'It's so close, you can smell it': Matt Scrafton's verdict as Blackpool ease past Northampton to move within a point of a play-off spot
It was always going to head into the final week, wasn’t it?
There was a point during the second-half where it looked like Blackpool’s spot in the play-offs would be guaranteed on Saturday.
But Oxford United came back from behind to beat Shrewsbury Town, Portsmouth saw off AFC Wimbledon and Charlton Athletic equalised late on against Accrington Stanley to ensure the wait goes on.
No bother though. If the Seasiders remain as diligent and as professional as they were at Sixfields, they’ll have no trouble picking up the solitary point they need from their final two games to make sure of their top-six finish.
Even if the worst scenario happens and Neil Critchley’s side lose against both Doncaster Rovers and already relegated Bristol Rovers, which appears unlikely, results elsewhere would still have to go against them to see them drop out of the play-off spots.
Most importantly, it’s in Blackpool’s hands and they’re in control of their own destiny. Let’s just hope they get the job done on Tuesday night against Doncaster and avoid a nerve-jangling final day showdown against one certain Joey Barton.
Even if it comes down to that, so what? The Seasiders have demonstrated again and again this season they’re more than capable of rising to the challenge when the time requires it.
Saturday’s game could easily have been a tricky one against a Northampton side that had to win to give themselves a chance of staying up.
While it has to be said the Cobblers were utterly pitiful and can have no complaints about their return to League Two at the first attempt, Blackpool simply didn’t give them a chance and controlled the vast majority of the game.
The hosts started brightly, as you’d expect given what was at stake. But other than a couple of spurious penalty appeals and an early cross into the six-yard box, they never threatened the Blackpool goal.
In fact, the exceptional Chris Maxwell – who kept his 20th clean sheet of the campaign, the most of any goalkeeper in League One – only had one save to make all afternoon and that was a routine one, tipping over a looping deflected effort which wasn’t particularly powerful but still needed dealing with.
From the 10-minute mark onwards, the Seasiders dominated. Once Luke Garbutt settled the nerves and broke the deadlock six minutes later with a pinpoint, drilled finish into the bottom corner following some exemplary build-up play involving Elliot Embleton and Jerry Yates, you never truly felt Pool were in danger.
Nevertheless, there remained a nagging concern that, despite their supreme authority, Pool’s lead only remained 1-0. And, while Northampton’s goal threat was virtually nil, you always know while it remains so tight that all it takes is a moment of madness or misfortune to be pegged back.
The Cobblers couldn’t even get near the Blackpool goal though, so the chances of an undeserved equaliser remained unlikely.
Thankfully, Critchley’s men put the game to bed late on with two goals for Yates, who had led the line superbly all afternoon with his tireless, non-stop running and closing down, while also claiming an assist for Garbutt’s opener.
It’s now 20 league goals for the season for the striker, who had gone six games without a goal. Only three others have managed to reach that landmark this term.
Once the second and third goals went in, the heads dropped among the Northampton players and the Seasiders could easily have added further gloss to the scoreline. But a 3-0 win will still do wonders for Pool’s goal difference, which could well come into the reckoning in the final week of the campaign.
Another positive day for Blackpool got even better late on when both Marvin Ekpiteta and Keshi Anderson were given cameos off the bench on their returns from lengthy lay-offs.
The more players they can get back from injury, the better, especially when it’s two players of this quality. Having Anderson back could prove especially important given the lack of options in the forward areas.
The Seasiders have just become accustomed to losing players to injury during this unprecedented, backlogged season, but they’ve just learned to move on, find a solution and get on with it. You almost take it for granted how many players, key ones, too, have been missing for large chunks of the campaign. But they always find a way and always have someone waiting in the wings to come in and do the job.
We witnessed this again at Sixfields with Sullay Kaikai dropping out of the team at the last minute after feeling his hamstring at the end of the warm-up, a recurrence of the knock he picked up at Sunderland in midweek. But Embleton, who was missing against his parent club on Tuesday night, came into the side and did a sterling job.
Thirty-six minutes into the first-half, meanwhile, Ethan Robson went to ground with what appeared to be a groin injury. You have to feel for the midfielder, whose start against his former club Sunderland last week was his first since January. That really is wretched luck.
With no other recognised midfielders on the bench, other than Anderson who hasn’t played a minute of football in four months, it was left to Ollie Turton to move into the middle from right-back. You don’t need me to tell you how he performed though, Mr Reliable and Mr Versatile stood up to the task once again - as he always does.
As for Pool, their back-to-back victories have handed back the momentum they already had during their 16-game unbeaten run, only to be temporarily halted by the successive defeats to Rochdale and Shrewsbury Town.
But those two games seem like a distant memory now with a play-off place, Blackpool’s speciality, let’s remember, within touching distance. It’s so close you can smell it.
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