League Two Playoff Semi-Final, First Leg
Thursday, May 2nd 2013
So this is it. The playoffs kick off this evening with the Cobblers involved in the end of season lottery for the first time since 2005. Back then, we were beaten by a single goal over two leg against Southend United in a display that was desperately lacking any kind of cutting edge. A year earlier we had been involved in one of the most emotional games we’re ever likely to see at Mansfield Town, going out on penalties after a stonking come back, some shocking refereeing and awful luck in the second leg.
In both of those ties, the Cobblers were at home first and failed to get a good grip on the tie before making the journeys north and east respectively. What we need to do tonight is instead channel the spirit from happier semi-finals at Sixfields – the 3-2 victory over Cardiff City in 1997 and the best night ever to take place on Upton Way, the 3-0 turn around against Bristol Rovers a year later. Both of those were second legs of course and the problem facing us this evening is how far to push it and really go in all guns blazing ahead of a tough, tough away leg on Sunday.
The advantage to going away first is that a draw would be a good result and no doubt Cheltenham would be over the moon with an outcome like that. But Aidy Boothroyd is fired up and Sixfields needs to be the same under the evening summer lights. There should be an electric atmosphere based on some of the build-up already taking place online and no doubt in work places up and down the country this afternoon. Let’s do this!
Cheltenham’s road to the playoffs…
Our opponents were just pipped to automatic promotion by Rotherham United on Saturday but come into the game with a better run-in behind them than the Cobblers. After seeing off Town at the start of the month at Whaddon Road they were beaten by Plymouth at Home Park but recovered to beat eventual League Two champions Gillingham and playoff chasing Exeter City before holding Bradford City to a goalless draw on Saturday.
Rubies’ playoff history…
The Rubies have a decent record in League Two playoffs having beaten Rushden and Diamonds 3-1 at the Millennium Stadium in the 2002 final and Grimsby Town by the single goal (scored by future Cobbler Steve Guinan) in the 2006 showpiece. In the first instance, now manager Mark Yates captained the side and lifted the trophy for the club he now leads into a fourth playoff campaign.
Last season, Cheltenham were beaten at Wembley by Crewe Alexandra and will be coming into this one hoping to erase all of those memories and make it four finals from four attempts.
The Cobblers have almost a fully fit squad to choose from with Kelvin Langmead, Clive Platt and Ishmel Demontagnac all coming back into contention. Joe Widdowson is the only one not 100% and who could be left out in favour of Lee Collins. Alex Nicholls is, of course, the only long term absentee after his broken leg back in October against Port Vale.
Cheltenham also have a near to full strength squad available with Harry Hooman the only possible absentee as he is set to sit out for the remainder of the season. Paul Benson is back from an ankle problem and came off the bench in Saturday’s draw with Bradfor.
Previous Six Meetings…
01/04/13: Cheltenham 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)
As the Cobblers sat three points ahead of Cheltenham at the start of this month, the Rubies had to win to close the gap on a Town side who still had a chance of automatic promotion. After a quiet first half, Steve Elliot netted the crucial winner on the stroke of half-time to set up a dramatic final few weeks of the season.
08/12/012: Cobblers 2-3 Cheltenham (League Two)
The Cobblers looked set for a good home win when Bayo Akinfenwa scored after just two minutes and Billy Jones put through his own net soon after. But Darren Carter and Chris Zebroski levelled things up before even half an hour had passed and it was left to Darryl Duffy to slot in the winner for a stunning turnaround late on for the visitors.
03/03/12: Cheltenham 2-2 Cobblers (League Two)
Ben Tozer and Bayo Akinfenwa gave the Cobblers a surprise two goal lead at Whaddon Road in the first half but the hosts hit back in the second as Darryl Duffy slotted in a penalty before clinching a point for his side in stoppage time.
20/08/11: Cobblers 2-3 Cheltenham (League Two)
In the second home game of last season, Darryl Duffy opened the scoring from the spot for Cheltenham on eleven minutes but goals either side of half time from Arron Davies and Bayo Akinfenwa steered the game in our favour. The Rubies had other ideas though and Duffy got on the end of a cross from ex-Cobbler Josh Low to level it before Low himself won it ten minutes from time.
08/01/11: Cobblers 1-1 Cheltenham (League Two)
The first of many draws in 2011 saw Billy McKay give the Cobblers an early lead before Wes Thomas netted the equaliser just after half-time.
09/10/10: Cheltenham 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)
Dean Beckwith’s red card at Whaddon Road saw the Cobblers reduced to ten men within the opening quarter of the game. It took until the hour mark, though, for Cheltenham to take advantage and Brian Smikle scored the winner.
The man in the middle…
The man trusted with the first leg is someone who has been involved in controversy this season in Mick Russell. Russell was the man who showed two yellow cards to Sheffield Wednesday’s Jeremy Helan and failed to send him off during a game at Huddersfield Town back in December. Russell was taken off duty for just under a month after the incident and went on to referee seventeen more games this season. Russell was in the middle for the Cobblers’ 1-0 win at Dagenham and Redbridge last September and for the dramatic cup replay at Bradford in which Town lost on penalties. He last officiated a Cheltenham game in August of last year, a 2-2 draw at Torquay.
It’s so hard to predict a playoff game, especially one that involves your own team. I’m dreading putting anything down for the ‘kiss of death’ implications. So I’ll go for a draw to keep me from anyone saying it was all my fault. This should be a tight, tense game that is likely to be well in the balance come Sunday. 1-1.