"Five minutes of madness" was how Aidy Boothroyd saw Northampton Town's defeat at the Kassam Stadium. He exaggerated, as managers may, especially if their team are last but one in League Two and had matched their opponents for the bulk of the game. The goals that gave Oxford United a 2-0 win that took them to third in the table came in the last three minutes of the first half. Only the first was even his side's fault, the second a penalty so soft in its award that Tim Flowers, Northampton's famously mild goalkeeping coach, was sent off for inappropriate language.
Apart from the former England keeper Boothroyd has Andy King, a skilful midfielder and former Swindon manager, as assistant. They constitute an impressive dug-out. Last season the Cobblers lost in the play-off final to Bradford City, now fourth in League One. Their current position is surprising, for all the summer comings and goings, but not worrying. They were 15th after 11 games last October.
Injuries have not helped, notably to the centre-back captain, Kelvin Langmead, but the manager expressed satisfaction with Paul Reid and Mathias Kouo-Doumbé after their second clean sheet running the previous week, at AFC Wimbledon. "They know each other and it's a trend to play three at the back or split the centre-backs but these boys make practical decisions."
Whatever that means, these boys were unhinged by a swift free-kick that flowed through Dave Kitson and Andrew Whing for James Constable's 98th goal in 201 games for Oxford. Constable also "won" the penalty, converted by Danny Rose.
The story could have been different if Kevin Amankwaah, chipped sweetly into possession by Gary Deegan after 12 minutes, had hit the target. "From seven yards out you'd expect him to score," Boothroyd said before adding that the full-back was not often in that situation. Oxford had suffered three home defeats running. Heads on and off the field might have dropped.
On such moments can whole seasons, not games, hang but outside the Premier League matches are not "crucial" in September. Saturday's papers did not even list the League fixtures. The crux for these clubs may come in their return on 3 May.
Town made other openings, mostly through Deegan, a midfielder after King's heart, and particularly just after half-time when they switched from 4-5-1 to 3-5-2 and mounted three-cornered goalmouth pressure. But Town's attacks foundered too often on loose crosses or lost footing. They of all sides should be properly shod.
Boothroyd admitted he would be looking for a loan striker if injuries persist but said there is "no point in a youth policy if you don't give them an opportunity". Ivan Toney, 17, had a second-half run on Saturday. "Players are not just there to be ornaments," said Boothroyd, who added: "Sensible people [presumably chairman and fans, 910 of whom travelled to Oxford] know we've got trials and tribulations." That may be wishful thinking. Five managers have gone in nine years since David Cardoza and his father, Tony, took over the club, 10 years after the move from the county cricket ground to Sixfields.
He recently defended their £8.3m bankrolling at a fans' forum – lately third in the division's spending, 11th in income and with plans to increase capacity to 10,000 (average crowd 4,083). The signs are that he still believes he is on to a good thing with Boothroyd, who was 35 when he propelled Watford to the Premier League with cutting-edge psychobabble and intensity. "I was said to be the next big thing, future England manager," he recalls with a self-deprecating laugh, as if he might have been weighing up Poland on Tuesday.
In nine years in the '60s Northampton went from fourth tier to first and back. The town has always been better known for its rugby Saints. If Boothroyd can find the superchargers for a standard saloon, he could challenge that. Meanwhile home wins at Sixfields come from Coventry City.