The new season kicked off with high hopes for the Cobblers with Ian Sampson leading a charge towards the playoffs in the second half of the previous campaign leading to real anticipation ahead of the 2010/11 season.
New faces included Oscar Jansson (loan) in goal and Marcus Hall at the back as we made the long trip to Torquay for the first game of the new season. Fellow new signings Tadhg Purcell and Nathanial Wedderburn were on the bench for the trip to Plainmoor with John Johnson given a second debut following his permanent move from Middlesbrough.
The hopes and expectations would soon be blown away though as the hosts blew us away, scoring the opening goal just before half time through Kevin Nicholson. Chris Zebroski doubled the lead just after half time and within five minutes of the restart it was 3-0 and game over when Elliot Benyon made it three.
A huge regroup needed then for the Tuesday night curtain raiser at Sixfields as the first home game of the season brought Brighton and Hove Albion to town in the first round of the Carling Cup. Michael Jacobs, one of the young stars of pre-season, would begin a memorable season for him personally by scoring his first goal in professional football on thirteen minutes. Billy McKay headed home a few minutes later and so began a cup run that would take us eventually to an extraordinary night in September.
Back to the league and a tame 0-0 draw with Accrington Stanley at home was followed by an excellent point at Gigg Lane as David Worrall equalised a Steve Guinan penalty to earn Bury a draw against an improving Town side.
The Second Round of the Carling Cup took the Cobblers to Reading and an incredible game ended 2-2 at the end of ninety minutes. Matt Mills had put the Championship side in front but Andy Holt levelled things. Hal Robson-Kanu had the Royals in front again but Kevin Thornton equalised once more for Sammo’s men. Into extra time and Reading led for a third time as Mills struck again but deep, deep into added time, Alex Konstantinou bundled the ball home with the aid of a couple of deflections to take it to penalties. Simon Church had his kick saved, giving us a huge advantage and after successful conversions from Guinan, Thornton and Jacobs, Jake Taylor also missed. Abdul Osman stepped up for the crucial fourth spot kick and kept his nerve to send the small travelling contingent wild and put yet another brick in the road en route to our greatest night a month later.
A home draw with Wycombe back in League Two was another to feature a late equaliser for the Cobblers with Kevin Thornton’s penalty giving us a third straight league draw.
The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy would round off the month but there would be no upset this time as League One Hartlepool United eased to a 4-0 win on a dismal Tuesday night at Victoria Park. Evan Horwood, Anthony Sweeney, Andy Monkhouse and Dennis Behan netted for the Monkey Hangers with all four goals coming within nine minutes of each other!
So a strange old start to the season once again with no league wins but two cup victories over teams in higher divisions. Then came the news that September would feature a Carling Cup trip to Anfield and we could never even imagine in our wildest dreams what was to come…
A memorable September began at Aldershot as the Cobblers looked to finally get that first league win of the season. It looked like the wait was over when Billy McKay gave us the lead at the EBB Stadium with a finely taken goal but deep, deep into stoppage time the Shots levelled things as Ben Harding smashed the ball home right in front of some of the travelling support.
A week later and Southend were the visitors to Sixfields. That first league win was in serious jeopardy when Anthony Grant put the Shrimpers in front with a well taken volley. But Abdul Osman levelled the game and Andy Holt sealed that victory with a bullet header from a Michael Jacobs corner to put us finally on the way.
A trip to Shrewsbury was to be a tough test ahead of the trip to Liverpool and if anyone was playing for their places you would never have known it. Matt Harrold had the Shrews in front early on before Kevin Thornton grabbed an equaliser just before half-time. But a double from Jake Robinson saw us go home pointless from the New Meadow.
Then came Anfield, arguably the greatest night in the history of the club. We all know how it went down but it doesn’t hurt at all to remember once more the incredible scenes at one of the most recognisable venues in the world. With a sensational backing, we fell behind early on and thought that it was game over and that we were in for a hammering. But slowly and surely, the players found some confidence. Not only that but by half time there was genuine belief that we could pull something off or at least score a goal. That we did.
As pressure built on the Liverpool goal, a ball was pumped into the area. Kev Thornton knocked it down and McKay blasted it home right in front of us, sending grown men to tears and hoards of Cobblers into disbelief. It would somehow get better. The Cobblers didn’t just hold out for extra time, we battered a stunned Liverpool outfit and they would have been the more relieved team to get to the extra half hour.
Extra reserves of energy were found and in the first half of extra time, Courtney Herbert stormed down the right and crossed for Thornton. His shot was parried away but young Michael Jacobs swooped to score right in front of the Kop! It was getting surreal, we led at Anfield after going a goal down. There was a cruel twist to come though as Ryan Babbel equalised with a header right at the end to make it 2-2 and send the game to penalties.
Out of breath, out of finger nails but not out of the cup, there was time for one last sign of courage. Steve Guinan missed but so did David Ngog for the hosts. Thornton put in the first successful kick before Jon Jo Shelvey did the same. Liam Davis, Daniel Agger and Jacobs all kept their nerves but then we were put within one kick of glory when Nathan Eccleston hit the bar.
That left Abdul Osman to give us a moment that we will never, ever forget. He stepped up as we held our collective breath and sent the keeper the wrong way, sent us through to the Fourth Round and sent an army of 4,000 Cobblers fans absolutely insane. We shared drama, tears and disbelief that night and I will forever hold it in my heart as one of the greatest nights of my life (a non-Cobblers related moment would, of course, top it a couple of months later!)
It was tough to even think about the league again after that and the home game with Bradford welcomed home those heroes and we once again pulled something out of the bag. With the players still on a high, the Bantams were seen off in a 2-0 win for the Cobblers with Billy McKay and Ben Tozer in the goals and we were seemingly up and running for the season. How wrong we were!
It started innocuously enough with a 2-1 home reverse at the hands of high flying Chesterfield a week after Anfield, a defeat that we could begrudgingly accept despite leading at the break. But what would follow in October would change the face of the league season in ways that we would never really recover from.
October was to be one of the worst months of results for many a year and the Cobblers’ memories of Anfield would soon be drowned in a disastrous period where, following defeat in the final game of September, we would extend the run of losses to six games, putting the season in real jeopardy.
After home defeat to Chesterfield on the previous Tuesday, Macclesfield away provided a decent chance of a recovery but a 2-0 defeat put pay to that idea with Hamza Bencherif putting the Silkmen in front before Nat Brown eased home the points for the home side with a neat header.
A trip to Cheltenham would give us no respite from the worrying trend beginning to build and we left pointless from Whaddon Road as well with Brian Smiklie netting the winner.
Then came one of the most disappointing days of the entire season, a home game with struggling Hereford United, bottom at the time, at Sixfields. Leon McKenzie scored a first half hat-trick and we looked like putting the woes behind us but the Bulls stunned us with a remarkable second half fight back. First Stuart Fleetwood pulled one back, little more than a consolation we thought, on the hour. Guillem Bauza, who would later join us on loan, then set up Fleetwood for a second and James McQuilkin made it 3-3. There was, from there, only one winner and Matieu Manset won it with twelve minutes to go before Ben Tozer was sent off for throwing the ball.
We couldn’t imagine it getting much worse but then came another defeat, this time at Oxford as the U’s made it look easy with a 3-1 victory. McKenzie struck again to equalise Alfie Potter’s early goal but United scored on the stroke of half time for 2-1 and wrapped it up with a Tom Craddock penalty in stoppage time when John Johnson was sent off for pulling down his man.
Not the best of times, then, to face Ipswich Town in the Carling Cup Fourth Round, the reward for that night at Anfield when players by now looking like non league standard looked like world beaters. Liam Davis put us in front against the Championship side at Portman Road but Ipswich were far too strong and ran out 3-1 victors to progress and dump us out of the competition.
So out of the cup and having lost the previous six, a Gillingham side with the returning Bayo and Danny Jackman in the line-up is that last thing we needed to come up against. True to form, Chris Palmer scored from distance to put the Gills in front. But the tide would, thankfully, turn and the Cobblers would end the shocking month of October on a high. Dean Beckwith levelled before Leon McKenzie got the winner before the break with a well taken spot kick.
At the end of October the Cobblers were in real trouble despite that victory, in 21st position as November began and big improvements were needed very quickly indeed…
Following six defeats in a row, the season had finally got back on track with a win against Gillingham at the end of October and things would continue to turn in the right direction at the start of November.
A trip to Lincoln is usually perilous for Cobblers teams but this season we got it right with a decent 2-0 victory at Sincil Bank in the first game of the month. Dean Beckwith scored his second in two games by following up a Billy McKay shot that had rattled the post. John Johnson, scorer at the same venue last season, notched the second and we had secured back to back wins for the first time in the season.
Another potentially tricky encounter came at Forest Green Rovers in the First Round of the FA Cup. Johnson struck again to open the scoring with a belter of a strike from distance. Just before half-time, transfer listed Steve Guinan made it two and Michael Jacobs sealed it by scoring with his first touch after replacing Paul Rodgers.
Port Vale were the visitors in the first home game of November and after Abdul Osman was sent off just before half-time it looked like an uphill struggle against a side going well in League Two. But we still made a fight of the game and earned a good point in a 0-0 draw.
All of that hard work would be undermined a week later though as one of the most disastrous games of the season was played out at Underhill. Barnet, struggling and bottom of the table, came from a goal down to destroy us 4-1 thanks to two goals from Steve Kabba, one from Grant Basey and a fourth from Ricky Holmes.
The following Tuesday night looked like it was going the same way as Rotherham stormed into a two goal lead at the Don Valley Stadium thanks to Ryan Taylor and Marcus Marshall. But in one of the more extraordinary first halves of the season, the Cobblers mounted an immediate fight back. Four minutes after Marshall’s goal, Abdul Osman made it 2-1 and incredibly just a minute later, Andy Holt was sent through by Ryan Gilligan to level the score. Leon McKenzie headed over as we came close to the full recovery but there were no more additions to the score line and we settled for a good point.
Sheffield Wednesday away was the reward for coming through in the FA Cup and that would be the last game of November. We put up a good fight against the League One giants but eventually went down 3-2 on one of the most famous grounds in the country.
Back to the league and December would be a month ravaged by icy weather across the country. Some League Two sides didn’t play a single game in the month but the Cobblers did at least manage two matches.
The first, a home game against Stockport, earned three more points as Kevin Thornton opened the scoring with a finely taken goal, beating a couple of defenders before slotting the ball home on four minutes. Michael Jacob’s well taken strike eased the points home and we would go into a tricky looking game at Stevenage on a high.
Stevenage had been strong at home all season, only losing once at Broadhall Way. But the Cobblers battled to a massive win with Ryan Gilligan volleying in what turned out to be the winner early on. The hosts had Darius Charles sent off in the first few minutes of the second half but still provided a strong resistance and could easily have got something from the game. But 2010 would end with a good run of form, barring the Barnet result, and we would end the year in mid-table with a four point gap between ourselves and the playoff places.
The first half of 2011 would prove to be a tough period in the history of the Cobblers with a promising conclusion to 2010 turning into the start of a relegation dog fight. Momentum from back to back victories was lost to the icy weather over Christmas and there was plenty of catching up to do in the coming months.
2011 began with defeat at Crewe on New Years’ Day. A poor display from the Cobblers saw the Alex ease home with the points thanks to goals from prolific front men Clayton Donaldson and Shaun Miller either side of half-time.
That defeat looked like a small blip as Lincoln were beaten at Sixfields just two days later. Billy McKay swept home a neat half volley from an Abdul Osman cross but Josh O’Keefe looked like he’d earned a point for the Imps. John Johnson had other ideas though and rifled in a belter of a goal with two minutes to go for the winner and a league double over City.
The following Saturday saw Cheltenham come to town and McKay was in the goals again, putting the Cobblers in front after sixteen minutes but after a mix up between Ben Tozer and Chris Dun saw Wes Thomas nip in to level the game. Marlon Pack almost stole the points for the visitors with a late free kick but there was no further drama and it was four points from three games in 2011 for Ian Sampson’s men.
A disappointing defeat at Gillingham was next and the Cobblers visited the Priestfield Stadium with an injury ravaged squad. Andy Holt was employed as an emergency striker but Cody McDonald would net the only goal of the game.
An unbeaten 2011 so far at Sixfields would continue, though, with a good win over Oxford United ending the month. Holt headed in a few minutes before half time but Tom Craddock equalised. The returning Leon McKenzie had the last laugh though and he headed in the winner mid-way through the second half.
February 2011 would become a historic month for the Cobblers in more ways than one as a playoff hunt dried up and we began to slip worryingly down towards the wrong end of the table after a series of draws.
The month began with an incredible Tuesday night at Sixfields that saw the Cobblers put six goals past Crewe on the night when Shaun Harrad made his debut in a claret shirt. Harrad had been snapped up towards the end of the January transfer window and made an immediate impact, scoring after eleven minutes to equalise an early strike from the visitors’ Ajay Leitch- Smith. From then on, everything flew in. Michael Jacobs’ free kick and a Dean Beckwith header made it 3-1 before the break and Andy Holt put us further in front just after half-time. It was five soon after when Abdul Osman found his way through the Crewe defence to rattle in number five. Billy McKay’s goal late in the day meant that we had notched six goals for the first time at Sixfields. There was a late consolation for Crewe but we had started the month in fine style, setting up a potential push up the table.
From then on, though, the month would become the beginning of the end for Sammo as circumstances continued to go against him with an unwanted record rearing its head.
The six goal hammering of Crewe led many to believe that we were in for a late charge for the playoffs and that Barnet would suffer a similar fate on the following Saturday. But the Bees had other ideas and held us to a tame 0-0 draw at Sixfields as we came crashing back to earth with a thud.
A better point was just around the corner with a sense of déjà vu about the trip to Port Vale. As in the reverse fixture at Sixfields, Abdul Osman was sent off but we once again held out for a fine draw. By the time Osman was shown his marching orders, Justin Richards had put Vale in front from the spot and Leon McKenzie had quickly equalised three minutes later and despite a backs to the walls performance from then on the Cobblers earned a good result and got seemingly back on track.
There was more drama on the Tuesday night in a 3-3 draw with Morecambe at Sixfields. The Cobblers were in front three times, through John Johnson, Kevin Thornton and a McKenzie penalty but were pegged back each and every time with Paul Mullin’s third leveller three minutes from time stunning us for a third time.
Draw number four came at home to Aldershot. Ben Tozer finished in cool fashion following a goal mouth scramble but once again we would end with just a single point with another late equaliser, this time from the Shots’ Peter Vincenti.
Another Tuesday night fixture made it five in a row with a 1-1 draw at Hereford. We would again lose a lead, given to us by Andy Holt’s thundering header, as Wade Fairhurst headed in to frustrate Sammo yet again.
It was becoming a worrying pattern that the Cobblers were dropping leads all over the place and a playoff chase was becoming a distant memory as we headed for Southend in the final game of February. It was to be another similar experience. John Johnson scored a fine goal on twenty seven minutes to give us the lead but Barry Corr struck back within minutes and it was six draws in succession to end the month, equalling the club record for consecutive draws.
That latest draw meant that by the end of February the Cobblers were in fifteenth place, eight points from a playoff berth with one game in hand but eleven clear of the bottom two. Things would change dramatically during March to give us all a finish to the season that we couldn’t possibly have imagined.
The first day of March would also become the last at the club for one of its most loyal and popular people. After six consecutive draws, Ian Sampson was under pressure as boss, and with the club slipping towards the bottom of the table, a 3-2 defeat at home to Burton Albion saw him lose his job. In a shocking performance in the first half, the Cobblers had slipped to 3-0 down within 40 minutes, including a disastrous own goal from Chris Dunn. John Johnson got one back before half time and Andy Holt netted on the hour but it wasn’t enough and Sammo was unfortunately on his way.
The man to replace him was former Bristol City and Yeovil man Gary Johnson, who started the season at Peterborough, and he was in the dugout by the time we met high flying Shrewsbury Town a few days later.
We would again lose 3-2 but this time it was a cruel defeat more than anything with Michael Jacobs twice giving Town the lead. Jon Taylor would nick it for the visitors late on though and Johnson had a real task on his hands to lift a squad low on confidence.
A trip to Chesterfield wasn’t the ideal game to follow that with the Spireites topping the table going into the final couple of months and goals from Craig Davies and Jack Lester inside five second half minutes meant that the game would go to form. Andy Holt was again in the goals late on to give us hope of a revival but we couldn’t prevent a third successive defeat.
The home game against Macclesfield Town was the one that should have, on paper, been Johnson’s first win in charge but again the Cobblers would be on the losing end of a result, putting us deep in trouble at the wrong end of the table. Colin Daniel scored the only goal of the game for Macc with a well taken volley.
A draw at Bradford finally stopped the run of defeats and after Jake Speight’s early spot kick put the Bantams in front it was a decent enough result to end the game with a draw. Shaun Harrad brought us level from the spot on the hour mark to earn a share of the spoils.
There followed a dramatic Friday night back at Sixfields. The visitors, Torquay, were gunning for a playoff spot and took the lead through Eunan O’Kane before John Johnson levelled. Billy Kee struck in stoppage time and it looked like being another setback for Town until newly recruited Guillem Bauza stepped up to volley in to make it 2-2.
Despite that point, there was still only a couple of league places between ourselves and Barnet in the relegation zone. The points gap was eight points but in the coming weeks that would slowly change as we faced a huge threat of relegation…
April and May
The final two months of the season would take us all on a roller coaster ride of emotions as the Cobblers flirted with relegation and were involved in some of the most nervy afternoons and evenings since Shrewsbury in 1993.
We were still searching for a first win under Gary Johnson when we travelled to Accrington in the first game of April and on one of the worst pitches you’re ever likely to come across, were hammered into the ground with Stanley continuing a march that would eventually see them reach the playoffs. Ian Craney struck a brace and Sean McConville extended their lead as Town fell three down by half-time. A well taken free kick from Michael Jacobs hinted at a response but the damage had been done.
That set up one of the biggest and most important games of the season, a trip to Burton Albion on the Tuesday night. Albion had been playing catch up for months after an incredible run of postponed games in mid-season but despite plenty of games in hand were still in major trouble by the time the Cobblers came to town. Just two points separated the teams with the Cobblers in 21st and Burton in 22nd, both of us lingering just outside the bottom two. Guillem Bauza had us in front five minutes from half time but parity was restored through Aaron Webster for the Brewers just a couple of minutes later and we had to settle for a point apiece following a tense second half.
Bury would provide another stern test a few days later at Sixfields and the gulf in class between ourselves and a promotion chasing side was more than apparent as the Shakers took a four goal lead before we got going. Shaun Harrad refound his scoring form to net twice but again the Cobblers suffered from a poor start to the game.
That defeat left us just two points above the drop zone with a tough run of games to come. A trip to Wycombe wasn’t the best solution but Harrad put us in front from the spot before Bauza gave us hope of a massive upset before half time. But Scott Donnelly halved the deficit just after half time and Leon Johnson levelled with just eight minutes to go. Abdul Osman missed a glorious opportunity to earn all three points in stoppage time but fluffed his lines right at the vital moment.
Defeat for Barnet meant that the gap opened to three points going into the Easter period that started with a home game against playoff chasing Rotherham at Sixfields. Town had come from two down to draw with Ronnie Moore’s men earlier in the season and it would be the same story once again. Two down at half time, Leon McKenzie started the come back with a scrappy goal in the midst of a goal mouth scramble and with time running out Liam Davis finished well to create bedlam at Sixfields, so much so that a fan in a wheel chair staged a mini pitch invasion, earning overnight celebrity status!
Those celebrations were muted though a day later as Saturday’s League Two results all went against the Cobblers. We needed something from Stockport on Easter Monday with the Hatters also fighting for their lives. Bauza opened the scoring on two minutes but Adam Griffin ensured that we went in at half time level. And after Bauza had been brought down with little over ten minutes to go and Harrad slotted in the spot kick, it looked like the most crucial of wins was finally ours. But deep, deep into stoppage time Greg Tansey unleashed an unstoppable volley from all of 35 yards to equalise and preserve County’s league status for a few more days at least.
Going into the final two games, Town were just a place and a point above the drop zone and never was it more crucial to get three points against another challenger for the playoffs, Stevenage, in the final home game of the campaign. Davis got us off to a perfect start and belief began to flood around Sixfields as Luke Foster was sent off for the visitors. On the hour, a quick break away from the Cobblers resulted in Michael Uwesu netting the all-important second to ultimately keep us in the Football League thanks to Barnet’s defeat on the same day. Uwesu had signed a short term deal a few weeks earlier and could not have done his cause for a longer deal any harm at all with that strike. There was still time for a second red card for Stevenage with John Mousinho given his marching orders five minutes from time but the main talking point was that we were, after several weeks of desperation and worry, safe and Barnet and Lincoln would battle it out on the final day of the season.
So with a party feel in the air we headed to Morecambe with nearly 1,000 Cobblers fans making the journey to the Globe Arena. They would be rewarded for a season of stuggle with another victory as first Kevin Thornton and then Ben Tozer netted to end the campaign on a high. Niall Cowperthwaite added a consolation for the home side but we clung on for back to backs wins.
It had been a season of extraordinary highs and desperate lows. The Anfield win looked to have set us up for a memorable 2010/11 season but after that it just all went horribly wrong and Gary Johnson was tasked with sorting out the squad for a hugely important 2011/12. We were told that this will never happen again and after the stress and fear that was installed in us all over the closing months of the season we were all praying that statement would be true!