Conversations with Danny Brothers (Northampton Town)

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Image available under Creative Commons © aloadofcobblers
Our latest conversation is with Danny Brothers, author of a number of posts for us including a look back at Northampton Town’s 1996-7 play-off winning side. Danny runs his own blog and this has the obligatory moniker, A Load of Cobblers, although he spreads his net beyond the watershed of the River Nene to League 2 as a whole, joining forces with our last interviewee Ben Mayhew and Maxi Hobbs for an enjoyable previewof the season back in August. Here, Danny gives us his views on Gary Johnson, Adebayo Akinfenwa, the challenge of the oval ball game and the club’s current home at Sixfields: 

LR: A couple of years back, I witnessed Gary Johnson take the acclaim of 4,500 Bristol City supporters after a performance of vim and vigour had seen the Robins win an impressive 2-0 victory at the Madejski Stadium. Since then, Johnson’s golden touch appears to have deserted him – first leaving Ashton Gate and then rolling up at Sixfields after a forgettable spell at Peterborough. With Northampton lying seventeeth in League 2, do you think Johnson has lost some of his momentum and enthusiasm for the game?

DB: Indeed, Johnson had a shocker of a start at City if I remember correctly but turned things around to eventually take them to within a game of the Premier League by reaching the Championship Playoff Final in 2008. Since then, the ill-fated spell at Peterborough certainly endeared him to Cobblers fans before he joined us in March last season.

All that we cared about from then on was survival and despite a poor run of form after Johnson’s appointment the Cobblers just about saved their league status and the summer promised new beginnings. No-one could argue with the attacking talent assembled over the summer but it’s been another disappointing run that’s led us to 20th place at the time of writing. Star striker Shaun Harrad was sold at the end of the transfer window with several rumours being bandied about that there was some sort of physical altercation between player and manager that led to the departure.

That was followed by Johnson remaining in his dugout for the past few games, bizarrely leaving his touchline work to coach Andy Holt and assistant manager David Lee. Whether this indicates a loss of passion for the game is debatable but he certainly looks a shell of his old self at the moment. We’re praying that the tide will turn like it did at Ashton Gate though and that he can turn things right around.

To me, though, in bad times you need a manager to be on the front line and facing problems head on rather than standing in the shadows and we need the boss to show himself to be passionate for our cause if he’s to turn some fledgling support back in his favour.

LR: Strong words. Presumably the players on the field must also take some blame for the club’s poor start. Where are the weaknesses at the moment and do you think it was the correct decision to bring talisman Adebayo Akinfenwa back from Gillingham? – he’s been in the goals but does accommodating him restrict the Cobblers from varying their approach more?

DB: At the end of last season we really needed a lift and the signing was completely out of the blue. Bayo is the type of player that brings so much to the club on and off the pitch and perhaps doesn’t get the recognition he deserves from neutral reporters etc. for what he brings to the club as a whole. His sheer presence around the place completely lifts the supporters and his nature is really not what you would expect from a big man.

In playing terms, we are trying to approach things a bit differently by having runners like Arron Davies and Jake Robinson coming in to work off him rather than just lumping it forward, but there will of course be times when Bayo simply becomes the outlet. After one season without him though there’s a notable difference between a Cobblers side with him in and one without and the signing and reappearance of the big man has been one of the highlights of the tricky opening couple of months of the season.

LR: Thanks Danny. Looking beyond the disappointing start, the club earned an encouraging 2-1 win over Dagenham at the weekend, with Bayo on the score sheet. Are there any other players of whom you have particularly high hopes this season?

DB: Michael Jacobs came through the ranks and earned the full Player of the Year award last season having put in some masterful displays in midfield. He’s skilful with a fine cross and final ball so hopefully he can keep up some sort of consistency this season.

There was a lot expected of Jake Robinson but unfortunately he hasn’t got the goal that his hard work has deserved so far. I still think he is a good threat for us going forward and as soon as that first goal goes in for him then I think we will start to see more and more.

Lewis Young, brother of Manchester United and England star Ashley, has started the season well and could turn out to be an excellent find while Arron Davies is an excellent signing at this level so fingers crossed he can knuckle down and provide a spark from the middle of the park.

LR: I’m sure a goal will come for Robinson – it’s very early after all. Talking more generally, I have always thought Northampton, with its large catchment area, could support a club at a higher level and leaving aside that miraculous rollercoaster up and down the leagues in the sixties, Championship football would not be an unreasonable expectation. Do you agree? And how much does the presence of a top level rugby club hamper the Cobblers’ chances of growth?

DB: The potential of the area showed in remarkable fashion in the late nineties when the Cobblers reached Wembley Play-off Finals two years in a row. In 1997, 32,000 fans made the journey as we played at the famous stadium for the first time in our history and beat Swansea in the Division Three (League Two) Final with John Frain’s 93rd minute free kick. A year later we were back in the Division Two (League One) Final against Grimsby. Just one game away from the Championship; this will be remembered as a pivotal game in our history as we broke Wembley records by taking over 40,000 fans to the game. Unfortunately that one ended in a 1-0 defeat and we’ve never been that close since.

It’s all very well saying that we can get 30-40,000 for one off finals in the country’s biggest stadium but without doubt there’s a superb opportunity for the area. Of course things have to change on the field first to bring back the ‘glory hunters’ week in week out but I’m confident that a successful Northampton Town side on the pitch would lead to attendances creeping right back up. If we were to reach the Championship then I honestly don’t think we’d have a problem attracting 20,000+ for home games. That would mean a lot of development to Sixfields which currently holds 7,500 and the fight for expansion has been going on ever since The Cardoza family took charge of the club back in 2003. Eight years later and we’re still not a lot closer!

As for the rugby, there’s a fair bit of tension in the town between the football and rugby clubs, partly down to the fact that the Saints were allowed by the council to expand to a greater capacity a few years back. Their success shouldn’t have that much of an effect on the Cobblers though – apart from the ridiculous times when both teams play at home. The town is most likely seen as a ‘rugby town’ from the outside but if you could have been there on some of our biggest games of the past few years then you would be able to see that emotionally it’s no contest and that a Cobblers success brings the whole town together. I’ve seen the rugby team win a few trophies and appear in finals but I’ve never personally seen their successes bring as much joy to a town as our win at Anfield, for example. I might just be biased though!

LR: I’m sure you’re right – rugby is never going to achieve true grassroots support. Coming back to Sixfields, I must admit that I was surprised when the Cobblers moved into such a modest arena. Although the County Ground was, with respect, an almost comically limited stadium, the new building seems to have been quite unambitious in its planning and capacity. You mention potential redevelopment – and given the location, I’m sure this would be easily achieved – but do you think a Field of Dreams style “If I build it, they will come” approach might have served the club better in the medium term?

DB: Ah the County Ground! I was just starting to go to Cobblers games with my Dad and Pap in our final couple of seasons there…in a strange way I’m sad that I didn’t get a few more years there. As shoddy as it was by the end, it would have to have been intimidating for visiting teams and fans and the Hotel End was superb for atmosphere.

The area at the moment is prime for redevelopment but quite honestly we won’t need it for a while! I don’t think it would have worked just building a 20,000 seater venue and hoping for the best. Darlington is a prime example of this…it must be a pretty demoralising place to play football and when you’re struggling to make it to 1,000 fans some weeks in the Conference you have to wonder whether they should have stayed modest. In that respect I’m happy we played it fairly safe for the start!

LR: I only visited the County Ground once but am glad I did see the only stadium in the UK at the time that shared itself between football and cricket (Bramall Lane did so at an earlier point in history of course). In these days of clubs spending beyond their means, I think you are right to praise Northampton for caution. Related to this and as a finisher, I’d like to ask you about the financial health of Northampton Town? And do you have a view on the current plight of your cross county rivals Kettering Town? – a club that has found itself plying its trade at Nene Park in Irthlingborough?

DB: It’s true…in the summer the football pitch was the car park for the cricket ground!

The finances at the moment are pretty secure. When the Cardoza family saved us from real trouble in 2003 they gave Martin Wilkinson a bit of a war chest in terms of money to spend on wages and a couple of transfers. It was nothing like the amounts that Crawley are spending now but at the time we were looked at by some as the ‘Chelsea of League Two’. That subsided after a couple of years and with the plan of getting to the Championship going very wrong on the pitch, the books have had to be balanced off it.

Last season’s victory over Liverpool at Anfield in the Carling Cup brought in more revenue though and it virtually meant that we broke even for the season based on that one night alone! I think Gary Johnson has had plenty to spend wage wise over the summer but now we’re needing to ship players out on loan in order to bring anyone else in. So at the moment we’re doing ok but still need to get those turnstiles clicking more often and that’s unfortunately only going to happen if results improve on the pitch.

The Kettering situation is a strange one…they’ve moved into Nene Park, former home of Rushden and Diamonds, in order to secure their future but I’m not wholly sure how this has gone down with Poppies fans. Mark Stimson is the man tasked with lifting them out of a relegation fight and I hope he manages it. Kettering aren’t seen as a ‘derby’ as such for the Cobblers and we always seem to have decent relationships with them so most Town fans will hope that they can kick on.

You can follow Danny on Twitter at @dannybrothers

Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 44 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, Twisted Blood, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard.

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