Big freeze at the very last for Cobblers

Wembley1Bradford City 3-0 Northampton Town

League Two Playoff Final 2013

There were no heroics. There was to be no drama. There was nothing of anything really to be brutally honest. This latest instalment of Northampton Town’s Wembley history will likely be buried in the annuls of time, locked away and shuddered at whenever someone mentions May 18th 2013. This day could have been so memorable but it turned out to instead play host to one of the most disappointing days in recent football memories.

It wasn’t even like there was a bad referee decision, a cruel twist of fate or a late deflection off someone’s backside that we could blame everything on. We wrote no extraordinary runners up story. Quite simply, Bradford City decided to turn up at Wembley Stadium this time and Northampton Town did not.

It had all started so well. A jubilant convoy of coaches, trains and cars containing quietly expectant Cobblers fans had reached Wembley in excellent time and by the time our coach pulled up at 10:45am there were plenty of supporters from both sides milling around  as I made my way towards Wembley Park station to meet the two honorary Cobblers – Jamie and Mark – who are both at different stages of their Northampton Town education yet both as excited as any well-travelled Town fan.

Walking down Wembley way was just as special as it was fifteen years ago when I was a wide eyed thirteen year old. The awe of the grand old stadium had something extra about it but the Wembley version two still features plenty to get the heart racing. It took a while to realise that my team were playing there even after two weeks of waiting but as game time grew closer (and probably helped by Jamie’s excellent picking up of beers en route) and we had had a quick look out at our seats the nerves really began. This was happening.

And then…it just didn’t happen!

Wembley2The team line ups were announced and the one surprise was Bayo Akinfenwa being dropped to the bench in favour of Clive Platt. It was an odd one to say the least and made me more concerned than I already was before the game had even started. Dropping your leading scorer and talisman for a man just coming back from injury and someone who isn’t mobile at the best of times was questionable to say the least and it kind of set us up for a fall before a ball was kicked. Whether Aidy was trying to catch Bradford off guard or something I don’t know. Maybe we won’t ever know his thinking but it just didn’t work.

From the start, the Cobblers just were not at the races. Passes were going astray, attacks breaking down far too easily and the same defence that so good in the semi-finals looked shaky and nervous despite the wealth of experience they share. The goal that started fifteen minutes of sheer agony was as simple as they come. Town didn’t clear their lines well enough and the ball was lobbed back in for James Hansen to nod over Lee Nicholls.

Almost as quick a bullet as the first came the second just four minutes later. Nathan Doyle’s cross was nodded in at the near post too easily by defender Rory McArdle. The uphill task just became a mountainous one and we had been caught like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights on the grand stage.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Bradford-Cobblers game without Nahki Wells getting on the score sheet and he duly obliged to round off a terrible first half an hour for Town. Wells found that extra bit of space in the box to fire in number three and once again the Cobblers defence will be left holding inquests into how the key danger man found that much time.

To say we were shell shocked was an understatement. The only thought in my head was hoping that we got to the break with no further damage. We were being completely overpowered in every area of the pitch and it was starting to become uncomfortable. Fortunately there was no further damage before half-time but the game was all but over.

Bayo was introduced with ten minutes of the second half gone but Bradford had settled into their stride of taking what they had. Unfortunately they didn’t even need to break back into first gear and were as organised and solid as they needed to be against a Cobblers attack who were struggling to find a way through. Akinfenwa did seem to have more of a presence than Platt and at least looked like he may do something but that was as good as it got.

Town didn’t register a shot on target all afternoon and the game petered out to a backdrop of celebrating Bantams fans who started their party of Wembley redemption with around fifteen minutes to go.

It was ultimately the biggest disappointment on the biggest stage and for Cobblers players, supporters and everyone involved in this day it will take a full summer just to get over what happened this afternoon under the Wembley arch.

It’s unfair to judge the entire campaign on this showing, though. Throughout this season we’ve fought into a position where we’ve been able to bring genuine hope to the place again. From relegation candidates to Wembley is not a bad return at all and though this defeat is so hard to take it should be remembered that this has been a real season of progression.

What we need to do now is to ensure that there’s no hangover at the start of next season. To signal our intent there has to be a consolidation of the squad that’s taken us this far and Aidy Boothroyd must try to convince potential new signings that this upward curve can continue towards League One in a year’s time.

That won’t be easy but you know what? We’ll all be back to see it through. I would wager that most reading this blog will be back in August and just as excited and bold as we were at the start of this season.

We’ll be ready to travel to Morecambe, Rochdale, Newport, Dagenham (on a cold Tuesday night) and Hartlepool. We’ll shake hands with old friends at random football stadia around the country, we’ll make new friends on terraces and coaches and we’ll laugh, cry, hope, dream and be Northampton Town together come rain or shine. It’s what we do and however much you try to fight it you know that deep down you still love this game.

What I felt that I needed to do after the match today was to watch as Bradford City took their place in League One. I needed to watch as their ascended the steps to collect their trophy and watch as they lifted it, celebrated and began their party. This was for two reasons: To applaud the rightful winners of the match and to make sure that in a weird and twisted way I took in all of the feelings associated with losing at the last. From past experience, it makes the great, great times that bit better when you remember the painful moments and pitfalls that have hit you along the way and this could well be a key image to draw on in the future.

Hopefully it won’t be long before this day is consigned to the memories and used only as a marker for better times.

Northampton Town v Bradford City: Match Preview

WembleyNorthampton Town v Bradford City

League Two Playoff Final

Wembley Stadium

Saturday, May 18th 2013

This is it! After two weeks of build-up, debates, nerves, ticket panics and excitement. After forty six league games and two tense playoff encounters. After facing the very real fear of relegation just over a year ago. It all comes down to an afternoon at Wembley Stadium as Northampton Town and Bradford City go into battle for the final place in League One for the 2013/14 season.

With just one day to go I’m still in somewhat disbelief that twelve months on from both of these sides battling it out at the wrong end of the table we are set to go head to head in the playoff final. Since the final whistle at Cheltenham I’ve been going through different stages of emotion that started with utter jubilation, then excitement and then actually trying to focus on the football match that will take place before us tomorrow afternoon.

The line between what could be one of the great days of Northampton Town history and one of disappointment is so thin that it makes you nervous just thinking about what happens after 1:30pm and the first whistle of the final so we must enjoy every single piece of the day that leads up to kick-off. If there is to be the happiest of endings to this season then every single member of the 22,000 or so claret army that takes their place under the arch, every player that dons the shirt and every member of staff will have to be at the very top of their game. Bradford go into the game as favourites and as a team that has done the league double over us whilst also ending our progress in the FA Cup but the desire shown at Cheltenham shows that there’s much more to this Cobblers side than long balls and hoofing it.

You never know when this may happen again and I’m so lucky to be able to say that it will be my third trip to Wembley with the Cobblers. Treasure it, remember it and do your wonderful football club proud on what could become a date of Northampton Town folklore!

Here goes…


bradford-cityBradford City’s path to Wembley…the long road back…

Bradford weren’t supposed to be in League Two for this long. Relegation to the fourth level of English football in 2007 came as quite the shock to a club that, six years earlier, had been playing in the Premier League. It was more of a gradual decline than an instant one with three campaigns spent in the Championship and three in League One since those two seasons in the sun with the elite. In 2007, though, the Bantams slipped to the bottom tier and were looking for an instant return and for a new dawn to begin a climb back up the league pyramid.

Stuart McCall, a Bantams player during two spells – one of which included taking them into the Premier League- was appointed manager. After a tough start to life in League Two he eventually took them to a tenth place finish in the first season in the basement division. A year later and McCall was getting closer to his promotion dreams but City finished two points from the playoff positions and after a poor run of results the following season he left Valley Parade the following February.

Peter Taylor, Peter Jackson and Colin Cooper all tried their hand but the fallen giant was proving harder to awaken than originally thought with Bradford finishing 14th in 2010 and 18th in both subsequent seasons with an exit from the entire Football League the a very real threat at times during the last couple of years.

Phil Parkinson’s appointment in August 2011 looked like being the one to bring back stability to the club, though, and despite last season’s disappointing league finish he has reinvigorated the Bantams this time around and completely changed their fortunes. This season will already be going down in history for them after Parkinson led the club to the League Cup Final – the first fourth tier side to achieve this since Rochdale in 1962 – with the likes of Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa all beaten en route to Wembley.

What is perhaps just as impressive is that, following a 5-0 hammering by Swansea City in the final, City have picked themselves up to mount a playoff challenge. Days after Wembley, they salvaged a late home draw against Dagenham and Redbridge and were still ten points from the playoff places. Three games in hand were still there to be played but it would still take a monumental effort for City to get back into contention.

One defeat in twelve certainly helped in the games after the League Cup final and by the time Bristol Rovers had been swept aside 4-1 in early April, days after the Cobblers had been beaten at Valley Parade, Bradford were back in the top seven and genuine contenders once again. A home defeat to Rotherham briefly threatened to give the chasing pack something to aim at but victory over Burton Albion in their final home league game ensured a playoff place with a final day draw at Cheltenham Town rounding off the league fixtures.

Their seventh place finish meant that Burton would be their opponents in the playoff semi-finals and it was to be yet another dramatic couple of games for the Bantams. Calvin Zola had the Brewers 2-0 up inside half an hour in the first game at Valley Parade before Nahki Wells gave them hope with a spot kick. But before half-time, Robbie Weir had made it 3-1 and there was everything to do once more. Garry Thompson scored arguably the most important goal of the tie in the second half to mean that they would at least go to the Pirelli Stadium with just a one goal deficit, though.

The second leg saw Wells in inspired form again, scoring mid-way through the first half to drag Bradford right back into the game. James Hansen put his side in front for the first time in the tie before Jacques Maghoma levelled the aggregate score from the spot. But two minutes later Wells struck the decisive blow, turning well in the area and slamming the ball home from a Hansen knock down. They survived for the remaining half an hour and had booked their second trip to Wembley in three months for what will be their 64th game of a marathon season.

The time between the two finals has seen Bradford play seventeen times. They’ve won seven, drawn seven and lost just three of those games and head into Wembley as favourites to finish this extraordinary season by making the giant leap back to League One.

The Cobblers will hopefully have something to say about that, though…


Club Links…

City keeper Matt Duke was on loan with the Cobblers last season, playing nine games during our bid to avoid the drop. Despite only staying a short amount of time, Duke was a popular figure with Town fans.

Cobblers striker Louis Moult was on loan with Bradford in 2010, scoring once in ten outings with the Bantams.


Team News…

The Cobblers report to Wembley with a full bill of health barring long term absentee Alex Nicholls whose season was cruelly ended in October when he suffered a broken leg against Port Vale. Nicholls is one of the reasons why we are at Wembley in the first place, though, after his early season form and hopefully he is able to be with the squad at least. Elsewhere, Aidy Boothroyd has some nice dilemmas to deal with, particularly at the back with the decision to either bring back skipper Kelvin Langmead or stick with Nathan Cameron who was so impressive in the playoff semi-finals.

Bradford have been keeping an eye on winger Kyel Reid who only returned from a groin injury in the second leg of the playoffs. Reid is the only injury concern for the Bantams though who also come into the game with pretty much a clean bill of health despite a mammoth season and they could name the same side that started the playoff semi-final second leg against Burton Albion.


Wells...Cobblers troubler!

Wells…Cobblers troubler!

Previous six meetings…

06/04/13: Bradford 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)

Nahki Wells continued his fine form against the Cobblers by scoring the only goal of the game in a crucial contest at the start of April which helped the Bantams towards the playoff places while denting our hopes of automatic promotion.

13/11/12: Bradford 3-3 Cobblers (FA Cup First Round Replay – Bradford win 4-2 on pens)

A youthful Cobblers side took to the field at Valley Parade and did us proud by pushing the hosts all the way before bowing out on penalties. Will Atkinson had put Bradford in front but a penalty from Ishmel Demontagnac levelled before the break. Nahki Wells looked to have won it with a ninetieth minute penalty but Clive Platt took it to extra time seconds later. The drama continued when Kelvin Langmead put us in front in the extra period with Carl McHugh pulling it back for the Bantams. Langmead would miss the crucial spot kick in the shoot-out to send Bradford through but it was a top effort from Town’s young guns.

03/11/12: Cobblers 1-1 Bradford (FA Cup First Round)

Will Atkinson fired the visitors in front in the first cup game between the sides this season but Louis Moult’s second half goal ensured the tie would go to a replay ten days later.

23/10/12: Cobblers 0-1 Bradford (League Two)

Nahki Wells scored the only goal of the game back in October in the first of what will end up being five games between the clubs this season.

14/04/12: Cobblers 1-3 Bradford (League Two)

In April of last year, both sides were fighting to avoid going out of League Two at the other end of the table and it was that man Wells once again who proved to be the difference. He scored a hat-trick to fire Bradford to victory with Clarke Carlisle’s solitary strike not enough for the Cobblers.

22/10/11: Bradford 2-1 Cobblers (League Two)

Michael Jacobs scored a screamer at Valley Parade to put Town into the lead at Valley Parade but the game had completely turned on its head within ten minutes with Craig Fagan’s penalty and James Hansen’s winner nicking it for the home side.


The man in the middle…

Taking charge of the big game is Keith Stroud. Stroud was last in action in the dramatic Championship final day match between Hull City and Cardiff City that saw the Tigers eventually win promotion to the top flight. He last refereed a Cobblers game in April 2012, a 1-1 home draw with Gillingham which was the final home fixture of last season. Throughout this season he has shown 155 yellow cards and 10 reds, including three in the Sheffield United-Brentford game a couple of weeks ago.



No chance! I’m staying away from any sort of prediction for this I’m afraid.

Que Sera Sera…



Wembley 2013 – The Key Battles

wembley30_468x289The countdown is now down to just a couple of days so I thought it was time I started looking at the fact that a football match is the main focus of Saturday afternoon and not just a trip to Wembley! Aidy Boothroyd played both legs of the semi-final to perfection tactically but he’s going to have some big decisions to make in the lead up to the big day in terms of his starting eleven.

For what it’s worth, I think he may just stick with the same eleven that started the first leg at Sixfields against Cheltenham to allow for more attacking flair to match what will need to be another dogged defensive display. That team was as follows:

GK: Lee Nicholls

DEF: Tozer, Carlisle, Cameron, Collins

MID: Hackett, Harding, Guttridge, Demontagnac

ST: Akinfenwa, O’Donovan

I think the biggest locks for starting places are Nicholls, Hackett, Guttridge, Bayo and O’ Donovan. I would have said Clive Platt may feature if I’d have written this a few weeks ago but Bayo, if not on the goal scoring front, has signalled a return to form just at the right time and little Roy has shone over the past month.

Elsewhere I do think Ben Tozer will play because of his lethal weapon but with him it’s all about whether Aidy will prefer a five man midfield with O’Donovan moving back or whether John Johnson will be sacrificed at right back. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment but there’s plenty of room for speculation (and to keep Bradford guessing!). Another argument would be Johnson in at right back and Tozer replacing Harding in the middle of the park but I would worry about the protection of the back four should that be the case.

Kelvin Langmead is one who you would never have imagined being considered for a place on the bench in the biggest match in many a year but the inspired form of Clarke Carlisle and Nathan Cameron in the semi-finals have given Boothroyd a good headache there. I say stick with Cameron and his pace with Langmead coming off the bench late on for one of his dramatic injury time winners! Based on what I think Aidy will do, then, here are some of the key battles that will likely take place on the hallowed turf of Wembley on Saturday afternoon…


cameronwells Nathan Cameron v Nahki Wells

As mentioned, before the playoffs you would have put Langmead in here without question but Cameron was outstanding in both legs of the playoffs. His pace is likely to win him the battle to get into the Town side because of the nippy and energetic Nahki Wells leading the threat of the Bantams’ attack. Wells has a good history against the Cobblers with a hat-trick in last seasons’ 3-1 win at Sixfields and the only goal of the game in both of the league meeting between the clubs this season.

The Bermudan forward is City’s top scorer with 21 goals and his form in the final should have a major hand in which way this game goes. Cameron was drafted into the Cobblers side towards the end of the season after cutting ties with Coventry City and after a shaky start helped the side to three clean sheets in a row. He will need to be alert for the entire ninety minutes – keeping Wells quiet could well prove key.


guttsjones Luke Guttridge v Gary Jones

After the 2-0 home defeat to York City that all but ended our automatic promotion hopes, every Town fan wanted Luke Guttridge back in the team to provide his energy, experience and craft in the middle of the pitch for the season’s run-in. We got just that and were unbeaten for the rest of the season with the midfielder striking a goal that will go down in Cobblers history at Whaddon Road in the playoff semi-final as well as scoring in the final league game of the season against Barnet.

Guttridge faces a big test at Wembley against the vastly experienced Gary Jones. Jones has been consistent in the Bantams side this season and was key to their push into the playoffs late in the campaign with his usual committed and hearty performances. This is likely to be a real battle in the middle of the park and I’m betting that both men cannot wait!


hackettmeredith Chris Hackett v James Meredith

Chris Hackett’s performance will be huge for us on Saturday and he comes up against one of the best left backs in League Two in James Meredith. Meredith has been another consistent performer for the Bantams since joining them in June of last year and has had an excellent first season in Bradford colours. He’s a full back that loves to get forward so it will be interesting to see if Hackett is able to cope as well when pushed back.

The Cobblers man has bags of pace and seems to have rediscovered his form of late, creating the Roy O’ Donovan goal in the first leg of the playoffs and terrorising the Cheltenham full backs all night. He had a quieter second leg but with a big pitch at Wembley to escape on to he will be desperate to really get at Meredith from the get go.


bayodavies Bayo Akinfenwa v Andrew Davies

Will Beast Mode be on at Wembley? We have to hope and pray that it is because Bayo has a stiff test ahead of him as he comes up against former Middlesbrough and Stoke City man Andrew Davies. The 6 foot 3 defender is rock solid and managed to keep Burton Albion’s star striker Calvin Zola under control in the playoff semi-final second leg having missed the first leg. Davies, then, will be confidant of keeping Bayo quiet too, though the man who could be playing in his final game for the Cobblers is out to banish the memories of his last playoff final appearance.

Akinfenwa was a part of the Swansea City team in 2006 who were beaten on penalties in the League One playoff final against Barnsley and missed a crucial spot kick in that shoot out. A lot may also depend on Bayo’s patience as the game wears on and if referee Keith Stroud takes the usual stance of giving free kicks against him for standing up. Both players have bags of experience and Bayo needs to keep it calm and do what he does against very strong opponent here.


aidyparkinson Aidy Boothroyd v Phil Parkinson

The main battle is between the two managers and that in itself is as intriguing as it comes at this level. Both men are in the process of rebuilding their respective reputations after tasting life at a much higher level earlier in their careers. Boothroyd took Watford into the Premier League in 2006 whilst Parkinson was, at the same time, taking charge of Hull City. After relegation for Boothroyd at the first attempt and a bad start for Parkinson at Hull, both found themselves in League One by 2009 – Boothroyd at Colchester United and Parkinson at Charlton, who were relegated from the Championship under his watch.

Since then, Aidy has spent time at Coventry City whilst Parkinson saw his Charlton side beaten by Swindon Town in the 2010 playoff semi-finals, eventually departing The Valley in January 2011. The paths of the two managers then brought them both into League Two by the end of 2011 and since then they have both been through a rigorous process of making their squads capable of first competing and then winning at this level. Both have created squads that are capable of escaping League Two at the right exit after coming so close to losing their places in the league just twelve month ago and both should be commended for the efforts of reaching Wembley just one year later.

Tactically, Boothroyd gets unfair criticism for his ‘long ball’ tactics but you would struggle to find many League Two sides playing flowing football I would suggest. His direct approach has worked and if it gets us over the line on Saturday I can’t see many of the 20,000+ Cobblers fans in attendance complaining! Parkinson has already helped Bradford to the League Cup final this season, of course, and that run saw some outstanding performances full of organisation and utter commitment to the cause. It’ll be a cracking head to head on the benches!