It’s not often that you come away from a defeat with this sort of emotion that steers more towards pride than despair, particularly after a goal in the ninetieth minute wins it for the opposition. Add to that the fact that the Cobblers had another tumultuous week and were previously on a shocker of a run and it was the most unexpected of days in Kent this afternoon.
This was my first game since the opening day of the season and the tame 0-0 draw with Accrington Stanley with the time in between a period of real uncertainty for the club that’s left me despairing into my Saturday afternoon snacks every week. I called for Gary Johnson’s head after a few weeks of backing. I questioned the passion of some of the team and wondered how on earth things would turn around.
But in the most unexpected turn, this afternoon’s trip to Gillingham answered so many of my questions.
The reason for visiting Kent in the first place was to see our friends Phil and Kerry, the God parents to Faith, and Phil joined me for a short replacement bus service/train combo to Gillingham from Faversham as he took in his first ever Cobblers away league game.
The entertainment began before the game even got under way (and I’m not talking about the shocking cheerleaders) when a member of the Gillingham ground staff tried to stop Johnson’s shooting practice with his troops by standing in the goal mouth and directing them to a practice goal. Johnson, typically stubborn, proceeded to tell the member of staff that he was the keeper and told his players to keep shooting! Mr Pitch wouldn’t go away though and confronted our players after getting comically hit in the head by shots a couple of times. Bayo made the peace and all was settled down but it set the tone for a crazy afternoon.
When the action started, with the Cobblers fielding an unchanged side from the draw with Rotherham, you got the feeling straight away that there were goals in it. Bayo almost got off to a stunning start on his return to The Priestfield, getting on the end of Lewis Young’s cross to get a shot in which was well blocked.
We’d come out of the blocks on fire and the big man went close again before Michael Jacobs forced Ross Flitney into an uncomfortable save that bounced off the home keeper’s chest and fell to Saido Berahino who hit the post with the rebound.
Inevitably Gillingham took the lead with their first chance. The right winger, West Ham loanee Frank Nouble, had been looking dangerous whenever he got the ball and it was he who teed up the cross that led to Jo Kuffour opening the scoring with a well taken goal. I got the feeling that Nouble would give Ben Tozer a torrid time all game and was proved right as Tozer struggled in his make shift position against Nouble’s pace and trickery.
Mid-way through the first half, Michael Jacobs decided to take the game into his own hands and started off on a run that took him past two defenders and into a promising position but his shot didn’t match the build-up.
As the Cobblers tried to get back into it, the second goal arrived just as predictably as the first with Kuffour, a transfer target for the Cobblers earlier this season, picking up the ball in the area and outrageously back heeling it past Sam Walker. It was a massive blow after we had battled back into things but there was more to come.
Ten minute before the break, the dangerous Berahino got on the end of a knock down from Bayo to coolly slot in to halve the deficit.
2-1 would still have been harsh enough going into half time but as we were just settling for that came the ridiculous Gillingham penalty that made it 3-1 and seemingly put us out of sight. The referee, Mr Berry, waved away protests for Ashley Westwood’s challenge on Kuffour in the area after looking at it from a perfect angle but the linesman flagged and somehow managed to persuade Berry that he had seen things from a better angle and that it WAS a penalty even though he was behind the incident and not right next to it like his colleague. Kuffour completed his hat-trick from the spot and sent his side in with a two goal advantage and left us all feeling very hard done by.
To be fair we could have been more down by then after heads seemed all over the place from that decision so the whistle was actually welcome. We came out all guns blazing after half time though and when Kelvin Langmead turned and fired in a fine finish to make it 3-2 we were dreaming of a fight back and considering there was still a good forty minutes left it was still very much on.
Sure enough, a free kick was won on the right hand side and after much gesturing from the taker Michael Jacobs he cleverly played in a low ball that caught everyone off guard except Berahino who powered in his second of the game to level it up…still half an hour to go and it was now anyone’s contest.
We needed to get the next goal while we were on top and continued the pressure without the clinical finishing of the first three. Lewis Young, a constant threat, went through one on one but his shot didn’t match the pace used to get into position before Danny Jackman reminded us of his talents with a close long ranger at the other end.
It was anyone’s game from then on with half chances at both ends but the moment that should have been the crowning moment of the afternoon wasn’t to be. Bayo Akinfenwa played a one-two with Berahino and was suddenly sent free. The Priestfield held its collective breath. Home fans thought they knew the story. Away fans got off their seats to praise their hero who was about to win it on his old ground. But the big man lost his touch at the vital time and blasted the ball over the bar when one on one with Flitney and that’s when you got the feeling that we wouldn’t actually complete a heroic fight back.
Still, we didn’t at all deserve what was to come as Nouble found space on the right once again behind Tozer, cut inside and was inevitably brought down by Langmead for a stoppage time penalty. This time it was Danny Kedwell stepping up to fire home the kick and win it for his side.
A breathless, emotional game came to an end with the Cobblers on the receiving end of a completely unjust result.
My mind was changed in one afternoon of all that’s going on at the club. There was a glimmer of hope for Jake Robinson even as he was brought on for Chris Arthur late on and nearly stole in with a header for another potential fairy tale winner. Robinson, along with every single member of the Cobblers squad, was given a standing ovation on the final whistle as they all trudged off into the tunnel beneath the away stand.
There was even applause for Gary Johnson as he walked towards the tunnel and my overall emotion was of restored pride in my club once again. Having been away for so long I’ve been kept informed by friends and family at games and feared the worst going into this. It’s clear that there’s problems that need to be addressed, i.e. the left-back position, but from the crazy antics in the warm up to the final whistle at the end of a cracking game of football and a terrific advertisement for League Two the fact that I came away full of pride for my club shows how much things can change in one afternoon.
If results turn with the improvement in attitude and desire then we may yet be able to turn things around with this set of players and management yet.