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.

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!

Ten games that got us to Wembley

WembleyLooking back on the season that’s taken us from a League Cup win over Championship title winners Cardiff City all the way to Wembley Stadium for the playoff final, there’s plenty of key moments that make you wonder what would have happened had we not got the result, had the odd goal gone the other way or had Kelvin Langmead not been around!

So here’s my look back on ten games that went a long way in getting us all excited about our trip to the national stadium this Saturday…

18/09/12: Dagenham and Redbridge 0-1 Cobblers

The first of very few away wins this season but a vitally important one that saw the Cobblers climb to brink of the top seven. It was a cold September evening in Dagenham but one which Town edged by the single goal, a thumping header from Bayo Akinfenwa in the second half. This was the third season in a row that we had come away from Dagenham with a 1-0 win under our belts.

Nicholls...horror injury

Nicholls…horror injury

27/10/12: Cobblers 2-0 Port Vale

The incident involving Alex Nicholls will forever overshadow the result in this match with the striker, hot off some terrific early season form in his first season in claret, clattered by Vale defender John McCombe who saw red for the challenge just as Nicholls put the ball into an empty net for the opening goal of the game. Some visiting fans royally let their club down by screaming obscenities at Nicholls as he lay on the ground in agony and even as he was being wheeled away into an ambulance that had to drive onto the Sixfields pitch. That moment seemed to spark Nicholls’ team mates, though, and Louis Moult sealed a fine win with the second goal from good hold up play by Bayo.

10/11/12: Accrington Stanley 2-4 Cobblers

A superb hat-trick from Bayo lifted the Cobblers into the top half of the table. After an early header from a Joe Widdowson cross by the big man, George Miller had Stanley level. Rommy Boco made it 2-1 to the hosts but mid-way through the second half the game completely turned on its head when substitute Jake Robinson equalised before Bayo took complete control, scoring twice in the last twenty minutes (the last a thumping header) to seal a big away win for Town.

22/01/13: Aldershot Town 1-2 Cobblers

As the only game on a snowy January evening, this was a big chance that was nicely taken by Town to jump into the top three of League Two. Dani Lopez put Aldershot in front but goals from Chris Hackett (from the spot) and Clarke Carlisle before the break put Aidy Boothroyd’s men in front. It was a major victory, it being the fourth win in five after a great start to 2013.

Langers...late strike at Southend

Langers…late strike at Southend

16/02/13: Southend Untied 1-2 Cobblers

Trips to Gillingham and Rotherham, two fellow promotion chasers, ended in defeat before this one so it was crucial that we picked something up from Roots Hall. Roy O’ Donovan hooked in the opener before the enigmatic Bilel Moshsni, making his return to the Southend side, saw red for a high challenge on Chris Hackett. The ten men fought back and looked to have earned a point when Matty Lund headed in with a quarter of the game to go but Kelvin Langmead scored one of many late, late goals of his in stoppage time that helped to propel Town back into the top seven after a spell of drifting out of the playoff places.

23/03/13: Cobblers 1-0 Oxford United

Whilst the away form was hit and miss, win after win poured in at Sixfields and this victory over Oxford United was another key one. Ben Harding got on the end of a Chris Hackett cross to neatly score the only goal of a tight contest and moved us to within a point of third placed Burton Albion.

29/03/13: Cobblers 1-0 Torquay United

Another game in a similar mould was this Good Friday encounter with the Cobblers dramatically keeping themselves in contention for an automatic promotion place. Roy O’ Donovan’s goal five minutes from time made the difference as he finished from a Chris Hackett cross. With six games to go after this one there was all to play for and a playoff place at least looked certain.

20/04/13: Port Vale 2-2 Cobblers

Three defeats in a row put pay to any top three ambition and it was now all about clinching a playoff place and that was confirmed after a well fought out draw at Vale Park against a Port Vale side who were promoted on the back of the same result. Clarke Carlisle slotted in after two minutes to give Town the lead but Liam Chilvers pulled it back for the hosts. Roy O’ Donovan’s wonder goal came so close to winning it for us but an unfortunate own goal from ex Vale man Lee Collins meant that the game ended in a draw that was a decent result in the end for both. Arguably the result that helped to prepare Aidy Boothroyd and his team for the playoff atmosphere to come.

02/05/13: Cobblers 1-0 Cheltenham Town (Playoff Semi-Final, First Leg)

The first leg was as tight as you would have predicted but the Cobblers came away from it thinking that it could easily have been more than 1-0. O’ Donovan netted the only goal after neat build up from Bayo and Hackett and set up the dramatic second leg at Whaddon Road…

05/05/13: Cheltenham Town 0-1 Cobblers (Playoff Semi-Final, Second Leg)

The one that got us there! Lee Nicholls’ early penalty save seemed to give the entire team the belief that this was to be our day and our time to go on to Wembley. Luke Guttridge’s goal will go down in Cobblers folklore along with the likes of Sean Parrish’s 1997 goal at Cardiff – a moment of pure bliss that gave us a first half lead and a 2-0 lead on aggregate. A solid defensive display and a tactical master class from Boothroyd.


Excitement builds as tickets go on general sale!

Charlies-ticketI was fortunate enough on Tuesday evening to receive a phone call from my Dad who had took the early option on Wembley tickets and grabbed them early along with around 6,000 other Cobblers fans on the first day of sale. From the moment I had my seat confirmed it actually became real for the first time and I’m sure when tickets go on general sale this morning there will be plenty of others jumping for joy, tweeting away and planning their travel.

For anyone who hasn’t found the ticket link to buy online, it’s right here:

The fact that we have 40,000 tickets available shouldn’t usually lead to such jubilation at confirming one but you just can’t help but get caught up in it all. Just seeing the ‘View from your seat’ page on the Wembley Stadium website gets the blood pumping and I get the feeling that this will be a memorable day no matter what happens on the pitch.

The FA Cup final this weekend should give us some extra adrenaline as we watch two teams living out their own dreams under the glare of the arch. We’ll see fans pouring down Wembley Way knowing that in a week’s time it will be us, Northampton Town, who will populate half of the famous pathway to the national stadium.

I’m still not thinking too much of the game itself and the tactics or team. It’s all about the build-up to the whole day at the moment and that’s what makes these playoff finals special. It gives teams like ourselves a chance to play out a cup final atmosphere in front of the nation. There won’t even be any Premier League games to distract the rest of the country on May 18th with their final day coming a day later so we get to be in the centre of England’s footballing world for a couple of hours come the big day.

I hope we can pack out Wembley and the first day of general sale today should prove to be a good indication of how mad we go for those golden tickets. Good luck with yours if going for them today…let’s make a sea of claret!

Que Sera Sera!

WembleyCheltenham Town 0-1 Northampton Town

League Two Playoff Semi-Final, Second Leg

Sunday, 5th May 2013

It was tense, it was heart stopping and it was dramatic. It was everything we expected but the most important, and incredible, thing that comes from the Cobblers’ win at Cheltenham (yes, an AWAY WIN) is that it means we will be playing at Wembley Stadium for the first time since 1998. The pain of Mansfield and the desperation of Southend were both playing on my mind this evening as I sat down to watch what I knew would be one of the most frightening ninety minutes of my life.

But the Cobblers rose to the occasion and did a thoroughly professional job to not only hold out with a one goal lead on aggregate but to add to it and defend like warriors to make sure that we spent Sunday evening plotting our routes to Wembley.

It’s an extraordinary turnaround from Aidy Boothroyd who, on taking the job eighteen months ago, stated that things would get worse before they got better. That, they most certainly did. I wrote a blog here at the end of January 2012 where I submitted to relegation and accepted what I thought was inevitable despite small improvements from Boothroyd. To be dancing around my house just over a year later having seen a group of players give their all and fight to the death to cling onto it all for us is remarkable.

Tonight was a story of two key moments but many, many heroes. Lee Nicholls’ save from Marlon Pack’s penalty early on was out of the top drawer and his many, many saves during the night kept us in it, earning him the rightful man of the match award. In front of him, Nathan Cameron put in another behemoth of a performance and alongside Clarke Carlisle will even be making Kelvin Langmead worry about his place in the Wembley eleven. Ben Tozer and Lee Collins put in their own solid shifts whilst the midfield five was a masterstroke from Boothroyd with not one of those in there stepping out of line.

Bayo led the line to perfection and did all that he could do being a lone striker. Over these two legs he’s been back to his very best and anyone who thought he had lost his way can now breath easily again. Beast Mode has been switched back on at just the right time.

And then there was the goal. What a belter and one that fit the occasion. Luke Guttridge, the man who has pulled us through this final furlong of the season, just smashed the ball into the roof of the net to stun Whaddon Road and to give us even more than the hope we came with.

From then on we knew we would be clock watching. And boy, were we clock watching. It’s incredible how time stands still in these situations. Ten minutes felt like an hour, every cross into our box felt like it was going to end up in the net. I even panicked when my wife dropped a glass of water on the floor, thinking it was an omen for what was to come!

But the goal never came and Cheltenham were running out of time. They smashed the bar late on and suddenly you felt it was our night. As the clock reached 90 minutes and the ball was booted towards the fantastic Cobblers support we could start to celebrate. The final whistle will have seen man, woman and child up and down the country and around the world with a Cobblers persuasion jumping for joy, embracing strangers and screaming in big letters on social media. Moments like this should be treasured and there’s only one way that we can top it…by winning the final.

That brings us to what I could only call ‘the W word’ before Sunday evening. Wembley Stadium and the League Two Playoff Final against Bradford City. We’ve got plenty of time to worry about Bradford and the challenges that they will bring so for now let’s pinch ourselves once more, go to sleep and wake up in the middle of the night to make absolutely sure that we’re not dreaming this all up.

Northampton Town are going back to Wembley. I’ll see you there!