Northampton Town – A History Lesson
The Early Days
It all began with meetings of school teachers and local solicitor A.J. Darnell. That famous gathering, to discuss the local football scene, prompted Darnell to visit an exhibition match between Leicester Fosse and Notts County and that single game gave him the impotence to start his own club and another meeting was held in the Princess Royal Inn and Northampton Town F.C. was born and would be housed in the County Ground, sharing with the cricket club.
‘The Cobblers’ would become the club’s nickname in tribute to the growing shoe trade in the town and the first league that we would enter would be the Northants League. During the first two seasons, Frank Howard commanded the first ever transfer fee for the club (£50 to Derby County) and the championship would follow in the second campaign. Seasons in the Midland League and then the Southern League would follow, in which we became the very first team to beat Portsmouth at Fratton Park after sixty six games.
Herbert Chapman became the first full time manager of the club in 1907 and within two years the Cobblers were champions of the Southern League, earning a Charity Shield meeting with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge. Further land marks were made when we signed the league’s first black outfield player, Walter Tull, in 1911, a man who then sadly died in the Battle of the Somme. Tull was the country’s first black army officer and his presence is now overlooking Sixfields in the form of a statue.
In 1920, the Cobblers were handed a place in the Football League for the first time, placed in Division Three (South) and in 1924 the supporters club was formed. The first foreign signing for the club was brought in as William Shaw joined from Barcelona and the position on and off the pitch was the best it had ever been. But in 1929, a disastrous fire ripped through the County Ground, decimating three sides of the ground. A rebuilding effort was complete by the following year though as the Cobblers entered the thirties with high ambitions.
Brothers Fred and Albert Dawes were both signed at the start of the decade and they would go on to create history by both scoring in an 8-0 win over Newport County in the FA Cup. In 1934, the Cobblers reached the fifth round of the cup for the first time ever, a success even more impressive given that to get there we saw off Division One leaders Huddersfield Town en route. The final game before the war involving the club saw us lose 10-0 to Bournemouth!
In the first season following the war, the Cobblers finished in mid-table in Division Three (South) with Archie Garrett’s 26 goals prompting Birmingham to pay £10,000 for his services, then a club record fee received. Coming in were Jack English and Dave Bowen, two players that would go on to hold lifetime associations with the Cobblers. After avoiding relegation in 1949 thanks to re-election, the Cobblers then finished second the next season in a strong finish to the decade.
In the 1952-53 season, the Cobblers finished third in Division Three (South) and amounted 109 goals along the way. The 1957-58 season saw one of the club’s biggest cup upsets as the Cobblers beat Arsenal 3-1 at the County Ground in the FA Cup Third Round, eventually going out to Liverpool. At the end of that season, we were elected to play in Division Four. The stay in Division Four only last three seasons though with Dave Bowen re-signing for the club for £7,000 as a player-manager to begin what was a truly memorable decade.
The Cobblers would become the answer to a pub quiz question within one decade as we went from Division Four to Division One in just five seasons, playing our only ever season in the top flight in 1965-66. During this period, Frank Large joined from QPR and went on to score 96 goals for the club. The drama of those seasons wasn’t over though and we were relegated in 1966 thanks to a 4-2 defeat to Fulham. A year later and we were in free fall once again, relegated for the second successive season into Division Three. Narrowly avoiding yet another demotion the following year, in 1969 the turnaround was complete and we were back in Division Four. To the top and back within a decade just about sums up Northampton Town Football Club perfectly!
After the incredible 60’s, 1970 saw more headlines being made as George Best hit six goals in an 8-2 demolition of the Cobblers at the County Ground in the FA Cup Fifth Round. Two seasons of re-election followed while Phil Neal was sold to Liverpool for a then club record fee of £65,000. In 1976, the Cobblers were promoted after finishing second in Division Four but relegation once again followed after just one season.
New floodlights were installed for the 1980-81 season but they typically failed in the first game! In the first two seasons of the decade we finished 10th and then 22nd, re-election again needed in the second season. The following seasons saw us finish 15th, 18th and 23rd. Towards the end of the 1984/85 season, ex player Graham Carr was brought in to manage the club and won six out of the last seven games, drawing the other. A much improved 8th place followed a year later with Carr drastically improving the club’s fortunes. The league title was won in stunning style in the 1986/87 season with a club record 99 points gained along with 103 league goals. A year later and we had just missed out on a Division Three playoff place at the first attempt. The sale of some top players including Tony Adcock and Eddie McGoldrick led to eventual relegation in 1990 despite another cup upset, 1-0 at home to Coventry in the FA Cup Third Round.
Back in Division Four, we finished 10th in the first season back despite leading the league with a couple of months to go. Financially, things were getting increasingly concerning. In 1992 the club went into administration with debts of over £1.5 million. Ten players were released and youth team players were needed to make up the numbers. The Northampton Town Supporters Club was set up following these events. The finale of the 1992/93 season was one of the most dramatic in the Cobblers’ history with victory needed at Shrewsbury Town to avoid relegation. With 2,500 nervous Town fans making the trip to Gay Meadow, the Cobblers went 2-0 before half-time. A miracle was needed and that’s exactly what we got. Somehow we pulled it back to 2-2 before the infamous moment when the Shrews’ keeper struck the ball against Pat Gavin’s backside and it rolled joyfully into the net for the winner and incredible safety from non-league.
A year later and we were in trouble once again. The Cobblers finished bottom of the Football League but were saved by the fact that Conference winners Kidderminster Harriers’ Aggborough Stadium wasn’t up to league standards.
Off the pitch, things were moving on and the County Ground would see its final game before the move to the new Sixfields Stadium. On a Tuesday night in October, the lights went out on the old ground following a 1-0 defeat to Mansfield Town. The first game at Sixfields ended in a 1-1 draw with Barnet with the late Martin Aldridge becoming the first player to score at the new stadium. John Barnwell was sacked as we slipped towards the wrong end of the table again and Ian Atkins would begin a memorable reign by taking charge and steering us to 17th by the end of the season.
His first full season in charge took us to eleventh place with significant improvements made in all areas of the squad. Jason White finished as top scorer with sixteen and Neil Grayson hit a hat-trick on the final day of the season to deny Wigan a spot in the playoffs.
The 1996-97 season was to be the club’s centenary season and despite that positive ending to the previous campaign, we had no idea that the celebrations would culminate in the most historic night in the history of Northampton Town. An extraordinary month of January was the turning point with a 4-0 win over Cardiff, a 5-1 destruction of Chester and a 3-0 victory against Hartlepool, all at Sixfields, giving us genuine belief that we could finish the season with something special. A 1-0 win over Scunthorpe confirmed a playoff spot on the last day and we would take on Cardiff in the semi-finals. Sean Parrish’s wonder goal at Ninian Park had us a goal up on aggregate before a memorable 3-2 victory at Sixfields brought it home and we were at Wembley for the first time ever. Another Welsh club, Swansea City, waited in the final and a game of few chances ended with John Frain curling a free-kick into the net with barely seconds to play in added time. The uncompounded joy of that day will be with me forever with 32,000 Cobblers fans turning out under the Twin Towers.
Just as we thought it could get no better, we suddenly thrust ourselves into the promotion race in Division Two in the first season. A pulsating season saw David Seal and John Gayle combine to help us to fourth place. The final two games of the season helped to clinch a playoff place with Dean Peer’s late goal beating Fulham at Sixfields and a goalless draw at York sending us into a playoff semi-final with Bristol Rovers. What followed was another amazing tie. 3-1 down after the first leg at the Memorial Ground, the Rovers tannoy announcer famously began singing about Wembley at the end of the game. But he was to be left with egg on his face as the Cobblers stunned the Gas by winning 3-0 in the second leg on Sixfields’ finest night. Carl Heggs, Ian Clarkson and Ray Warburton got the goals and despite a Wembley defeat at the hands of Grimsby Town it had still been a remarkable season.
The 1998/99 season was the complete opposite though and we went from playoff runners up to relegated in one year as injuries struck and form collapsed. The highlight was a 2-1 aggregate win over West Ham in the League Cup Second Round before we bowed out to Spurs in Round Three. After relegation was confirmed and after a poor start to the season back in Division Three the time was up for Ian Atkins and he was replaced by Kevin Wilson who steered us back in the right direction. Six wins in the final six games earned promotion in third place with a from behind win at Torquay on the final day that saw thousands of Cobblers fans fill up Plainmoor. On the final whistle came a pitch invasion from all four sides of the ground with Town fans everywhere!
So we were back in Division Two for the first season of the new Millennium and high profile signings were made in Marco Gabbiadini, Chris Hargreaves and Jamie Forrester with the latter joining following an impressive loan spell at the end of the previous season. After a good start that included a goal from just inside the half from Gabbiadini at Cardiff the Cobblers faltered and finished in 18th place.
The start of the next season started just as badly as the last one had ended and Wilson was sacked in December. Kevan Broadhurst was promoted from assistant to full time manager and things began to tick again. Dead and buried by Christmas in the league, Broadhurst turned things around and helped us to safety with a gap of five points between ourselves and the bottom four. The highlight of the whole campaign was a 2-1 victory at London Road with Ian Sampson scoring the winner as the Cobblers came from behind to beat Peterborough United.
2002/03 was one of the toughest in recent memory with the very future of the club in doubt. An SOS campaign had to be held after the collapse of ITV Digital and the failed takeover bid by Giovanni De Stefano and John Fashanu. On the pitch, we had a decent enough start but a dismal Christmas led to Broadhurst being sacked in January. By this time, Andrew Ellis and his consortium had taken over the club with a majority shareholding and they appointed Terry Fenwick in Broadhurst’s place. A run of five defeats and two draws led to Fenwick leaving as well in one of the shortest managerial runs in English football history. Martin Wilkinson couldn’t pick things up enough and we were relegated after defeat at Port Vale at the start of April.
Wilkinson had a massive job on his hands and despite a large budget handed to him over the summer by new chairman David Cardoza, who had helped stabilised the club, couldn’t lift the club and was shown the door by October 2003. In his place came Colin Calderwood who dramatically lifted us from the bottom half of the table and into the playoffs by the end of the season. The season also included an FA Cup Fourth Round meeting with Manchester United that ended in a 3-0 defeat but perhaps the most memorable game in that run was in fact the Third Round Replay that got us there, a 2-1 win at Championship side Rotherham United. The momentum led us to the playoffs where we met Mansfield Town. A 2-0 home defeat seemed to end it but yet another incredible second leg saw us turn the tie back in our favour, leading 3-0 at one point before a dodgy refereeing decision by a certain Mr Crossley saw Mansfield get back into the game at 3-1 after ninety minutes and then win on penalties.
Yet more heartbreak followed as Calderwood took the Cobblers to the playoffs again in 2004/05 and Southend United edged a tight semi-final to deny Town once again. The 2005/06 season began with more high expectations and this time the balance was spot on as the Cobblers were promoted in third place with a tense run in that culminated in a 1-0 home win over Chester to finally return to League One. Veterans such as Ian Taylor, Eoin Jess and Sean Dyche were the backbone of the squad with Scott McGleish the man banging in the goals.
Calderwood, though, would soon be on his way and agreed to become the Nottingham Forest manager in the summer of 2006 just after he led us to promotion. John Gorman took charge of the team for the start of the season but left at Christmas for personal reasons. Rookie boss Stuart Gray came in and helped the Cobblers to a comfortable position. The final game of the season saw Town fans honour loan striker Kenny Deuchar, a part time doctor, with thousands of Cobblers supporters dressing in doctors’ coats at Doncaster.
The good feeling overran into the 2007/08 season with Gray stamping his mark on the squad over the summer. An impressive season led to a top ten finish in the league but things would turn sour just a year later as a 3-0 defeat at Leeds condemned us to League Two football once again.
2009/10 started poorly as well and Gray’s tenure ended in September after a 3-1 home defeat to Barnet. Club legend Ian Sampson stepped up from reserve team boss and was given the job full time after a battling start to his reign as caretaker boss. Sammo turned things around and we just missed a playoff place thanks to the goals of Bayo Akinfenwa and the added passion in the squad.
Sammo would have his finest hour just over a year since Gray’s sacking as the Cobblers upset Liverpool in the Carling Cup on penalties following victories of League One Brighton and Championship side Reading in previous rounds. That was as good as it got though and with the club in the lower reaches of the league by March 2011 Sammo ended a 17 year association as he was sacked and swiftly replaced by Gary Johnson. The appointment didn’t stop the slide though and we only survived with one game remaining after a 2-0 home victory against Stevenage, Johnson’s first win in charge. The season ended with another success at Morecambe and Johnson promised whole sale changes in the summer.
The 2011/12 season was another to start with high expectations thanks to a nearly new squad that included a returning Bayo Akinfenwa, Arron Davies and Jake Robinson all being brought in. But Johnson never got his new squad going and the sale of Shaun Harrad towards the end of August began weeks of the manager alienating himself from supporters and not even leaving the bench during games. There was always tension in the air and inevitably Johnson lost his job following a 1-0 defeat at Luton Town in the First Round of the FA Cup. After shocking defeats during the interim periods including a 7-2 hammering at home to Shrewsbury Town and 4-1 loss at fellow strugglers Plymouth it was announced that former Watford, Colchester and Coventry manager Aidy Boothroyd would take charge as he looked to steer the side away from trouble.
Boothroyd immediately said that things would get worse before they got better and that was certainly the case with the Cobblers still bottom of the table at the end of January 2012. But following some crucial January transfer window business and massive victories against relegation rivals Town were back on the brink of survival. When Oxford United were beaten at Sixfields on Good Friday thanks to a dramatic last minute winner from loanee Brett Williams the survival job was almost done. Defeats to Swindon, Bradford and Crawley got the nerves jangling again but a goalless draw at fellow relegation candidates Hereford United confirmed that we would be playing League Two football again the following season. Two further draws (with Gillingham and Rotherham) brought to an end another nervy campaign, though we seemed to at least be back on the right footing again.