The comeback to end all comebacks
Northampton Town 3-0 Bristol Rovers
Division Two (League One) Playoff Semi-Final
13th May 1998
This is one of those games where I really don’t have to say a lot but one which could elicit an essay if given the chance. I will try to contain myself but, with this one still standing as what I still believe to be the single greatest night in Sixfields history, that could be a challenge!
These were already heady times. Promotion via the Division Three playoffs via Wembley a year earlier had set light to an ambition not seen for years in this part of the world. How on earth a team based solely on spirit and the right attitude managed to not only stay at the top end of the table for most of the season but also momentarily bother top spot was beyond me and many others. The 1997/98 season had seen changes in playing personnel with my childhood hero Neil Grayson departing on promotion. The likes of Chris Freestone and ‘Big’ John Gayle now led the line with the old guard of Sammo and Ray Warburton holding on to their central defensive partnership. John Frain was still around, as were Ian Clarkson, Dean Peer and Andy Woodman whilst Jason Dozzell had replaced David Rennie as the token older head in the camp.
Reaching the playoffs was an immense overachievement by Ian Atkins and his latest band of merry men and the town was dreaming of a second successive promotion. Our semi-final opponents were Bristol Rovers, a team managed by a young Ian Holloway in his first top job as a player-manager. The first leg at the Memorial Stadium saw the Cobblers fall 3-0 behind thanks to a Peter Beadle penalty followed by goals from Frankie Bennett and Barry Hayles. It all looked lost even a quarter of the way through the tie but suddenly a long boot up field saw Big John race onto the ball and loop it over the head of Rovers keeper Lee Jones. The effect of that solitary strike that even then looked like a mere consolation was stunning.
By the time this second leg came around, Northampton was fired up. As Town supporters were leaving the Memorial Stadium at the end of the first leg, the Rovers PA announcer started singing about how his club were going to Wembley and that’s all the Cobblers fans needed as motivation. At 3-1, the tie was still not over and boy did we let the Gas Heads know that.
There were reports that Gayle had wound up the Rovers players no end in the tunnel just before kick-off and the intimidation factor continues as the sides came out. With a second Wembley appearance in successive seasons on the line, the Sixfields roar was sucking the life out of the visitors before a ball was even kicked.
The place was rocking even with Town two goals from levelling the tie and I still don’t think I’ve seen or heard anything like it inside the walls of Sixfields since. We have one of those stadiums where noise can get lost on occasions but not on this night. On this night, everything was to go our way in perhaps the most iconic evenings in the history of the arena we call home.
Carl Heggs, defeated by the Cobblers at Wembley the previous May, was coming off the end of an excellent and mercurial maiden season after swapping The Vetch Field for Sixfields shortly after the Playoff Final. He opened the scoring after a tension filled opening half an hour, getting on the end of a corner to edge us in front on the night and the Cobblers never looked back.
It took fifteen minutes of the second half to get back on terms on aggregate. If anyone had any money on potential goal scorers then Ian Clarkson’s name would have been a long way from their minds, but there he was on the hour mark to power in the second. It was Clarkson’s only ever goal for the club and in many ways his final hurrah as he would severely break his leg in August of that year in a game against Lincoln City, limiting his final few appearances.
This was the first time that the Cobblers were in front in the tie with away goals counting in those days and the momentum continued for a fantastic third goal, headed in by Ray Warburton with thirteen minutes to go to complete the turn around and send Sixfields absolutely potty.
A Rovers goal would have taken the game to extra time so there were some immensely nervy final few minutes but the Cobblers held out for an extraordinary victory and a night that Sixfields will never, ever forget.
The obligatory pitch invasion followed and rather than try and do a lap of honour, the Town players instead came around the back of the West Stand, up through the gates and into the stands to celebrate with the fans in a moment of unity that will never leave me, and I’m sure thousands of others.
It almost took the breath out of us enough to mean that defeat in the final against Grimsby Town wasn’t as powerful to our hearts as it could have been. The pride that night after the semi-final was amazing and though promotion to the second tier of English Football was agonising to miss out on, I think the glory and sheer brilliance of this night made it that bit more bearable!
Rovers will now forever be greeted with the infamous “3-1 and you f*cked it up” chant whenever they visit. I blame that tannoy announcer for getting the ball rolling on one of the great moments this football club has ever seen.