful of the direct style of Mihai Dobre in between him and skipper David Buchanan. The second former Gigg Lane resident likely to be in the first XI has not had an easy time of it but you can always rely on him giving everything to the cause. His good balance and jumping reach make up for his relative lack of stature and pace.
Manchester United loanee Regan Poole is highly regarded at Old Trafford as one for the future. Still only 19, he has carved out a niche for himself in front of the back four, offering high energy and a penchant for being able to keep possession in tight areas and still play positive balls forward to the rest of the midfield. The talented Matt Grimes has stuttered since his big-money transfer several years ago from Exeter City to the bright lights of the top tier and hasn’t been at his best in 2017/2018 either. On his day, he is extremely adept striking the ball with either foot and has the vision to match his range of passing.
Anchor man Matt Crooks has found himself in uncharted waters out on the left as of late. He is aggressive in the tackle and fancies his chances from long range but he will not behave as a conventional winger. I’d expect him to tuck inside in all three phases to offer support to Grimes and Lewis McGugan. The classy ex-Nottingham Forest playmaker is renowned for his direct free-kicks in times past but those duties normally fall elsewhere. He will need to get close to lone frontman Chris Long to ensure he isn’t completely outnumbered in attacking situations.
On the other wing, Billy Waters is another square peg forced into a round hole. He has the requisite pace to unsettle most outfits in League One but again, his playstyle is more like a forward than someone who will take on his man and deliver in crosses from the byline. Long is decent on the end of floated deliveries and he will be keen to add to his meagre total of three goals (which makes him joint top scorer along with Crooks). Borrowed from Burnley, he works hard for the Cobblers and is no slouch with his movement.
Harry Bunn’s hamstring problem aside, I can’t see Lucketti reinventing the wheel with selection or shape. There is little doubt in my mind that he will have watched back the win over table-topping Shrewsbury Town and, taking into consideration his limited time with the group since his confirmation on Wednesday evening, will largely carry on where caretaker Ryan Lowe left off for his maiden game. Greg Leigh and Waters might pass each other like ships in the night and someone between the pair of Rohan Ince and Eoghan O’Connell will need to cut off the space on Bury’s left.
As for a prediction, I think it will be 2-0 to the visitors. Northampton have had ‘nil’ next to their name in greater than half of their league matches thus far and the formation adopted by Lowe on Tuesday brought both greater solidity and crucially, advanced support for the goal-shy Smith. Both managers have their work cut out to revive their charges’ woeful campaigns but on this occasion, I can see Lucketti’s strategy coming out on top and earning him the victory that might just see the Shakers escape the bottom four on his first attempt.