Alex Nicholls scored a hat-trick on his return to action from a 21-month absence through injury on an emotional afternoon at Fernie Fields.
The Cobblers were 9-0 winners over a spirited but outclassed Sileby Rangers team in their opening pre-season friendly, with seven goals coming in the second half, but it was the return to action of striker Nicholls that was the talking point of the afternoon.
The former Walsall man hasn’t played since breaking his leg in a match against Port Vale in October, 2012.
Nicholls was introduced to the fray in the 52nd minute to a rousing reception from the Cobblers fans, and went on to score three times, with his first goal producing the biggest cheer of the day from the crowd.
Indeed, after scoring that first goal, Nicholls was mobbed by every single team-mate, and you could see what it meant to them all to see Nicholls back on a football pitch, not just the player himself.
John-Joe O’Toole also scored a hat-trick, while other goals came from Lee Collins, Ivan Toney and Chris Hackett.
Town lined up in a 4-4-2 formation in the first half, with Ivan Toney partnering Emile Sinclair up front, David Moyo on the right and Kaid Mohamed on the left, with Darren Carter and John-Joe O’Toole in central midfield.
Kelvin Langmead and Lee Collins were the central defensive pairing, with Evan Horwood left back and Connor Roberts on the right.
The Cobblers dominated possession from the off, and created a couple of early half chances, but it was the ninth minute before they had a serious effort on goal. That came from a rasping 25-yard drive from left backEvan Horwood that was a whisker over the top.
On 15 miinutes, Sinclair threaded through a neat pass that released Moyo in the Sileby penalty area, but he poked his shot wide. The Town man was also clattered by the Sileby goalkeeper, but the referee didn’t see it as a penalty.
Sinclair fluffed a great chance to open the scoring on 18 minutes, scuffing his shot from 10 yards wide after he was teed up by strike partner Toney. He should have scored.
The Cobblers did take the lead on 23 minutes, Collins heading home a Carter corner at the far post. It was a simple finish for the Town defender.
On 26 minutes Toney almost doubled Town’s lead. The striker, who was very lively, won possession midway inside the Sileby half, raced in on goal and unleashed a fizzing shot from the edge of the area that was tipped over the top.
Chances proved to be at a premium for the rest of the half, with Town’s best effort a tame shot from Toney that was straight at the goalkeeper, but the chance was created by good link-up play between Toney and Moyo, who enjoyed a good half.
Then, with just seconds remaining, the Cobblers doubled their lead, Toney’s cross from the right wing deceiving the home goalkeeper, with the ball flying over his head and into the far corner.
Sileby’s players worked hard and were competitive, but Snedker didn’t have to make a save in the first 45 minutes.
The Cobblers made several changes at half-time, with Nicholls making his much-anticipated return to action on 52 minutes, the player receiving a tremendous reception from all inside the ground.
By then, the Cobblers were 3-0 up, O’Toole sliding home a neat finish from 12 yards after a pull back from right winger Chris Hackett, who had been sent clear by a lovely pass from right-back Danny Alfei.
By now, Sileby’s players were running out of steam, and the difference in fitness levels really began to tell.
On 59 minutes O’Toole completed his hat-trick, chesting the ball in after a Nicholls shot had been blocked, and the former Bristol Rovers man completed his hat-trick and made it 5-0, tapping in after Gregor Robertson’s shot had been saved.
On 75 minutes came the moment everybody wanted to see, Nicholls calmly slotting in after he had been sent clear one-on-one with the Sileby goalkeeper.
Chris Hackett made it 7-0 on 80 minutes, driving home from the edge of the area, and two minutes later Nicholls scored his second, sliding in to score after Sam Warburton’s shot had been tipped on to the post.
The most pleasing thing about this goal was that Nicholls went in where it hurts, challenging the goalkeeper and a defender to get to the ball first.
It was not unlike the incident that saw him get injured, and proves that he is already over any psychological issues.
With four minutes remaining, Nicholls, who looked sharp and fit, rounded off a pretty perfect afternoon for him, slotting his third and the team’s ninth from the left side of the penalty area.
Cobblers first-half team: Snedker, Roberts, Horwood, Langmead, Collins, O’Toole, Carter, Moyo, Mohamed, Sinclair, Toney
Cobblers second-half team: Duke, Roberts (Alfei 50m), Langmead, Collins, Robertson, Hackett, Tozer, Morris, Mohamed (Nicholls, 53m), O’Toole (Warburton, 67m), Richards
Goals: 23 mins: Collins, 1-0; 45 mins: Toney, 2-0; 52 mins: O’Toole, 3-0; 59 mins: O’Toole, 4-0; 63 mins: O’Toole, 5-0; 75 mins: Nicholls, 6-0; 80 mins: Hackett, 7-0; 82 mins: Nicholls, 8-0; 86 mins: Nicholls, 9-0.