Champions! So what now?

sky-bet-league-two-trophy-4x3528-2737037_478x359The title is won and Northampton Town are CHAMPIONS of League Two. Many of us never thought they would live to tell a tale of a championship winning Cobblers side but after a goalless draw at Exeter City we’ve done it and can spend a summer in the sun as a returning force to League One. Although the four draws in a row that sealed promotion and top spot weren’t a showcase of our collective powers, it really doesn’t matter with the joy that followed the final whistles at Sixfields last week and at St. James’ Park on Saturday overflowing across Town fans across the country.

Last night, the Cobblers did get back to winning ways and saw off Crawley Town in a homecoming fit for champions. Again it wasn’t a score line that blows anyone away but it was important to get back to winning ways and to keep this extraordinary unbeaten run going. The proud nature of Chris Wilder and this phenomenal group of players should mean that there’s still plenty to write home about in the final three games of the season. So here’s just a few things to keep us interested as those below us battle to join us in League One…

The 100 point dream

Last night’s victory over Crawley keeps alive the one final dream of this season – for the Cobblers to reach the magical 100 point mark. With nine points to play for, it’s tantalisingly poised with Town eight points away from reaching that particular target. Yeovil Town, Luton Town and Portsmouth stand in our way – Yeovil is certainly winnable with their safety now secure, Luton will bring with them a crowd baying for our blood that should lift the atmosphere on the day when we’ll lift the trophy whilst Portsmouth away on the final day will guarantee a party on the south coast. Pompey may still need points to secure a playoff place on that day as well so if we go into it with 98 points on the board it makes for a fascinating afternoon. First, though, to get there!

The battle for 2nd and 3rd

Just two points separate second and fifth in League Two with Accrington, Oxford, Plymouth and Bristol Rovers battling it out for the final two automatic promotion places. What a great position we’re in to be able to watch that fight unfold in the next couple of weeks and it’s a position we’ve truly earned. The fact that none of the four play each other in the final three games means it’s a case of who holds their nerve best in their own games and it’s becoming a titanic battle to avoid dropping into the end of season lottery. Speaking of which…

The Playoffs

One of the biggest reliefs about sealing promotion is that we’re not going to be involved in the playoffs. With two of the aforementioned sides guaranteed to be in that mix likely along with Portsmouth and a resurgent Wimbledon (who both still have a game in hand) it’s looking like one of the strongest line ups for League Two playoffs in years. Exciting games ahead!

The fringe

We saw glimpses last night of fringe players coming back in to attempt to persuade Chris Wilder that they have the nouse to stay in his plans for League One. The likes of Josh Lelan may be given a big chance to impress before the summer and maybe we’ll even see some younger talent pop up in the last three games.

The crowning of champions

Finally, the Luton game gives Cobblers fans the chance to herald their heroes at Sixfields one last time before the summer and we should be ready for a send-off like no other. It’s looking like we’ll lift the League Two trophy on that day and images from the end of that game will go into the annuls of history alongside the Wembley Heroes.

So there are just a few things to keep us interest in this remarkable season. It’s a chance to properly enjoy our football and enjoy our wonderful club before the summer.

Up the Cobblers!

Over the line amidst confusion and drama!

goingup

In the end it wasn’t a powerful surge over the line, it wasn’t a clean cut win to take us into League One and it wasn’t entirely clear until a couple of minutes after the full time whistle what on earth was going in. But Saturday afternoon’s target was reached despite the Cobblers dropping a two goal lead to a Bristol Rovers side that may well join us in League One next season. Northampton Town are promoted and however we made it, it’s simply a remarkable achievement.

Just as Leicester City won’t care a jot in how they make it to what will surely be an unbelievable Premier League title win, Town fans should rejoice that the job is done. When we look back in years to come, all that we’ll see is the final points total – up to 88 with 15 still to play for – and our name at the top of the table and after nearly losing the club in November it surely goes down as one of the all-time great seasons in our history.

It did look as though we might do things the easy way on Saturday as Nicky Adams headed in mid-way through the first half against Rovers before the unsung Sam Hoskins made it two just after the break. Cue champagne being popped and celebrations starting as the countdown began to a full time whistle that would confirm ascension. But the Gas had other ideas and still wanted to ruin the party. The prolific Matt Taylor headed home with fifteen minutes to go to shake things up and Ellis Harrison stunned Sixfields into near silence by levelling things up in the dying minutes.

By many calculations we’d have to wait another week with Accrington Stanley winning and Plymouth Argyle standing to earn a point against Wimbledon but then a helping hand from Bayo Akinfenwa of all people saw Wimbledon win it at Home Park and the gap widen by another crucial point that put promotion back on. No-one in or out of the ground seemed to know what it meant but the pitch invasion and party could begin once the club officially announced that we were back in League One.

Cue the players emerging in the West Stand to celebrate amongst the supporters and that in itself is a picture that sums up the season – the squad together in celebration with the supporters who stuck by them as they played for weeks on no wages, worried and campaigned together in the autumn and who deserve every bit of praise. I’ve used many superlatives over the last few months about the character of this squad, this management team and our wonderful supporters and Saturday was a time to just revel in the glory of something that just doesn’t happen much in a lifetime of supporting a football team.

All that’s left to do now is to clinch the title and if we better Oxford United’s result on Saturday (Town travel to Exeter while the U’s host Luton Town) then the trophy is ours with four games to go. The Cobblers are also protecting an unbeaten run that stretches back to before the turn of the year and Chris Wilder certainly won’t be letting up on the pursuit of ending this season on even more of a high.

What a season. What a club!

Edging closer…

After months of jubilation, high octane football and disbelief at a season like we’ve not seen in a generation, the Cobblers are now within one victory of confirming promotion. Though the last few weeks have seen us crawl toward the finish line rather than burst through it, nothing at all can be taken away from what’s happening at the football club that could easily have been no more.

There’s a chance that the big P could be placed next to our name in the league table this Saturday when our old friends from Bristol Rovers pay a visit to the newly revamped Sixfields which now includes seats in the East Stand once more. There should be a carnival atmosphere around the place and it’s a day where you just want to be involved in one way or another.

For the players, it’s a game that’s the most difficult of those left this season but it’s one that they should hopefully rise to. With uncertainty last weekend in the 2-2 draw with Notts County there were perhaps some nerves around with everyone so desperate to confirm League One football as early as possible. But this weekend we know what we need to do. Win and we’re up. It doesn’t get much more tantalising than that in the build up to a game.

For the fans, a step back is needed slightly from getting anywhere near a level of frustration. The last few games have seen us draw plenty but of course the incredible form of early 2016 wasn’t going to carry on forever and if you don’t win then a draw is plenty good enough in our position.

There’s plenty of history between the Cobblers and Bristol Rovers of course and many are looking to the game for the sort of feeling felt during THAT May evening in 1998. I’ve always said that level of atmosphere will never be felt again at Sixfields but after nearly going out of business and losing our club there is no doubt that if that final whistle goes with Town having secured promotion the emotions will be coming very, very close.

Here’s to getting over that line!

The relentless charge goes on…

O' Toole - brace

O’ Toole – brace

After what could constitute a Cobblers ‘slump’ with back to back draws against Hartlepool and Wimbledon, Town returned to their extraordinary and swashbuckling ways yesterday at the end of what could have been another massively tough afternoon. There’s simply no stopping us and the way in which we tore apart a Carlisle side that still have promotion ambitions of their own was another message sent to League Two.

It was also a message returned back to Keith Curle, the United manager, who had expressed shock during the week that we were the runaway leaders and in return got full proof sent straight back at him. Curle, serially bothered by Northampton Town, will now be left ruing the fact that he wrote the team talk for the Cobblers players ahead of the game.

It was another performance of high quality from Town who simply stepped up a gear in the second half when the home side threatened to fight back. The Cobblers had taken the lead through a John Marquis flicked header and a John Joe O’Toole effort before former loanee Hallam Hope halved the deficit. It’s a measure of just how far we’ve come this season that rather than give in to usual Cobblers law of conceding again and going on to lose that we just picked things up again to ram home three more crucial points.

Ricky Holmes set up O’Toole for his brace before James Collins wrapped things up in style for a resounding victory to reward the 457 Cobblers fans who had made the long journey north. The trip home would become even more celebratory as news trickled in of second place Oxford and third placed Plymouth drawing with one another and of Accrington dropping points at Wimbledon to leave us thirteen points clear at the top and a gigantic twenty one clear of Stanley in fourth.

Games in hand are yet to be played including all four sides currently occupying playoff places squaring off against each other on Tuesday night but even so the gap is now surely insurmountable enough for us to start planning for League One football. It’s now got to be a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ we’ll be promoted and attention will soon be turned to the title race which is still going to give us a big challenge. Chris Wilder isn’t the type of manager to let standards slip and though there must surely be a big celebration coming up in the next month or so he’ll keep feet well and truly on the ground.

For the supporters who have been rock solid throughout the troubles off the field in the first half of the season, taking the rough alongside the smooth, this is all the biggest possible reward. Pride just doesn’t seem a big enough word to some this all up at the moment but we are edging close to getting that single letter in front of our name on the league table that would mean everything…P.

A Perfect Ten!

MarquisThere’s just no stopping the Cobblers and a relentless run towards League One. Victory at York City on Tuesday night was the TENTH in a row and shot us to twelve points clear of Plymouth in second place, making this sequence mean more and more by the game. The latest chapter on the path to glory meant that a quick fire double was recorded against the Minstermen and it was again a fully deserved reward for an accomplished away performance.

At this stage of the season, teams are either fighting for their lives, gunning for promotion or standing an outside chance of the playoffs with not many sides having nothing to play for. York well and truly fall into the first category and we know first-hand how much of a struggle it can be to play against teams battling for their lives – we were one of them a couple of years ago.

So it was never a formality by any means as we headed north, backed by an impressive following of over 400. Those hardy souls came back fully rewarded while disbelief of what’s happening this season again spread across the country. More records are down – that’s the eighth away win in a row for Town – and there just seems to be immense levels of quality and togetherness roaring through this squad.

Losing Marc Richards, Town’s top scorer, would usually be a disaster at this stage of the season. Instead, John Marquis was brought in on loan and he put in a heck of a shift at Bootham Crescent including a (re)debut goal. John-Joe O’Toole missed out through injury…again a big loss on the basis of the last few months but Jason Taylor came in and was a rock in front of the back four alongside Danny Rose. Ricky Holmes was rested and started on the bench but the Cobblers still had attacking guile in abundance. The squad is as good as I’ve seen since I started watching us in the early nineties, the football we’re playing is a terrific blend of heart, commitment and pass and move action and we just feel like we’re going to score in every game.

James Collins grabbed another for his growing tally on Tuesday night and he’s another that’s come in and slotted seamlessly in to a system that’s been perfectly drilled by the management team that’s starting to etch their names in history.

Chris Wilder and Alan Knill deserve so much credit for this season but they’re both still very business-like in their approach to the media. There’s no hyperbole about them, no expectations coming from their interviews and you can tell that the ship is hugely tight. If we can hold on for a few more games, the first bottles of champagne can be popped.

Nothing is ever set in stone until points are on the board but this is close as we’ll ever get with 16 games to go to being so positive that we’re going up. Whether we’ll do that as champions is another matter but there really is now no reason why we shouldn’t be adjusting our dreams to include the lifting of silverware – something that a generation of Cobblers fans have never seen.

Long, long, long may this continue…the punch marks on my body are growing by the week but what a ride this is!

Record Breakers

dannyroseAnother game, another win, another milestone passed. Saturday afternoon saw the Cobblers move to TEN points clear of closest challengers Plymouth Argyle and this dream season is showing absolutely no sign of letting up. Wycombe, and in particular Gareth Ainsworth, would have come into the game licking their lips at the prospect of spoiling our best run of wins since the sixties and though they came mightily close to coming away with something there was no stopping a Town side who are sparring with the very best.

Before the trio of games with Orient, Oxford and Wycombe I said I’d take a five point haul – the fact we’ve got nine adds even more disbelief to a season that’s likely to be spoken of for years and years in the future.

Wycombe were set up to both frustrate and to catch us out at the back through dangerous set pieces but Town stepped up to the challenge once more.

The big news before the game was that of Marc Richard’s Achilles injury and seeing the top scorer limping around the West Stand in an air boot during the game wasn’t a promising sight. Such is the strength of the Cobblers squad, though, that James Collins moving forwards with Nicky Adams coming into one of the three attacking midfield positions didn’t make us look too much more depleted.

The first half will be mainly remembered for one of the more blatant penalty shouts being turned down as the impressive Lee Martin was clipped on the six yard line by a Wanderers defender. Referee Graham Salisbury blew up but stunned the entire ground by pointing the opposite way and booking the Town man for a dive. Why he would have even contemplate going down in that position is beyond me and it was a massive error from the man in black that could have been hugely costly.

There were chances at both ends after that with a Wycombe cross flashing past the Cobblers six yard box and John-Joe O’Toole being denied from close range at the other end but it was all square at the break.

The second half began with a flurry of Cobblers chances and the pace was well and truly stepped up. The visitors looked more and more like a team hoping to cling on to a point and when Collins missed a couple of good chances and Ricky Holmes flashed a shot over it looked like they may just get it.

But just after the hour, Holmes combined well with Martin on the right and crossed for Collins to lay off for Danny Rose to finish well into the corner of the net and Sixfields erupted at the prospect of that club record ninth successive win.

Anthony Stewart came closest to bagging Wycombe an equaliser as his shot from distance was well palmed away by Adam Smith but though the nerves were jangling late on there was nothing else to threaten the latest victory being snatched away from us.

It’s the first time I’ve seen us live in a couple of months and it’s a genuine privilege these days. To see a Northampton Town side that’s equal part genuine quality mixed with absolute heart and desire is a joy to see. Every one of those players from ‘Concrete Rod’ and the unfillable Adam Smith at the back to Holmes – without doubt one of the best players I’ve ever seen don the claret –, Martin and Collins, and all around them in the squad and the bench is giving everything they have to the cause of not just gaining promotion but blowing away everyone in their path.

You can feel a change around Sixfields. There’s optimism, there’s appreciation and there’s a togetherness and bond between the fans and players that’s not been apparent for many a year. Simply everything at the club has come together and it gives us all a huge sense of pride once more in our town’s football club.

The records keep falling at our feet and this outrageous season goes on and on…

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After the disappointing news on Rico – he’ll be out for at least four weeks – came the resigning of John Marquis this afternoon. Wilder seems to have an emergency fund to cover injuries and this is a fantastic piece of business once again. Rico’s finishing will be missed but I was really impressed with Marquis during his first stint here a couple of years ago so hopefully as long as we keep making the chances his introduction will be seamless.

Another giant leap – it’s EIGHT not out!

l2EIGHT points clear. EIGHT wins in a row.

I sit here tonight speechless once again. The Cobblers have just beaten Oxford United 1-0 in a season defining result that takes us to completely new heights. It’s now EIGHT wins in a row in League Two. It’s back to back wins against two genuine promotion rivals. It goes against everything that we know as Cobblers fans and I almost don’t know how to respond, such is the rarity of this form!

Just as we did on Saturday, we rode our luck on a few occasions but once Marc Richards smashed home the winner from the spot at the Kassam there was something to cling on to, another three points to protect and the prospect of extending a huge gap between ourselves and fourth spot hanging like the juiciest of carrots.

The strength shown in defending that lead was admirable but also, in part, standard and epitomised a Cobblers side that is as resolute as it is skilful and as tough as it is flashy. It’s stuff of champions, and even I have to admit it now – we can start dreaming of not only promotion but of lifting the League Two title in May. What an absolutely incredible season this is.

I keep saying that it has to end somewhere, that the run will surely come a cropper eventually but this formidable side just keeps defying all Cobblers logic to batter League Two into submission time and time again. What we’re witnessing is close to being a season that’s etched in history in the same bracket as 1986/87 and that 99 point classic campaign. It’s once in a generation stuff.

We’re now on the brink of a bit of history after equalling the club record of successive league wins. One more against Wycombe on Saturday and we’ll be over that line into the history books. Gareth Ainsworth and his side would relish being the ones to break the run but we really should fear no-one right now.

As we look towards the final third of the season, we have to take this all in and enjoy watching this group of players that dragged us out of desperation in November and have set the league alight ever since.

This is utter, utter madness but it’s there to be savoured. It’s another hugely proud night, another one to savour. A few more and League One will start to beckon.

Get the champagne on ice…