The Carling Cup. “Meaningless”. “For the reserves”. A “Mickey mouse” cup. Just some of the descriptions of this competition over the years as fans of Premier League sides consoled themselves by saying that it isn’t that important anyway. But I can tell you now – after witnessing last night’s game first hand – that the Carling Cup deserves a hell of a lot more credit than just being seen as the playground for the second strings of our Premier League neighbours.
I usually have feelings ahead of the game when I know that something special is about to happen. I had it pre Rotherham, pre Mansfield and pre Bristol Rovers so when those feelings didn’t return ahead of this game, despite the sun beaming down on Sixfields, I thought that was that and it would just be a case of enjoying the trip to Anfield. Of course, there were other reasons for a bout of pessimism about the result in that Liverpool are one of the most world renowned clubs in the world, let along England, boast a clutch of internationals even in their reserves and have home advantage to boot. No-one could predict what was about to happen. Those that did, did so with a smile and a tongue very much in cheek. What unfolded in the following few hours will become folklore in the history of Northampton Town Football Club.
Jamie accompanied me on this trip to Anfield along with my Dad and we’d started the day in fine fashion by taking part in a tour of Wembley Stadium – the venue for the final of course. A ninety minute gander at the home of English football is highly recommended if you get the chance and provided a perfect start to the perfect day.
Onwards to the coach north then from Sixfields and after a small delay we were off and with the weather darkening as the journey went on we knew that it would be a good backdrop for a potential upset with rain teaming down. But still our threats to sneak a win against Liverpool seemed empty and overly optimistic when we really should have been concentrating on winning a corner first!
Arriving at Anfield in good time, we found our seats, very handily placed in Row 7 of the Anfield Road end, and looking around it appeared that the Claret faithful had taken up the full length of the stand behind the goal. The atmosphere kicked in, the army began to gather their voices, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” greeted the players on to the pitch and the Cobblers would be attacking the Kop in the first half. Never in my life did I expect to be writing that!
Liverpool had named a decent side with £12 million Dutch striker Ryan Babbel partnering Daid Ngog up front and former Rangers defender Danny Wilson handed a debut. The Cobblers lined up in a 4-5-1 formation with Leon McKenzie missing and Billy McKay handed the thankless task of leading the line on his own.
It didn’t take long for the script to begin to unfold as expected. Despite a good start from the Town, Milan Jovanovic got on the end of a through ball from Daniel Agger to finish very well past Chris Dunn. In League Two, that would have been a half chance – on this occasion it was a straight forward opportunity that the man signed on a free transfer in the summer was only too happy to accept.
This was the point when Liverpool got a bit cocky. They should have continued to pick us apart. We expected a drubbing following that start but slowly realised that we actually did have a chance here. Kevin Thornton tested Brad Jones and a soaring header from Michael Jacobs flew over the bar as we began to give the home side something to think about.
Jacobs was so very close to an equaliser on the half hour mark with a curling shot that only just went wide. We were turning the tide – Liverpool didn’t want this half as much as we did. The Cobblers were showing real grit and doing every single simple thing right combined with a terrific work ethic and spirit. It was only 1-0 at half-time and we were damn sure still in this one. The next goal would be vital and my goodness did we take the roof off when it came our way.
A few minutes before the hour mark, Liam Davis clipped in a cross, Kevin Thornton got a nod down and Billy McKay rifled the ball into the net. To say that the massed claret faithful went barmy is a huge understatement. We had scored a goal at Anfield, we had levelled the game at Anfield. I don’t think I was the only one with a tear forming in my eyes and I’m not afraid to say it. It wouldn’t be the last of the night!
Unbelievably the Cobblers turned the tide and were now on top and frantically looking for the winner. Thornton had a twice taken free kick blocked in what could have been a replica of John Frain’s moment of glory in ’97 and we were BATTERING them. Holty threw long throw after long throw into the ‘Pool area and crosses flashed in that just needed a touch but the ball stayed out of the net for now.
Sammo sensed extra time and made all three of his substitutions in quick succession. McKay was out on his feet and was replaced by Stevie G (Mr Guinan earning the nickname for the night in the absence of the Liverpool captain!), John Johnson was injured towards the end of ninety minutes and Nathanial Wedderburn took his place while Courtney Herbert took over on the right wing for Paul Rodgers.
We saw the time out, ninety minutes was up and unbelievably the Cobblers had taken Liverpool to extra time on their own patch. Not only that but we were fully deserving of it…no luck, no freak goal and no complaints from the home support who were just as stunned as we were.
The first half of extra time was spent on the edge of our seats. Nails were already bitten off. The shaking in our bones was not because of the cold but of nervous excitement. We were hanging on. Until…
Nine minutes in to extra time we had a rare attack. Herbert appeared to run with, and lose, the ball on the right before battling back, coming away with it and somehow getting a cross in at the Kop End. Thornton forced Jones into a save but there was nothing that could be done when 17-year-old Michael Jacobs slammed the ball home to make it 2-1! A moment so early in this young lad’s career to savour and one that will live with us all as we took the lead at Anfield. The scenes were barmy…grown men hugged random strangers, claret clad supporters leaped for joy whatever their age and when it had all settled down heads were shaking in disbelief.
We held out for half time in extra time. We dared to dream. That was when the cramps kicked in. Cobblers players left, right and centre were on their knees in the second half. Thornton was pushed up front because he was out on his feet, most of them were playing out of position and it was only a matter of time before the equaliser. Lucas and Jay Spearing tested our nerves before the inevitable when Ngog actually did something of note and nodded in at the back post to break Town hearts.
Now we had to somehow get through to penalties, right? Well yes, but why not have a go! God only knows how we managed to attack, let alone have the ball cleared off the line twice in an extraordinary finish. Liverpool came back at us and Liam Davis came up with a goal saving header that had hearts in mouths. But we made it. All the way through to penalties against one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Incredible and whatever happened next wouldn’t matter too much. We had given every ounce of energy and deserved this.
The spot kicks would be taken in front of The Kop and Guinan skied the first one to delight the home fans but it was level pegging again soon when Ngog put his wide. Thornton and Liverpool sub Jonjo Shelvey both scored, as did Davis and Agger. Jacobs stepped up to make it 3-2, a monumental effort from the youngster to show such nerve. And then it happened. Nathan Eccleston hit the bar! It was up for grabs now, as someone once said! All Abdul Osman had to do was score with one kick of the football to make history for the Cobblers. We held our breathe. It took an age for it to happen. But happen it did. Osman SCORED and Northampton Town Football Club collectively went absolutely barmy!
Board members, staff, management, players and supporters were united in a moment for the ages. A moment unmatchable and unbelievable in this day and age. The riches of the Premier League had been upset by a club with heart, players with a sheer will to win and a support that had been waiting for a moment like this through all the trips to Carlisle, Yeovil, Rochdale and Morecambe, through years of “Cobblers” jokes and through nights of despair when we questioned why we do it.
This is why we stay so loyal. Because once in a blue moon, something incredible happens.
I’ve never been more proud of a group of players. Young players with nothing to lose, experienced pros, in particular the phenomenal Andy Holt, and players rebuilding their careers. Of a manager that has a reward for years of loyalty to a League Two club. And of a town where I was born. Not a glamorous town, not a magnificent town. But my town. My Club.
Now, think again…is the Carling Cup really that worthless?