League Two Playoff Final 2013
There were no heroics. There was to be no drama. There was nothing of anything really to be brutally honest. This latest instalment of Northampton Town’s Wembley history will likely be buried in the annuls of time, locked away and shuddered at whenever someone mentions May 18th 2013. This day could have been so memorable but it turned out to instead play host to one of the most disappointing days in recent football memories.
It wasn’t even like there was a bad referee decision, a cruel twist of fate or a late deflection off someone’s backside that we could blame everything on. We wrote no extraordinary runners up story. Quite simply, Bradford City decided to turn up at Wembley Stadium this time and Northampton Town did not.
It had all started so well. A jubilant convoy of coaches, trains and cars containing quietly expectant Cobblers fans had reached Wembley in excellent time and by the time our coach pulled up at 10:45am there were plenty of supporters from both sides milling around as I made my way towards Wembley Park station to meet the two honorary Cobblers – Jamie and Mark – who are both at different stages of their Northampton Town education yet both as excited as any well-travelled Town fan.
Walking down Wembley way was just as special as it was fifteen years ago when I was a wide eyed thirteen year old. The awe of the grand old stadium had something extra about it but the Wembley version two still features plenty to get the heart racing. It took a while to realise that my team were playing there even after two weeks of waiting but as game time grew closer (and probably helped by Jamie’s excellent picking up of beers en route) and we had had a quick look out at our seats the nerves really began. This was happening.
And then…it just didn’t happen!
The team line ups were announced and the one surprise was Bayo Akinfenwa being dropped to the bench in favour of Clive Platt. It was an odd one to say the least and made me more concerned than I already was before the game had even started. Dropping your leading scorer and talisman for a man just coming back from injury and someone who isn’t mobile at the best of times was questionable to say the least and it kind of set us up for a fall before a ball was kicked. Whether Aidy was trying to catch Bradford off guard or something I don’t know. Maybe we won’t ever know his thinking but it just didn’t work.
From the start, the Cobblers just were not at the races. Passes were going astray, attacks breaking down far too easily and the same defence that so good in the semi-finals looked shaky and nervous despite the wealth of experience they share. The goal that started fifteen minutes of sheer agony was as simple as they come. Town didn’t clear their lines well enough and the ball was lobbed back in for James Hansen to nod over Lee Nicholls.
Almost as quick a bullet as the first came the second just four minutes later. Nathan Doyle’s cross was nodded in at the near post too easily by defender Rory McArdle. The uphill task just became a mountainous one and we had been caught like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights on the grand stage.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Bradford-Cobblers game without Nahki Wells getting on the score sheet and he duly obliged to round off a terrible first half an hour for Town. Wells found that extra bit of space in the box to fire in number three and once again the Cobblers defence will be left holding inquests into how the key danger man found that much time.
To say we were shell shocked was an understatement. The only thought in my head was hoping that we got to the break with no further damage. We were being completely overpowered in every area of the pitch and it was starting to become uncomfortable. Fortunately there was no further damage before half-time but the game was all but over.
Bayo was introduced with ten minutes of the second half gone but Bradford had settled into their stride of taking what they had. Unfortunately they didn’t even need to break back into first gear and were as organised and solid as they needed to be against a Cobblers attack who were struggling to find a way through. Akinfenwa did seem to have more of a presence than Platt and at least looked like he may do something but that was as good as it got.
Town didn’t register a shot on target all afternoon and the game petered out to a backdrop of celebrating Bantams fans who started their party of Wembley redemption with around fifteen minutes to go.
It was ultimately the biggest disappointment on the biggest stage and for Cobblers players, supporters and everyone involved in this day it will take a full summer just to get over what happened this afternoon under the Wembley arch.
It’s unfair to judge the entire campaign on this showing, though. Throughout this season we’ve fought into a position where we’ve been able to bring genuine hope to the place again. From relegation candidates to Wembley is not a bad return at all and though this defeat is so hard to take it should be remembered that this has been a real season of progression.
What we need to do now is to ensure that there’s no hangover at the start of next season. To signal our intent there has to be a consolidation of the squad that’s taken us this far and Aidy Boothroyd must try to convince potential new signings that this upward curve can continue towards League One in a year’s time.
That won’t be easy but you know what? We’ll all be back to see it through. I would wager that most reading this blog will be back in August and just as excited and bold as we were at the start of this season.
We’ll be ready to travel to Morecambe, Rochdale, Newport, Dagenham (on a cold Tuesday night) and Hartlepool. We’ll shake hands with old friends at random football stadia around the country, we’ll make new friends on terraces and coaches and we’ll laugh, cry, hope, dream and be Northampton Town together come rain or shine. It’s what we do and however much you try to fight it you know that deep down you still love this game.
What I felt that I needed to do after the match today was to watch as Bradford City took their place in League One. I needed to watch as their ascended the steps to collect their trophy and watch as they lifted it, celebrated and began their party. This was for two reasons: To applaud the rightful winners of the match and to make sure that in a weird and twisted way I took in all of the feelings associated with losing at the last. From past experience, it makes the great, great times that bit better when you remember the painful moments and pitfalls that have hit you along the way and this could well be a key image to draw on in the future.
Hopefully it won’t be long before this day is consigned to the memories and used only as a marker for better times.