Great Football League Teams 16: Northampton Town, 1996-7
Next up in our Great Team series and for the first time penned in contemplation of the prospect that Muammar al-Gaddafi may cease to run Libyan affairs, we welcome Danny Brothers, the man behind Northampton Town blog, A Load of Cobblers. Danny reflects on a season capped by play off joy.
In one single moment my football watching career was changed forever. As John Frain curled a ball around the Swansea City wall under the shadows of the twin towers and the net bulged in front of 32,000 claret laden fans, my Dad lifted me into the air and a town celebrated a remarkable moment, a truly magical rise to a level that would have been unheard of just a couple of year previously.
I had been in football education for five years, and for a lad who had nothing else to connect with so passionately, no Premier League heroes to worship, this day changed everything. My first experience of supporting my team, Northampton Town, came at the gloriously rusty old County Ground and as the Cobblers waved goodbye to one of the more bizarre “stadiums” in the Football League we were in dire straits. All I had known up until 1996 was escapes from the unmentionable Vauxhall Conference. Indeed, in 1994, we finished bottom of the Football League but were saved by Kidderminster Harriers’ Aggborough stadium not being up to scratch. The first time I wept at a game was that final realisation that we were the worst team in England. Three years later and the tears were of incomparable joy at the most famous venue in England.
Ian Atkins, the no nonsense Brummie, took charge from John Barnwell in the middle of the following season and we gradually started to turn the corner…actually winning some games at the new Sixfields Stadium and the tide was turning. We still couldn’t possibly predict a season like 96-97 and the players and moments that went with it…it truly was working class hero stuff.
It began with an opening day disaster at Wigan when the team coach was late to the ground, two Cobblers players were sent off and we lost 2-1. It could, and would, only get better! The League Cup saw a two legged victory over Cardiff, something that would spectacularly happen again at the end of the season, but after a 3-0 home win against Mansfield the league form didn’t really get going. We wouldn’t win again in Division Three (League Two) until the end of September – another 3-0 Sixfields win over Brighton.
Still, it was looking like another struggle for the long suffering Cobblers fans until suddenly something started to click. The first away win in October, down at Exeter, came in the middle of three more defeats but then came something we had not seen for a long time – three successive victories and the ball had been set in motion. Even after that, the most optimistic Cobbler couldn’t have dreamed of how the season would roll on.
A first ever live Sky game pitted Atkins’ men against Graham Taylor’s Watford in the FA Cup First Round with the Hornets then making waves at the top of Division Two. A controversial decision to disallow Neil “Larry” Grayson a first half goal was followed by a heartbreaking winner from Watford full back and Northampton born Darren Bazeley, and despite a hearty fight it was back to the league. Even in 1996 it was still so odd to see little old Northampton Town on the box and watching the game back on video when we returned from the game was a real treat!
Back to the league and Matthew Rush, a loan signing from Norwich City, was giving the Cobblers some much needed width, his winner helping the team to a 2-1 victory at Doncaster’s Belle Vue, a difficult place to go at the best of times; before a 2-2 home draw with Rochdale kept us in a decent position. Defeat at high flying Darlington at Feethams wasn’t a huge disappointment and another four points followed – a 2-1 win against Hull and a draw at Lincoln with veteran David Rennie scoring the Town goal.
Of all the team, Grayson was the one catching my little eye…Larry is my all time favourite Cobblers player – not anything flash, but simply a gutsy, 110% battler who notched his fair share of goals. His work rate made him a massive favourite and he scored the winner in a 1-0 home victory over Hereford just before Christmas along with our only strike in defeat at Orient on Boxing Day.
There followed an unbelievable January, a month that hasn’t been matched since, including a 4-0 win over Cardiff, 5-1 against Chester with five different scorers and a hat-trick for Grayson in a 3-0 defeat of Hartlepool. All of these games coming at Sixfields made it even more special and captured a mood around the town that something big was about to happen.
Revenge over Doncaster came in February whilst March saw us beat Hereford 2-1 at Edgar Street with Christian Lee on the score sheet. Lee was being touted by Atkins at that time as being a future “million pound” player but he would eventually leave for £35,000 to Gillingham! Despite the big results there was a littering of defeats around as well and a 1-0 home defeat to Wigan made the playoffs look too far away. I was pretty deflated after David Lowe’s 90th minute winner for the Latics, thinking that the dream was well and truly put to bed.
But the final seven games of the season would see the Cobblers go unbeaten, starting with a 2-1 win at Torquay through a heroic single goal victory at Fulham and a 4-1 home success over Exeter. By this time we were in the top seven and dared to dream of Wembley with a 0-0 draw at Colchester setting up a nail biting final game of the season with Scunthorpe the visitors. Win and we would be in the playoffs, lose and we would have to rely on results elsewhere.
With nerves at an all time high, the deadlock remained unbroken until fifteen minutes from time when Sean Parrish broke free and swept the ball with his unfavoured right boot and planted it into the bottom corner. Results everywhere else paled into insignificance and the full time whistle sparked a pitch invasion as Cobblers fans dared to dream.
Although all the Wembley songs were being chanted as we danced on the hallowed turf it still seemed like we didn’t belong. Though we were two games from the Twin Towers I couldn’t fathom it and had a gut feeling that it would all end at the semi final against Cardiff City.
Radio had to do for the first, away, leg of the semi final at Ninian Park. Seventy anxious and goalless minutes were followed by the sending off of bean pole Mark Cooper for the Cobblers. “Just hang on” was the cries from the Brothers household! We would do better than that…Parrish had suddenly decided he wanted to win it, and in what appeared to be slow motion, beat a couple of men and floated a thirty yarder into the top corner to send us into the second leg with a goal advantage!
I’d never seen anything like it up until then…Sixfields was absolutely rocking and thinking about it now gives me goosebumps. The goal advantage would become two as Ian Sampson, an all time legend and now manager at the club, made it 2-0 on aggregate. To make it even better, Jeff Eckhardt was sent off two minutes later for Cardiff and suddenly those dreams were actually coming true. Cardiff came alive and equalised on the night through Jason Fowler and half-time was nervy as hell. With a quarter to go, though, Ray Warburton nodded home to make it 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate) and it was party time. Big John Gayle, part of Atkins’ traditional big man-little man front two, put the icing on the cake before Simon Haworth netted in stoppage time for the visitors in a plucky effort but the final whistle indicated that Northampton Town were at Wembley! Cue Pitch Invasion Number Two!
The players came into the stands to celebrate, dancing in the middle of the West Stand and joining us in a show of true unity between supporters and heroes. That’s what they were to me, absolute heroes and whatever happened at Wembley it was going to be a claret party with 32,000 tickets sold for the big one against another Welsh outfit in Swansea City.
There was even a Wembley song, “Sixfields Boys” that I purchased on the same day as meeting the players at a signing at WHSmiths. I remember queuing with my mate Barry for a good hour before hand so that we could be first in line to meet Andy “Woody” Woodman, a real character and terrific keeper, along with a couple of others. Woody epitomised the spirit of the club, always sporting a smile and energy that must surely have been transferred to the dressing room.
Dad got the tickets, we booked seats on the bus and were off to Wembley. I could sense the pride Dad had with this moment and the day was made for people like him who had seen it all in barren seasons and stuck with the club through everything. There were thousands more like him and of course some hangers on making up the stunning support for the Cobblers in the final.
Jan Molby was leading the Swans, a real tough outfit and slight favourites, for the showpiece. The game was memorable only for its tension and dramatic final seconds. Carl Heggs, who joined the Cobblers in the summer that followed, forced Woody into a fine save early on but the chances were few and far between.
Then it came. With the game headed to extra time and into stoppage time, a throw in was followed by a foul on the edge of the Swansea area. Surely, surely not! John Frain, a deadline day signing from Birmingham, and Roy Hunter, the solid midfielder with a heck of a throw, stood over the ball. Frain hit it against the wall and Swansea cleared. Extra time it was then…but the referee was whistling at something. A City player had encroached and the kick was to be retaken! It was pure, unadulterated destiny.
Frain stepped up again and this time got it perfectly right, nestling the ball into the net and sending us absolutely mental! I was lifted off my feet by Dad, jumped around like a lunatic and before we caught our breath the final whistle had gone. It was literally the final kick of the game.
The memories of that season, of that team, of those moments, will last a lifetime. And I’m not just saying that to fill some space in the article. I’m getting hairs all over my body standing up writing this, smiling ear to ear as I’ve recalled each moment and dreaming of something similar happening again. I truly don’t think it can. For football is changing now and too many players are simply turning up and picking up their pay cheques. The claret class of ’97 connected with the town, its history and was brought together at exactly the right time. It wasn’t about how much money they were getting or who turned up in the best car, it was for a love of the game and the love of the club as installed by Atkins.
I don’t think there will ever be a Cobblers team like it and it’s made me think that everyone reading this (hopefully one or two reach the end!) has their own similar memories. Football creates them, we live them and that’s why this is the greatest game in the world.