At the start of April the Cobblers played a game of risk at the top of League Two with a place in the top three hanging by a thread in the opening couple of fixtures. First up was a trip to Cheltenham – a massive six pointer – that saw Steve Elliot’s solitary goal give the Rubies a big win to keep in touch with us in the race for third.
Town had somehow held on to third place with other results going for us and it was a similar story a few days later when Nahki Wells scored the only goal of the game against us at Bradford, continuing his fine run of form against the Cobblers to condemn us to another 1-0 defeat. Somehow, though, other results again went in our favour and with four games to go we were still in the driving seat…just.
That would all change when York City smashed our recent run of home victories by stunning the Cobblers at Sixfields and recording a 2-0 win that finally put us back down in the playoff positions. It would be the beginning of the end in terms of an automatic promotion challenge with Adam Chambers’ early strike doubled by John Johnson’s own goal with five minutes to play earning the Minster Men a crucial victory in their bid to avoid the drop.
The following Tuesday night saw a trip to Wycombe Wanderers give us a chance to get back into contention one final time realistically but a goalless draw wasn’t enough to breath any fresh hope into the challenge.
Port Vale away was up next in the final away league fixture and the hosts were gunning for promotion which they knew would come their way with a victory. Clarke Carlisle hadn’t read the script and put us in front but former Cobbler Liam Chilvers levelled before half-time. Roy O’ Donovan’s screamer momentarily gave us hope of a big victory as he curled in an unstoppable effort from range mid-way through the second half. It looked as though Vale would have to wait for their promotion party but with four minutes to go their former defender Lee Collins sliced the ball into his own net and with results elsewhere going for them, Port Vale knew that a point was enough to send them into League One barring a disastrous turn in goal difference.
For Town, the point at Vale Park confirmed a playoff place and we could now only finish 5th or 6th with home advantage in the playoffs all that was to be at stake come the final game of the season. For visitors to Sixfields Barnet, though, there were much bigger consequences. They would be relegated if they lost and AFC Wimbledon won. The Wombles managed to win their own game to give themselves a chance and the Cobblers scored two good second half goals through Roy O’Donovan and Luke Guttridge to clinch victory and to send Barnet down to the Conference after years of them surviving on the final day.
It meant that we had finished sixth after Rotherham clinched the final automatic promotion place and Cheltenham and Burton Albion both did enough to finish higher than the Cobblers. Cheltenham would provide the opposition for the playoff semi-finals and were the only team standing between us and a trip to Wembley.
The first leg would be played at Sixfields and was as tight as expected but the Cobblers took the lead in the first half thanks to fantastic build up play between Bayo Akinfenwa and Chris Hackett with Hackett crossing for Roy O’Donovan to fire in past Scott Brown in the Cheltenham goal who could and maybe should have done better. Paul Benson nearly equalised right away for the Rubies but the Cobblers would hold out to take a single goal lead to Whaddon Road for the second leg.
Early on in that game Cheltenham had an ideal chance to transform the game after Ben Tozer conceded a debatable penalty in front of the travelling support. But Marlon Pack’s spot kick was superbly saved by Lee Nicholls to keep us narrowly in front. Then came the killer moment in the tie when Bayo knocked the ball down for Luke Guttridge to unleash an unstoppable volley into the net from all of twenty five yards for a 2-0 aggregate lead. The second half saw Cheltenham pile on the pressure but despite hitting the bar and testing Nicholls again on several occasions it was the Cobblers who were heading to Wembley for the first time since 1998.
Excitement built for the next two weeks with tickets selling well and anticipation matching that of the previous two outings at the national stadium but we knew that Bradford City would provide stern opposition after the Bantams, already having visiting Wembley once that season for a remarkable League Cup final appearance, saw off Burton Albion over two legs in the other semi-final.
When the big day arrived it was to be one to forget as soon as the game kicked off as Bradford completely overpowered us and raced into a 3-0 lead before the break and the dreams of 20,000+ Cobblers fans had died a sudden death on the big stage. There was no way back for us despite Akinfenwa coming off the bench in the second half (we will forever question why he was left out of the starting eleven!) and Bradford cruised into League One, leaving us to ponder another campaign in the basement division.
It had, though, been a tremendous improvement on the previous two campaigns and I don’t think many of us would have predicted that the 2012/13 season would end at Wembley after two relegation battles that preceded it. Away form ultimately cost us automatic promotion and a late season injury to captain Kelvin Langmead certainly didn’t help the cause with the Player of the Season winner only returning late in the second leg of the playoff semi-final.
Aidy Boothroyd, though, had got the very best from his players and we now look forward to what will be an interesting summer with Bayo among several players told that they will now be leaving the club at the end of their contracts.
Hopefully by the time I come to write this again in a year’s time we will be celebrating going that crucial next step further after falling at the very last hurdle this time out.
League Position (at the end of the season): 6th
Highlight of April/May: The playoff semi-final victory over Cheltenham that confirmed our trip to Wembley. Also, the Wembley trip up until 1:30pm!
Lowlight of April/May: Wembley post 1:30pm…