Perfect day for Latics

Reporter: TONY BUGBY at Boundary Park; Pictures TOM PICKLES
Date published: 16 February 2009

Oldham 2, Northampton 1

Push for play-offs gathers pace

MANAGER John Sheridan said it was just about the perfect day after he watched his side defeat Northampton Town in Coca-Cola League One.

Not only did Athletic pick up three valuable points in pursuit of a play-off place, courtesy of goals from Reuben Hazell and a 200th league strike from Dean Windass, but most of their promotion rivals slipped up.

Peterborough and Scunthorpe United, in third and fourth respectively, suffered surprise home defeats against lowly opposition, while Leeds and Tranmere, in of the pursuing pack, also lost.

Runaway pacesetters Leicester City and sixth-placed Millwall were held as Athletic and Milton Keynes Dons were the only winners among the top-eight teams in the division.

Athletic’s performance against Northampton was far superior than the scoreline suggests.

They could have won by a greater margin as three efforts were kicked off the line and they saw two more strikes cannon back off the woodwork.

Without Greg Fleming and Chris Taylor — both were suspended — Sheridan handed debuts to on-loan pair Jan Budtz in goal and Seb Hines at right back.

But perhaps most significant was the change of system as Sheridan abandoned the tried and tested 4-4-2 formation in favour of an unfamiliar 4-3-1-2.

He went with Mark Allott, Kevin Maher and Neal Eardley as three central midfield players, with Dean Windass operating in the hole just behind the front two of Lee Hughes and Deane Smalley.

Despite the obvious lack of width, the system worked a treat with Hughes and Smalley, who grows in confidence and stature with each game he plays, working the forward channels well.

With Windass displaying superb vision with pinpoint passes from his deep-lying role, it came as no surprise that they created an abundance of chances.

Maher, so often the odd man out in midfield, continued where he left off at Leicester by assisting in both goals.

One criticism of Athletic this season has been their poor delivery from set-pieces, unlike certain opponents who have been dangerous every time they get a dead ball situation.

But Maher, whose inclusion in the last two games has been fully justified, rectified this by causing mayhem from free kicks or corners.

Sheridan’s wish for an early goal was granted when Hazell made the breakthrough in the eighth minute.

The defender scored with a far-post header from Maher’s free-kick after Hughes was tripped by Chris Doig.

Smalley was unlucky on two occasions as Athletic poured forward in search of a second.

After seeing one goalbound effort scrambled off the line, he was then denied by Mark Hughes’ spectacular clearance after his fiercely-struck shot had beaten ’keeper Chris Dunn.

The Cobblers twice threatened in the opening half, but Adebayo Akinfenwa and Abdul Osman were unable to hit the target.

Athletic finally doubled their advantage on the hour mark following a period of sustained pressure.

Smalley’s shot deflected off Doig for a corner and, from Maher’s cross, a Windass header was cleared off the line by Hughes.

An Eardley piledriver was then diverted on to a post by Giles Coke and went behind for another corner.

But they made no mistake this time as Maher stepped up and a sent in the ball for Windass to powerfully head home. It was the veteran’s first goal for Athletic in his seventh appearance for the club.

Unfortunately the 39-year-old was booked for removing his shirt, which unveiled the number 200 emblazoned on a white top.

Although completely in control, Athletic managed to hand Northampton a lifeline midway through the second period.

And it was former Athletic player Andy Holt who created the goal. He cut the ball back for Akinfenwa to nod in from 10 yards, the effort squirming beyond Budtz’s grasp.

After being on the back foot for so long, Northampton now sensed they could take something from the game.

But Athletic stood firm and should have restored their two-goal cushion with 10 minutes to go. Smalley sent over a delightful cross from the left for Hughes, who saw a seemingly goalbound header strike an upright.

Style of success delights Sheridan

JOHN SHERIDAN was delighted with Athletic’s win and also the manner of their performance against Northampton Town.

While Cobblers’ chief Stuart Gray launched a blistering attack on his team, the Athletic manager was lavishing praise on his players.

Sheridan said: “The most important thing was to win the game, but we deserved our victory as we created lots of chances and perhaps we should have scored more goals.

“And with other results going our way, it makes it even more pleasing.

“I thought we were winning comfortably until they scored out of nothing. In those situations you become edgy and panic a little.

“But all credit to the lads as Northampton are hard to play against. They are big and strong and are dangerous at set-pieces.”

Sheridan said the early breakthrough was crucial, explaining that Reuben Hazell’s eighth-minute goal forced the Cobblers to play a more expansive game.

Dean Windass doubled Athletic’s lead on the hour mark, and Sheridan added: “The pleasing thing was that both our goals came from set plays. We looked a threat from corners.

“We need to score more goals and do things better in terms of delivery and movement, but we did cause them lots of problems.

“Getting an early goal gave us confidence and it also lifted the crowd, who were good and got behind the team. That was encouraging.”

Sheridan was pleased with the performance of Deane Smalley who, before kick-off, picked up the player-of-the-month award for January.

Smalley has been playing out wide, but operated as a central striker on Saturday alongside Lee Hughes, with Windass dropping behind the front two.

Sheridan also paid tribute to Windass, who scored 200th league goal of his career.

He said: “It is a great achievement and fully deserved, and I am glad he did it playing for us.

“You can see why he has scored at all levels because his play is cute. He is at an age where he is not going to run about the pitch, but I have plenty of others with the energy to do that.

“You can see the things he does and he improves us in his own way. He lays the ball off and he has already created a number of goals for us.”

Sheridan added that he wanted to play new loan signing Seb Hines at right back, but it would have been unfair to leave out Neal Eardley which is why he moved the Wales international into a midfield role.

“We went for a different system and I thought it looked all right,” Sheridan added. “Northampton did not create us any problems.”

Northampton boss Gray said his team only started playing when they were two goals behind and then it was too late to make an impact. He also hit out at their lack of desire to defend.