Northampton Town v Cheltenham Town: Match Preview

PlayOffTrophyNorthampton Town v Cheltenham Town

League Two Playoff Semi-Final, First Leg

Thursday, May 2nd 2013

So this is it. The playoffs kick off this evening with the Cobblers involved in the end of season lottery for the first time since 2005. Back then, we were beaten by a single goal over two leg against Southend United in a display that was desperately lacking any kind of cutting edge. A year earlier we had been involved in one of the most emotional games we’re ever likely to see at Mansfield Town, going out on penalties after a stonking come back, some shocking refereeing and awful luck in the second leg.

In both of those ties, the Cobblers were at home first and failed to get a good grip on the tie before making the journeys north and east respectively. What we need to do tonight is instead channel the spirit from happier semi-finals at Sixfields – the 3-2 victory over Cardiff City in 1997 and the best night ever to take place on Upton Way, the 3-0 turn around against Bristol Rovers a year later. Both of those were second legs of course and the problem facing us this evening is how far to push it and really go in all guns blazing ahead of a tough, tough away leg on Sunday.

The advantage to going away first is that a draw would be a good result and no doubt Cheltenham would be over the moon with an outcome like that. But Aidy Boothroyd is fired up and Sixfields needs to be the same under the evening summer lights. There should be an electric atmosphere based on some of the build-up already taking place online and no doubt in work places up and down the country this afternoon. Let’s do this!

Cheltenham’s road to the playoffs…

Our opponents were just pipped to automatic promotion by Rotherham United on Saturday but come into the game with a better run-in behind them than the Cobblers. After seeing off Town at the start of the month at Whaddon Road they were beaten by Plymouth at Home Park but recovered to beat eventual League Two champions Gillingham and playoff chasing Exeter City before holding Bradford City to a goalless draw on Saturday.

Yates...winner as a player

Yates…winner as a player

Rubies’ playoff history…

The Rubies have a decent record in League Two playoffs having beaten Rushden and Diamonds 3-1 at the Millennium Stadium in the 2002 final and Grimsby Town by the single goal (scored by future Cobbler Steve Guinan) in the 2006 showpiece. In the first instance, now manager Mark Yates captained the side and lifted the trophy for the club he now leads into a fourth playoff campaign.

Last season, Cheltenham were beaten at Wembley by Crewe Alexandra and will be coming into this one hoping to erase all of those memories and make it four finals from four attempts.

 

Team News…

The Cobblers have almost a fully fit squad to choose from with Kelvin Langmead, Clive Platt and Ishmel Demontagnac all coming back into contention. Joe Widdowson is the only one not 100% and who could be left out in favour of Lee Collins. Alex Nicholls is, of course, the only long term absentee after his broken leg back in October against Port Vale.

Cheltenham also have a near to full strength squad available with Harry Hooman the only possible absentee as he is set to sit out for the remainder of the season. Paul Benson is back from an ankle problem and came off the bench in Saturday’s draw with Bradfor.

 

Previous Six Meetings…

01/04/13: Cheltenham 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)

As the Cobblers sat three points ahead of Cheltenham at the start of this month, the Rubies had to win to close the gap on a Town side who still had a chance of automatic promotion. After a quiet first half, Steve Elliot netted the crucial winner on the stroke of half-time to set up a dramatic final few weeks of the season.

08/12/012: Cobblers 2-3 Cheltenham (League Two)

The Cobblers looked set for a good home win when Bayo Akinfenwa scored after just two minutes and Billy Jones put through his own net soon after. But Darren Carter and Chris Zebroski levelled things up before even half an hour had passed and it was left to Darryl Duffy to slot in the winner for a stunning turnaround late on for the visitors.

03/03/12: Cheltenham 2-2 Cobblers (League Two)

Ben Tozer and Bayo Akinfenwa gave the Cobblers a surprise two goal lead at Whaddon Road in the first half but the hosts hit back in the second as Darryl Duffy slotted in a penalty before clinching a point for his side in stoppage time.

20/08/11: Cobblers 2-3 Cheltenham (League Two)

In the second home game of last season, Darryl Duffy opened the scoring from the spot for Cheltenham on eleven minutes but goals either side of half time from Arron Davies and Bayo Akinfenwa steered the game in our favour. The Rubies had other ideas though and Duffy got on the end of a cross from ex-Cobbler Josh Low to level it before Low himself won it ten minutes from time.

08/01/11: Cobblers 1-1 Cheltenham (League Two)

The first of many draws in 2011 saw Billy McKay give the Cobblers an early lead before Wes Thomas netted the equaliser just after half-time.

09/10/10: Cheltenham 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)

Dean Beckwith’s red card at Whaddon Road saw the Cobblers reduced to ten men within the opening quarter of the game. It took until the hour mark, though, for Cheltenham to take advantage and Brian Smikle scored the winner.

 

The man in the middle…

The man trusted with the first leg is someone who has been involved in controversy this season in Mick Russell. Russell was the man who showed two yellow cards to Sheffield Wednesday’s Jeremy Helan and failed to send him off during a game at Huddersfield Town back in December. Russell was taken off duty for just under a month after the incident and went on to referee seventeen more games this season. Russell was in the middle for the Cobblers’ 1-0 win at Dagenham and Redbridge last September and for the dramatic cup replay at Bradford in which Town lost on penalties. He last officiated a Cheltenham game in August of last year, a 2-2 draw at Torquay.

 

Prediction…

It’s so hard to predict a playoff game, especially one that involves your own team. I’m dreading putting anything down for the ‘kiss of death’ implications. So I’ll go for a draw to keep me from anyone saying it was all my fault. This should be a tight, tense game that is likely to be well in the balance come Sunday. 1-1.

Barnet down with a whimper as Cobblers set up Rubies tie

O' Donovan...another Cobblers goal

O’ Donovan…another Cobblers goal

Northampton Town 2-0 Barnet

League Two

Saturday, April 27th 2013

It’s become a staple to see a certain set of photos and videos at this time of the year. You know the ones – supporters up and down the land with heads in their hands, tears rolling down their painted faces, weeping into their fancy dress costumes and being consoled by their fellow fan. Indeed the Cobblers have made us into those very news items over the years, most recently at Elland Road where a hardy band of souls dug deep for one last time only to see their side surrender a place in League One at the death. We suffered together in that corner of the old stadium and hoped that we wouldn’t have any feelings like that again for a long, long time.

So when Barnet came to town on Saturday looking for the victory that would ensure a fourth consecutive last day escape from the drop to the Conference you would have expected similar images all over the place when they failed to pick up anything and realised that, due to AFC Wimbledon’s 2-1 win over Fleetwood Town, this time they were down.

But what transpired was less emotional out and more physical pour out – pouring out of the gates that is, just as the Bees players came over for their consolatory greetings. The mood in the visitor’s end reflected what had just gone on in front of them. The hearty fight to the death never materialised. There was to be no more heroics, no more saviours and no more death defying and unthinkable victories that would save them this time. In fact, Barnet were relegated with a whimper and you have to feel for those supporters who appeared to have given up the ghost as soon as the second Town goal went in.

I wish them luck. It’s not easy to be relegated and particularly to the Conference where more and more it feels like a resting place for former league clubs, all battling to reclaim past glories. I don’t want to start glorifying a relegation that must have hurt so many people and would rather now focus on the brighter side of the day, that of the Cobblers’ winning end to the league campaign and what is now building up to be an exciting time with playoff tickets selling like hot cakes on the first day of release.

Town took a long, long time to get going and the first half was a bit of a haze. It felt very much like Barnet were waiting for something to happen at Kingsmeadow before making their first move. There were no scores on any doors up until the break but as soon as the whistle went for the start of the second it seemed like something clicked and you could tell that panic and realisation had finally set in with the Barnet faithful.

Just past the hour mark, word filtered through that Wimbledon had taken the lead through Gary Alexander’s header. Soon after, the Cobblers took the lead as Roy O’Donovan raced onto a through ball to coolly slot the ball into the corner of Graham Stack’s net. Home fans celebrated but there was a brief bit of hope for those to our right as Andy Mangan had equalised for Fleetwood against Wimbledon and Barnet were suddenly safe again.

Almost as quickly, though, their hopes were obliterated as Town took a 2-0 lead through a well taken Luke Guttridge shot from a fine Bayo Akinfenwa hold up and pass whilst Wimbledon won a penalty at Kingsmeadow and Jack Midson converted to seal the fate of our opposition and his former club.

Bayo had replaced David Moyo in attack in the second half and it was this change, as well as the terrific work rate and doggedness of Luke Guttridge that helped us to do our bit and at least clinch sixth place. Bayo has work to do to get back into form but his touches and all round play signals a return to form. Guttridge’s recall has arguably been one of the key elements of Town bouncing back from the home defeat to York City and giving us hope that the playoff campaign could actually end in glory.

For that to happen, we’ll need to get past a team that have done the league double over us this season in Cheltenham Town. The Rubies’ draw with Bradford City means that they dropped to fifth thanks to Burton’s good home win over champions Gillingham and they will now provide the opposition for what will be a tense and enthralling couple of games with a trip to Wembley the ultimate prize.

They’ve demonstrated in both of those victories over us that they can be resilient (coming from two down to win 3-2 at Sixfields) and determined (edging the Cobblers out 1-0 at Whaddon Road) and it’s going to be need a huge effort for us to end up walking down Wembley Way for the first time in fifteen years.

The thought of that sends shivers down spines and with tickets selling fast (only 230 Cobblers tickets for the away leg out of 1500 remain at the end of Sunday) we’re sure to have a massive backing. Thursday sees us host the first leg, another sell out for sure, whilst the return leg is at Whaddon Road on Sunday evening.

Until then, I hope you all have a good few days…from past experience the waiting is the hardest part for the playoff games and this should be no different. Get right behind the team for this and we could be etching more names into the history books to go alongside the likes of Atkins, Woody, Clarkson, Frain, Razor, Sammo, Rennie, Parrish, Hunter, Gayle, Lee, Larry, Deano Peer and Jason White White White.

Bring on the playoffs!!

More twists as others close in

Sixfields...key to success

Sixfields…key to success

So we’re down to four games. Four games that will decide whether the Cobblers will be promoted from League Two or left to face the challenge of the playoffs or even left with an unthinkable position of losing it at the last. It’s very pessimistic to think about the latter but with last night’s results you get the feeling that any kind of slip ups in the final two home games in particular could lead to a disastrous end to what has been a terrific season.

The Cobblers are now chasing third place once again with Burton Albion recovering from a 7-1 mauling at Port Vale to beat Wycombe 2-0 last night and go back above Town in the race for third place. Aidy Boothroyd will be comforted by the game in hand – away at Wycombe – and will know that the home games against York City and Barnet as well as the trip to Adams Park hold the key to any sustained challenge on automatic promotion.

The only other fixture is away at Vale and is one that will provide the sternest of tests with the Valiants now looking a lock for second place. The lifeline there could be if Vale are already promoted and Gillingham have taken any chance away of them going for the title by then.

It’s all ifs and buts and there’s so much more to come, so many questions to be answered and challenges to be met. With the Cobblers now chasing third again rather than trying to hold onto it, could it bring out the best in us?

What of the others in the playoff positions? Cheltenham, who have some tough fixtures left, will be desperate to claw their own way back into third. Rotherham, a lot of people’s tips, seem to be finding some form again as they catch up with their games in hand will undoubtedly have a say. And Bradford themselves off the back of a victory over the Cobblers and a hammering of Bristol Rovers last night have their own spare game and are looking dangerous.

There’s still games involving all of these sides against each other and it promises to be a frantic last few weeks. For The Cobblers, we must win the two home games and probably one of the away games to be in contention for third place. It makes it a big ask but if you’re going to be promoted, now is the time to stand up and earn it.

Finger nails at the ready…

Cobblers clinging on despite defeat

Cheltenham Town 1-0 Northampton Town

League Two

Monday, April 1st 2013

The dream scenario that could have come from this first six pointer of the run-in was unfortunately a step too far on Monday afternoon as the Cobblers were beaten by the narrowest of margins. There was such a thin line between the standings as they are now and how they would have looked had Town nicked an equaliser but as it was we came home with nothing and are left trying to build ourselves back up for another difficult trip to Bradford on Saturday afternoon.

Incredibly we still ended the day in the top three thanks to a late, late goal from Accrington’s James Beattie that earned his side a draw against Burton Albion who were looking set to leap back into third place as their game entered stoppage time. But as the run in is narrowed to five games, the Cobblers desperately need to find form on the road ahead of some tricky trips if we are to be celebrating more than a playoff place in a few weeks’ time.

Fleetwood and Southend’s draw early in the day meant that we are looking ever more likely to finish at least in the top seven, something of an achievement in itself after the last couple of seasons battling the drop, but Cheltenham managed to ensure that they stayed on course for the bigger prize by dragging us to within a couple of goals’ difference.

The first half was innocuous enough right up until the last two minutes. The Cobblers were holding out well and were looking like heading into the break on level terms thanks to reducing the home side to long range efforts for the majority of the half. But Aidy Boothroyd’s team talk was changed when Steve Elliot followed up a parry from Lee Nicholls to slot the Rubies in front.

Goals around the rest of League Two were tipping the scales of the promotion race this way and that but whatever happened elsewhere it could have been a massive moment had we found the leveller after half-time. Town came out with more purpose and Bayo Akinfenwa headed over before Chris Hackett hit a rocket from range that the home keeper did well to tip away for a corner.

There was to be no late show this time from Boothroyd’s men though and it was then all about checking the other results. Burton were 3-2 up right up until the last seconds of injury time at Accrington but former England striker Beattie scrambled in what could be a game changing goal to mean that the Brewers dropped two points. The psychological effects of that could be lasting and they will need to find something extra when they visit Port Vale on Friday night.

By the time we go to Bradford we will know what at least two of our rivals have done but the main thing about Saturday is that we need three points away from home more than ever. If we can nick it at Valley Parade it would set up a home game against York City nicely and suddenly there could be a chance of not only confirming a playoff place but of making the automatic promotion dream a big possibility.

This one wasn’t the end of the world if we can dig deep and pull something out of the bag in Yorkshire in a few days’ time. The drama goes on…

Hold on to your hats!

PENTAX ImageIt’s days like this coming Monday that get the blood pumping days in advance. Even thousands of miles away, I’m here longing for kick off at Whaddon Road where the Cobblers go looking for a win that would be as precious as any victory in the last few years. This is a six pointer in all senses of the word…the Rubies are three points behind Town having played a game more but will draw level with any sort of win.

But should the incredible happen and the Cobblers win the big one away from home, we will see a six point gap open up between ourselves and Mark Yates’ men with his side then only having twelve left to play for. If only it were that easy! Cheltenham are baying for blood after letting a 2-1 lead slip on Friday against another promotion seeker, Port Vale, and are out to banish the memories of last season’s playoff final defeat to Crewe Alexandra. They’ll be desperate to avoid the lottery of the playoffs this time around and possess enough artillery in their ranks to come out and pummel the Cobblers into submission should they be in that mind-set.

But this is the sort of game that Cobblers supporters thrive for. Say what you like about the atmosphere at Sixfields during parts of this season, when it comes to big away games like this we usually leave nothing on the terraces. There’s set to be a couple of thousand away fans packed into Whaddon Road tomorrow and hopefully those that make the trip do us proud, as this spirited, battling team we cheer on have done for the majority of this season.

There’s still plenty of twists and turns to come, no matter what happens on Easter Monday but this is the start of the final straight of the season. It’s been a long one, full of last minute winners, dodgy decisions, brave heart performances and plenty of sub plots but it now comes down to who has the bottle to last. Four away games out of the six do us no favours for the run in, particularly with the form we’ve shown on the road this season but if ever there’s a time to put it right it’s now.

This is where heroes are made and memories etched. Welcome to the home straight…

Rubies turn it around as Sixfields is breached

Duffy...winner

Duffy…winner

Northampton Town 2-3 Cheltenham Town

League Two

Saturday, December 8th 2012

The Cobblers’ home form in recent weeks meant that a game against a genuine promotion challenger in Cheltenham Town wasn’t as daunting as it might have been a year ago. Exeter, Port Vale, Wycombe and Morecambe have all been swept aside with goals flowing and confidence growing with each Sixfields encounter. So when we took another two goal lead against the Rubies on Saturday afternoon it was easy to get back into the mind-set that this was to be another comfortable afternoon.

But unlike previous visitors, Cheltenham took their chances. Their organised and well drilled approach meant that they differentiated themselves from the rest of the pack and were able to fight back to record an impressive victory that stunned a Town side that were perhaps to expectant of the opposition to not have a response.

Bayo’s latest goal came just inside the second minute with a Billy Jones own goal (another one in the Cobblers’ tally to come from a Ben Tozer long throw) putting us into what has become a usual tone of a lead at home. The difference was that this time our visitors were made of sterner stuff and as soon as Darren Carter had found space to make it 2-1 it always looked like a game that could slip from our grasp.

Three minutes later and Chris Zebroski had headed in an equaliser and it was well and truly game on with Cheltenham turning the tide in their own favour as the half came to an end. The fact that they were taking their chances was enough to worry the home support and you got the feeling that the second half would be a difficult one.

And indeed it was. As the Cobblers fluffed chances, mainly through Akinfenwa who had earlier netted the latest in a long line of goals against Cheltenham and who hit the bar from close range, the Rubies were holding firm and waiting for the key break away. Substitute Darryl Duffy, a perennial annoyance of Town, broke clear with ten minutes to go and finished brilliantly to seal all three points with his fifth goal in three games against us. He had scored twice in each fixture last season and is looking like being their equivalent to Akinfenwa’s presence against them.

So a disappointing day but a message to ourselves that there’s still work to be done if we’re to reach the level set by teams like Cheltenham. Aidy Boothroyd rightly said that the game would be a yardstick for his side’s progress and it proved to be just that. It’s not a bad thing, though, and this group will learn a lot from it in terms of making sure chances go in and ensuring that defensively we’re right on the ball, especially when we lead a game by a couple of goals.

There’s another week’s break now before we visit Torquay next weekend, another tester as Christmas gets ever closer. If we can take some of the lessons from the last couple of weeks then the defeats won’t be in vain.

Northampton Town v Cheltenham Town: Match Preview

sixfieldsNorthampton Town v Cheltenham Town

League Two

Saturday, December 8th 2012

After a week of cup distraction it’s back to the good old ‘bread and butter’ of league action with high flying Cheltenham Town in town for a big game at Sixfields. The Cobblers were on a fine run of form until Oxford ruined things two weeks ago by inflicting a 2-1 defeat on us before Leyton Orient dumped us out of the JPT on Wednesday night.

The visitors come to town looking to keep hold of, and build on, a top three place as they attempt to go one better than last season’s foray into the playoffs.

Rubies gunning for glory once more…

Cheltenham were beaten semi-finalists in the playoffs last season but began this campaign steadily with new signing and ex-Cobbler Shaun Harrad making his mark in front of goal. Harrad has hit six goals so far and made his mark in Monday’s FA Cup Second Round game with Hereford by pouncing to open the scoring before the Bulls hit back. The away form is a slight cause for concern for them, though with just one point collected in the last four league trips albeit at leaders Gillingham. If they can get back into the groove at Sixfields, the Gills will be well in their sights, though with just six points separating the teams going into this weekend.

Bayo ready to feed again?

Bayo Akinfenwa should be raring to go again following his cameo from the bench on Tuesday and Cheltenham are one of his favourite opposition. The big man has scored eight times against the Rubies in as many games for the Cobblers and Gillingham over the last four seasons and has entered double figures for this season already.

 

Club Links…

Cheltenham top scorer Shaun Harrad was a key figure in keeping the Cobblers in the Football League in 2011 before he was sold to Bury by Gary Johnson. Harrad went on to join Rotherham on loan last season before signing for the season at Whaddon Road in the summer.

Rubies goalkeeping coach Steve Book is the son of former Cobblers keeper Kim Book, the man who was hit for six by George Best in 1970.

 

Team News…

Cobblers defender Clarke Carlisle is still waiting on clarification as to whether he has served his one match ban through the JPT tie. If he has he should go straight back into the squad for this one. David Artell and Luke Guttridge are still out with long term injuries and Alex Nicholls will be missing for the rest of the season. Bayo Akinfenwa and Chris Hackett should return after being rested from the start on Wednesday night

Cheltenham’s Sido Jombati and Lawson D’ath both returned to action for the reserves in midweek and could stake a claim for a first team place tomorrow. Chris Zebroski was ill earlier this week but is looking likely to recover in time for the trip to Sixfields.

 

Previous Six Meetings…

03/03/12: Cheltenham 2-2 Cobblers (League Two)

Ben Tozer and Bayo Akinfenwa gave the Cobblers a surprise two goal lead at Whaddon Road in the first half but the hosts hit back in the second as Darryl Duffy slotted in a penalty before clinching a point for his side in stoppage time.

20/08/11: Cobblers 2-3 Cheltenham (League Two)

In the second home game of last season, Darryl Duffy opened the scoring from the spot for Cheltenham on eleven minutes but goals either side of half time from Arron Davies and Bayo Akinfenwa steered the game in our favour. The Rubies had other ideas though and Duffy got on the end of a cross from ex-Cobbler Josh Low to level it before Low himself won it ten minutes from time.

08/01/11: Cobblers 1-1 Cheltenham (League Two)

The first of many draws in 2011 saw Billy McKay give the Cobblers an early lead before Wes Thomas netted the equaliser just after half-time.

09/10/10: Cheltenham 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)

Dean Beckwith’s red card at Whaddon Road saw the Cobblers reduced to ten men within the opening quarter of the game. It took until the hour mark, though, for Cheltenham to take advantage and Brian Smikle scored the winner.

27/02/10: Cobblers 2-1 Cheltenham (League Two)

After a goalless first half, things came to life in the second. Bayo Akinfenwa put us in front and Marley Watkins looked like he’d earned a draw for the visitors. But Seb Harris scored his only goal for the club with five minutes to go to settle it.

05/12/09: Cheltenham 2-2 Cobblers (League Two)

In a see-saw battle, Barry Hayles opened the scoring before Bayo levelled just a minute later. Hayles was again on target on the half hour mark but Akinfenwa matched him, sealing a point just after the break.

 

The man in the middle…

Andy Davies is the referee at Sixfields on Saturday. Davies has already taken charge of a Cobblers game this season in the 3-2 defeat at Plymouth with this season his first in the Football League. So far he’s shown thirty three yellow cards and one red in eleven matches during the campaign.

 

Prediction…

Hopefully all Cheltenham eyes will be on Tuesday night’s cup replay with Hereford with the knowledge that the winner sets up a home game with Everton. That’s one way we could pick up a big win but a lot could rest on how the visitors keep hold of Bayo Akinfenwa and stop his obligatory goal against them. I’m thinking it’ll be a close one with a score draw one that both might well be happy with. 1-1.

Next four teams in the spotlight!

The second group of team previews for the 2012/13 League Two season are now up. Today the focus falls on Bradford City, Bristol Rovers, Burton Albion and Cheltenham Town! See below for the links:

Bradford City

Bristol Rovers

Burton Albion

Cheltenham Town

And click here for the links to all of the previews posted so far!

A new outlook for the new season

On Wednesday I was fortunate enough to attend the Olympic football in Cardiff where Mexico saw off Switzerland and Team GB battled to a hard earned win over one of the pre-tournament favourites Uruguay.

Yet its not the results of these games that will stick with me when I look back on the experience. It’s not even the fact that Roy Hodgson and Trevor Brooking took their seats just a stone’s throw away from us or the fact that Luis Suarez had a shocker of a game and didn’t help himself to endear to us Brits once again. It was the sheer atmosphere of it all that will be on my mind for a long, long time.

From the moment I stepped out of Cardiff station around lunch time I had a feeling that this was going to be something special. Usually following the Cobblers away from home I’m used to nervously checking my surroundings when stepping onto a platform but this was a joyful change. Mexicans were streaming out of the station in traditional gear, sombreros, ponchos and all, the Swiss though less in number were cooly going about their business, South Americans were boisterous as they joined the party and the Brits, well, were just proud to be hosting this party.

I had the sense that this was a once in a lifetime event and that, to be honest, makes me a little sad.

In the past I admit to being tribal in my following of the Cobblers. A mere mention of Peterborough in a pub quiz, lecture or kick around would have me twitching. Now, coming away from what was a perfect setting for football, I feel I’ve changed.

Maybe it’s starting a family, maybe it’s having more than one person to protect and having that responsibility, but I’m starting to recognise that my outlook on football is changing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as passionate as any Cobblers fan, I still get into ‘the zone’ on Saturday afternoons whether I’m at the game or not, but I’m also starting to develop a much better empathy for other supporters and teams.

The Olympic football event was what how I now see myself wanting my football experience to be like. It may be frowned upon by many people who read this but I feel a need to blog about it so I hope it makes a bit of sense!

When I say I would like to see this atmosphere in the Football League I would still draw the line at segregation on the terraces. Whilst on this occasion it was nice to mingle with other countries’ supporters there really is nothing like celebrating like crazy with your own set of fans when a big goal goes in. I couldn’t imagine the special moments of the Cobblers’ recent history like the Wembley win, promotions and Anfield being celebrated next to opposition supporters. One of the great things about a big moment like that is that you get to embrace the moment with people who are feeling exactly the same as you and that shouldn’t change.

What I’m looking for is more interaction between fans before, during and after matches. The whole deal with some clubs, Town included as far as I know, that see ‘home pubs’ and ‘away pubs’ being abolished would be a start. If you set out before a ball is kicked with an attitude of ‘us v them’ then you set yourself up badly. Who is to say that given a chance, no sets of supporters can rub shoulders with each other before games? I’ve seen it work first hand at places like Torquay, Brighton, Cheltenham and AFC Wimbledon where I’ve always felt really welcome as a visiting supporter. What we need is for more clubs to at least try it out and get behind the mutual love of this game rather than head out with a blunt ‘no’ to letting visiting fans into ‘our’ establishments. If fans from Uruguay, the UK, Switzerland and Mexico can all have a ball in one place then I see no reason why fans from Rochdale, Carlisle, Bury, Yeovil, Exeter etc, can’t do the same week in week out.

One thing that’s working for me is Twitter. As a football fan, I’ve gained more and more followers over the last two years and the strange thing with it is that I feel like I know some people pretty well simply by following them and talking to them online of a Saturday. The basic tool to talk to fans of other football clubs immediately gives you a greater empathy for them. Whereas it used to all be about teams turning up and you not knowing much about them, social media means that it’s highly likely that we know at least one fan of each club and straight away the barriers are broken down because we’re less likely to feel like having a go at their manager, team or fans. It’s not for everyone but it’s definitely working.

So how can we move forward? What I feel is needed is for us to share the feelings of joy, despair, heartache and love that comes with this game that we enjoy. We shouldn’t be afraid to be the ones to actually welcome opposition fans to our grounds, to go out of our way to talk to them rather than create mental segregations in the times when balls aren’t being kicked.

This latest chapter in my football watching life has (as you can see) left me mightily ponderous and I hope I’ve written this in a way that makes. Bit of sense and speaks to some people. I know I might be dreaming in a very hippy-like way that we can all get along, all laugh, marvel, debate and, most importantly, enjoy, the beautiful game together as fans but if one person reading this gets something from it then I’ll be happy.

Enjoy the build up to your seasons and maybe I’ll even meet some of you in the months to come!

League Two Playoff Special: Cheltenham Town

Playoff History: League Two final winners 2002, 2006

In the next part of this playoff special we take a look at the prospects of one of, if not the surprise package of League Two this season, Cheltenham Town. Mark Yates has transformed the Rubies from relegation candidates last season, a campaign in which they finished just five points above the drop zone, to promotion contenders for the majority of this season.

2011/12 has already seen plenty to shout about for Yates’ men as they recovered from a disappointing first couple of games to discover form and defeat both Swindon and Crawley at Whaddon Road. A mixed September meant that not even the most hardened Town supporter could envisage what would come in October as their club won five out of six games in the league as well as seeing off League One Wycombe in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Yates was perhaps cruelly beaten by Crawley’s Steve Evans to the Manager of the Month award that month but a foundation had been built and Cheltenham were on their way.

Winning all three league games in November, the Rubies also progressed through the First Round of the FA Cup, beating another League One club away as Darryl Duffy’s penalty saw them through at Tranmere. Yates finally got his recognition with the Manager of the Month for November and not only did his side continue their fine run by going through December unbeaten but they also set up a Third Round FA Cup tie with Tottenham Hotspur by winning 4-2 at Luton Town.

A 3-0 defeat at White Hart Lane was no disgrace and the fact that it was sandwiched between back to back league wins made it that bit more bearable as Town rode on towards the summit of League Two. A slight February wobble was hammered away by a 5-0 victory at Dagenham and it all looked set for an almighty finish to the season.

Rubies boss Mark Yates

The club were hanging around the top three until mid-March when four successive defeats pulled them back from the automatic promotion shake up into the playoff race and it’s perhaps a testament to the work of Yates and his squad that they were still in a strong enough position to keep hold of a place in the running for the top seven.

That place was confirmed thanks to three straight home victories in April and many people’s underdogs will now take their rightful place in the end of season lottery in a two legged-affair with Torquay United.

Max Hobbs (@maxihobbs), our resident Cheltenham fanatic and creator of this Rubies’ blog, gives his thoughts below on what could be a stunning end to a surprising season…

Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?

Not at all and I think the same could be said for Torquay in reality too. A look at Coral on the day before the season began put us 11/4 favourites to go down, in that sense alone our season has been remarkable especially considering we topped the League as late as February. Sadly March killed off our automatic hopes but I prefer the thrill of the play offs anyway!!

What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?

Our start to the season, as usual, was fantastic and we were right in the mix after some great performances mainly on the road. People expected us to fade which ultimately we did but I think we’ve shown great character to now finish 7 points into the play offs. Between September and December was where teams really stepped up and took notice of us.

Who have been the key men?

It’s a cliché but the whole squad have been imperative in our rise this season. We have a small squad so they’ve all played their parts but inevitably you have stand out players and it’s hard to look past the quality of Marlon Pack, the sheer determination of Russ Penn and Sido Jombati at the back has been a revelation. I could name plenty more including the 2 CB’s, Luke Summerfield and Kaid Mohamed – as a unit we’ve been fantastic and the togetherness of the squads of 02 and 06 which saw us win the playoffs is there.

Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?

Without being disrespectful I’m happy to have drawn Torquay and I think they’d probably believe likewise. Crewe’s unbeaten run is becoming longer by the week and we recently came off the back of a 4-0 hammering at Southend so I didn’t fancy either of those and whoever we get in the final will be very difficult. Crewe have already done the double over us and have forgotten what it’s like to lose and with the quality of Nick Powell and Luke Murphy I’d probably rather take on Southend, just!

Finally, will you be promoted?!

Our playoff record is as good as it gets and we always seem to pull something out the bag for occasions like this but I’m not so sure. I think whoever goes up will be deserving of their spot and I also feel all 4 teams could hold their own in League 1. There’s no reason why we can’t but I’ve got a feeling for Crewe.