Northampton have a young hot shot who could give them a head start in the League Two play-off final, says Ian Lamont, but the Devon club might well still win the match...
"Most League Two teams would like Ryan Bowman in their side. They would also love to have his big rival in the scorers markets, Callum Morton, who at the age of 20 is eight years younger. On loan from West Brom, he has netted seven times in 11 appearances."
Exeter City v Northampton Town
League Two play-off final
Monday 29 June 19:30
'Back' to Wembley with trepidation
One headline celebrated Exeter's victory over Colchester by saying they were going "back" to Wembley. It was made to sound like a good thing, rather than the "Oh boy! Here we go again" it must seem for many supporters. Defender Pierce Sweeney and midfielder Jake Taylor have been there with Exeter twice before (two years ago and three years ago) in the League Two play-off final and lost. In this year's play-off semi-final, they nearly suffered a second goal against them in the final minute, but Jonny Maxted made a fantastic save and they progressed because in extra time Ryan Bowman netted the decisive goal. Wembley third time lucky?
Northampton made a remarkable recovery from 2-0 down to win 3-0 against Cheltenham - who had the division's best defensive record - with just one change to the side from the first leg, Sam Hoskins restored after suspension. An early goal helped and then Callum Morton netted twice. In their favour - and if you are into this kind of history - the team finishing seventh have won promotion five times in the past 10 seasons, point out Opta. Exeter, deemed to have finished fifth, face overhauling a statistic of one team in 10 seasons going on to win promotion.
Adams holds some aces, but there are reasons Exeter are favourites
When both teams lost their semi-final home legs (which both happened to be the first legs) one wonders whether "away form" is more important than overall form in being a pointer to the outcome at Wembley. Both sides have now had the chance to get back in the swing of things (rustiness might have been an excuse for the first legs), to find their best formations and most of all to find their feet in front of empty stadiums - apart from cardboard cutouts representing fans.
Throughout the aborted League Two season, the Grecians earned seven points more than the Cobblers, lost five fewer games, but scored fewer goals and conceded more. Exeter won 3-2 against Northampton at St James Park, and in the reverse game Keith Curle's hosts won 2-0. Away from home, Matt Taylor's men took 28 points and had a goal difference of -6, whereas their rivals earned 23 points on a -3 goal difference.
That's how the odds start to make sense, being Exeter to win at 2.767/4, Northampton nudging over 3.02/1 and the draw at 3.39/4. Clearly the layers don't like the historical statistics that say the Cobblers have won seven, drawn two and lost only three of the 12 meetings between the two since 2012.
Taylor seemed a little cautious in his approach to the first leg, with Bowman the one central figure up front, and made four changes for the return leg including striker Alex Fisher for Jack Sparkes. Curle made one change, having changed much between the end of the season in March and the play-offs in June. In this one-off game, there is only so much time for caution.
Exeter need to find plenty of ways to find Bowman (13 league goals), but also others are capable of netting. Randell Williams, often a supplier, has five, Lee Martin six and Nicky Law seven, while it was Aaron Martin and Jayden Richardson, both defenders, who scored to set them up to win the play-off semi-final.
Northampton, whose direct style of play from "back to front", as Curle puts it, was defended by the manager this week, believe in what they do. Evidently they have found a solid combination at the back involving Charlie Goode, Jordan Turnbull, Scott Wharton and Michael Harriman, who gets forward. Much of the midfield power comes from Alan McCormack and the outlet for chances from Nicky Adams, who is key. Morton is clearly now favoured to partner Vadaine Oliver up front.
Up front Morton, on loan from West Brom, says they have nothing to fear against Exeter having defeated the league's best defence. And nobody should forget Hoskins, who returned to the side from suspension, or the fact that he succeeds regularly with penalties when they arise.
Which brings us to Exeter's keeper Maxted, whose manager says he is great against penalties. The keeper missed out on the first leg because he had missed the first 10 days of the restarted season.
Reasons to back over 2.5 goals
After both sides came back from first leg deficits to win, I'd love for the crazy plan of one side to lead at half time and the other to eventually win in the half-time/full-time market, in the 90 minute markets, to come off at 34.033/1 for Northampton and 31.030/1 for Exeter to do so. These are Sportsbook prices while we await the Exchange odds. It might be worth playing around with those in-play.
That would go against the layers' assertion that there will be under 2.5 goals. Under 2.5 goals are priced quite decisively, at 1.75/7 for under and overs being 2.35/4. Yet over the season Exeter's games reaped 2.64 goals and Northampton's 2.54. OK, so that's not enough to actually confirm three - which is actually needed - but I think that makes the odds a bit widely spaced.
Also, both their second leg games produced over 2.5 goals when the pressure was on. They both will need to push at some point and opportunities will open up. But as I recommend this bet I am heartened that the teams' aggregate between each other this season was 4-3.
Morton to muscle in on Bowman's goal glories
Ryan Bowman, almost inevitably, leads the first scorer market on Sportsbook at 4/1 but, given he waited until extra time in the second leg to net, is he the best bet? His manager Taylor rates him highly. He is physically stronger and also quicker than most, he says. His workrate outside the box is "fantastic". If he could score more regularly, he would be extremely hard for Exeter to hold on to. More regularly? This season he has netted once every three games and is the division's third top scorer. Most teams in the division would be delighted to have him.
They would also love to have his big rival in the scorers markets, Morton, who at the age of 20 is eight years younger than Bowman. On loan from the Baggies, he has netted seven times in 11 appearances for the Cobblers. Curle wanted to sign him directly last summer, when he left non-league Braintree.
He is priced 9/2 ahead of Northampton colleagues Oliver and Andy Williams at 11/2. Supplier Adams seems a long way down the list at 22/1 - if his crosses take a direction and go in - but then he has only scored once in 37 league starts (plus three in the play-offs) this season. Mind you, he did score twice in five FA Cup games. And this is like a cup final.
When Northampton have scored in the first half, they have won 10 but drawn six and lost four and Exeter have roughly the same record with a win more. The Grecians also seem to score quite a few late in the game. I think that heightens my expectation of over 2.5 goals but also that the sides are susceptible to comebacks. Exeter gained the lead on the night against Colchester through Aaron Martin and Richardson, before their opponents scored in the 78th minute. They were then grateful to their goalkeeper for a fine save, arguably making up for a mistake to let in the goal.
Talisman could have final say
I don't think it impossible for Northampton to score an early goal - the first half hour - as they did in four of their final five league games plus the second leg of their semi-final, for Morton to score it and for Exeter to score as well, after half time, then net late through Bowman (who is 2/1 to score at any time) then win the match in 90 minutes. Taylor calls him his team's talisman. At which point, maybe that long shot of 30/1 on Northampton to lead at half time and Exeter to be doing so after 90 minutes isn't so crazy.
Any which way, 17/2 on Exeter to win 2-1 certainly looks within the realms of possibility. In fact it is the sixth shortest price and worth the punt.
-11.68pt regular season