>Mid table security at Christmas, easing to a safety most assumed would come and even looking up towards the playoffs if we had a decent transfer window in January, it was inconceivable at the turn of the year that the Cobblers would end the season with this much despair. Elland Road was the setting, the stage for the tragedy that even Shakespeare would feel too cruel to write.
As the players trudged towards the band of Cobblers fans at the end of this comfortable defeat, realising that other results had gone against us, the players that got us to this point seemed beaten, shoulders well and truly down in every sense of the word. Mark Hughes gave away his boots and shirt in a gesture that many believed meant that he will be off in the summer whilst Adebayo Akinfenwa and Leon Constantine, close friends off the pitch, consoled each other as it set in that we would be a League Two club next season.
We knew it would be a tough task to get the point we needed ourselves and most nerves were resting on the results elsewhere as Carlisle and Brighton played home games while we made the trip north. A bad omen from the start of the morning came about when we stopped off for a half an hour toilet break. The fact that it was a half hour break in itself showed that the coach organisers perhaps felt need for some time to get something out of our system. Squeeky bum time this most certainly was. Dad mentioned that this was the services, Woodley, that his coach had stopped off at en route to Grimsby in our last game in League Two in 2006. We were met by Exeter City supporters who themselves were in a last day of the season drama for very different reasons, needing a win from Rotherham to go into League One. Wishing each other the best of luck, we got on our ways but unfortunately it would be just one of us that would be celebrating on the motorway home.
Elland Road loomed like a fortress in front of us as we pulled in and my nerves hadn’t been this bad for many a season, eclipsing even the playoff dramas of years gone by and that Chester home game in 2006 that finally saw us promoted. I had arranged to meet my old friends Lee and Steve, who were in the home stands with Lee’s Leeds allegiance, by the Billy Bremner statue and we headed for a pint. That plan was soon dead in the water though with the only pub around crammed full…we weren’t getting in. Settling for an Irn Bru and a packet of Starburst (heavy stuff indeed) we went our separate ways and that’s when it started to kick in good and proper.
Walking up into the cauldron of noise inside Elland Road felt like a cup tie. Nearly 35,000 fans greeted us, the largest in the Football League this weekend and even eclipsing the likes of Portsmouth, Wigan and Middlesbrough (who faced the Champions of England and Europe). A ticket for this game guaranteed Leeds fans a ticket for the home playoff first leg so it was understandle yet still impressive.
From the outset it was clear we’d be on the back foot and outclassed. The news that Carlisle had taken the lead came through from a lad a couple of seats down from me who had a friend watching Sky at home and from Tom, provider of many helpful lifts to games this season, via text after he stayed back in Southampton for the day. Now the game was really on and should Leeds score we would be in a position where we’d be relegated.
On the pitch, try as we might we just couldn’t get going. Leon Constantine was playing on the right at his old ground with Bayo and Anya up front but nothing was falling their way. On rare Cobblers attacks, we didn’t get a shot away with corners and Andy Holt’s long throws providing the best bet for an unlikely goal.
But it was Leeds that inevitably swaggered their way forward and looked by far the more dangerous. Jermaine Beckford waltzed through a couple of challenges before curling wide in their best effort inside the opening quarter but it looked like we’d somehow survive until half time when Luciano Becchio shot the first nail in our coffin by heading home a cross from the left hand side. At the break, we were relgated.
With batteries recharged for one last push, the Cobblers fans willed their side towards their end. Cheers suddenly went up from the upper tier shortly after half-time…had Millwall eequalised? The phone buzzed..no, it was another Carlisle goal, 2-0 and they were looking odds on for the win they needed to dislodge the Cobblers. It was now all on Brighton and the atmosphere dropped in the South East corner of Elland Road as the home fans started a Mexican Wave.
It was getting desperate and our own chances of getting the point we needed were over when Leeds got a second through Beckford, a well taken right footed finish into the far corner, and all ears were on Brighton. Despair surrounded the Town fans until someone for some unknown reason said that Stockport had taken the lead at the Withdean! A couple of seconds later and off goes the phone a couple of seats down once more. Was this the phone call that kept us up? No. There HAD been a goal at Brighton but it was the home side that had scored it! It was all over as celebrations turned to dejection as the Cobblers fans realised we were heading down.
“Que Sera Sera, whatever will be will, we’re going to Shrews-bury,” sang the faithful, trying to accept this disaster.
Another goal in injury time for Leeds meant they were buzzing as they prepared to take on Millwall in the playoffs and you certainly wouldn’t bet against them. But for us, the game was up and Northampton Town were relegated to League Two.
With the players coming over to applaud the fans that have travelled on this journey with them, not just on this day but throughout the season, there was a sense of togetherness as both groups showed what it meant to them that they won’t be playing in League One next season. It’s been desperate, dramatic, distressing at times, but the end result was that we weren’t good enough in a season that promised so much. Firstly there was ambitions of the playoffs particularly after a 4-2 win on the opening day of the season.
We were twelfth at the start of 2009, the decline has been nothing short of shocking. There will be endless post mortems in the coming weeks about what the problems were, talk will no doubt include the council’s ineptitude, Stuart Gray’s tactics and players supposedly not getting on in the dressing room. But the end result was that we were relegated, consigned back to the Macclesfields, Grimsbys and Barnet’s of this incredible football world.
It’s time for everyone at Northampton Town to take a good look at how we work and get back to basics. The most depressing fact is that now we have to wait until August before we can even think about putting this right again. But we all know that the 1,000 or so Cobblers fans in the South East corner of Elland Road will be back next season along with the others who couldn’t be here. It won’t be in such extraordinary setting as this but we’ll be there.
Que Sera Sera.