So the fight for survival started on the 27th of January with me signing a deal until the end of the season. If I’m being honest, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting upon signing. The team was seven points adrift at the foot of the table staring openly at a non league future and with a horrendous goal difference and similarly poor “goals for” column, I think it’s fair to say that safety looked an insurmountable task. So, the wheels of change were set in motion and no greater statement of intent could have been issued than by the chairman’s actions of appointing Chris Wilder as manager and backing him to the hilt by ‘paying up’ some current players that weren’t in the new managers plans and financing the arrival of new faces to lighten the burden of negativity, improve the quality of the squad and give the club a fighting chance of survival. Arriving at the club were signings with big game and promotion experience and which the now, new manager described as “men, who knew how to win football matches”, whom he now entrusted to secure football league status. But would it all gel?. It’s always a risky business culling a team and recruiting in numbers, and this is applicable in the close season, so to do it at the end of January with little over three months of the season remaining could have been deemed lunacy but something drastic needed to be done and change was in full swing. The club was, indeed, in free fall and heading head first through the football league trapdoor. It was a team devoid of a defensive base and any real attacking intent, all in all a team in disarray, so the objective upon signing was “come in and let’s make a fight of it”, so I did and “the great escape” was on.
As I walked into training on that first day, I was very surprised to see how upbeat everything was. Despite all the uncertainty of players coming and going and all the trepidation the arrival of a new manager can bring, it certainly didn’t strike me as a club in crisis. On the one hand this was a good thing as the training ground needs to be an upbeat place of enjoyment to maximise work done and results, but on the other it probably showed the comfort zone mentality that had infected the group and got the club in the position they were in, but as I looked around at the quality now in the squad, I always felt on paper we’d have a chance but could we transform this into results which is a whole different ball game?
The first game came upon us fast, an away trip to Cheltenham who by their own expectations were having an average season but still harboured hopes of the play offs. I started the game on the bench that day and the reality of the task facing us was soon apparent as, before we had even taken our places on the bench, we were 1-0 down due to a long ball that bounced freakishly over our goalie. So much for the final instruction of keeping it tight. At that point you think, ‘we’re seven points adrift, don’t tell me ladyluck is against us aswell’, but thankfully we rallied second half. I made my Cobblers debut coming on after sixty minutes and we equalised through a well taken Matty Blair strike which injected hope and got us off the mark under the new managerial regime.
The following week gave us a full week to prepare before our next game at home to Plymouth which was important for the new lads to integrate into the group, get a grip on how the manager wanted us to play and work on partnerships all over the pitch. The weather right throughout February and March was atrocious so training was confined to astro turf which was far from ideal, and the fact we only had use of the facility for one hour at a time limited the task of coaching and hampered preparation no end but it was just another minor obstacle in comparison to the major objective of clawing ourselves off the foot of the table.
The Plymouth game the following Saturday was an absolute farce. I think it’s fair to say that everyone that witnessed that game will now agree there was no way it should have been played. The wind was probably the worst I’ve ever witnessed on a football pitch. The ball wouldn’t stay still for dead balls and at one point, Plymouth even took a free kick with someone lying and holding the ball a la American football. Goal kicks were kicked into the wind and once they reached the halfway line it seemed like someone was reeling the ball back towards goal which led to comical football. The importance of the pre game toss never mattered so much, but no surprise we lost that. We faced the wind for the first forty five minutes and conceded two terribly easy goals which cost us the game. Another game down, nineteen to go, but still no worse off than seven adrift. In the words of Steven Gerrard, “we go again”.
We didn’t have long to dwell on the Plymouth result as we faced a massive game at Torquay away on the Tuesday night which was the proverbial six pointer. Torquay occupied the place directly above us and to lose the game would have seen us move further adrift at the bottom, so if momentum was to be ceased and a message sent out that we were on the move then this was the game to lay the foundations for the great escape. We set off from Sixfields at 9am with the plan of getting down early enough to stretch the legs and have a sleep prior to the game. However, all plans were scuppered as we were stuck at a service station for almost two hours waiting for replacement windscreen wipers to arrive for the team bus which couldn’t go on in in the rain due to safety reasons. We arrived at the hotel long after the scheduled time, walked and ate pre match almost simultaneously before a swift return to the bus and onto Plainmoor. If we were looking for excuses for a poor performance then we certainly had them, especially upon arriving at the ground and realising the pitch was ridiculously soft and made of porridge like mud on the side of the main stand. If there was ever a game where you needed to start well, then this was it and thankfully, we raced into a two goal lead thanks to two well taken Emile Sinclair strikes. Although we conceded just before half time we saw out the second half relatively comfortably. Well, as comfortably as it can get when your bottom of the league with a one goal lead away from home against your closest rivals. To say the mood in the dressing room afterwards was jubilant would be an understatement, that game was a real turning point. It brought us together as a group and gave us the belief that when our backs were against the wall, like they were with the preparations, we’d fight tooth and nail for one another. That trip home, unlike the journey down, was very sweet and optimism was high.
We followed this result up with a loss away to Fleetwood conceding avoidable goals, one in each half, which then piled the pressure on the following two home games against promotion chasing Southend and play off chasing Hartlepool. We played Southend on a Tuesday night at Sixfields and not only was it a game for us to pick up points but we needed to get the crowd on side with a good performance and let them know we were fighting and wanting survival just as much as them. We scored an early goal from a corner which settled us but like so many games, conceded an avoidable equaliser. The message at half time was ‘are we now going to collapse or fight?’. We chose to fight and went ahead in the second half after great work from Sinclair down the right, who bullied their centre half and teed up Hackett who slotted home from eight yards. We went onto dominate the game and when a passing side like Southend began to go very direct, then we knew the three points were safe.
The fact that we had now beaten a promotion chasing side was worth more than your average win. We were now a team, predominantly, playing percentage football, putting the ball at minimum risk but more importantly, we felt we were now tough to beat and in times of struggle, this along with results was more important than being pleasing on the eye. Getting back in the dressing room after the game, sky sports went on to see the other results and not for the last time the other teams around us had won. This provided a certain sense of deflation but the manager always reiterated that if we do our job then the table will look after itself. So, onto Saturday against one of my old clubs Hartlepool. We started well and it was nice to be involved in our opening goal, getting taken down just outside the box resulting in the free kick that led to our opener. We led one nil at half time and this turned to two shortly after the restart and we comfortably saw out the game.
We now had back to back wins. Unbelievably, the teams around us had all picked up results but for us psychologically, we were now off the bottom, clawing back Torquay, and made the teams around us realise we still had a pulse and were getting stronger. Mission one was accomplished, the great escape was looking possible and if we could beat teams gunning for promotion then why couldn’t the seemingly impossible be done?
We welcomed Bristol Rovers to Sixfields at the start of March, who at that point in time looked relatively safe although a win for us would have dragged them to within five points of the relegation zone. From what I can recall, it was a terribly drab game with little or no chances for either side. I think it was fair to say that both teams didn’t want to lose more than they wanted to win, so a point was a just result and, at the time,9 I felt failing to beat them put them just out of our reach in the relegation fight. How wrong was I?. Another game down though and another point on the board, we were now building some definite momentum. Next up was a nice easy away trip to top of the table, unbeaten in twenty, Scunthorpe.
We went into that game with high hopes of getting something and again, the way the ninety minutes unfolded epitomised the new and still growing spirit in the camp. We played some of our best possession football in the opening forty five minutes, moving the ball well up until the final third yet lacking that bit of guile and end product to make our dominance count on the scoreboard. The mood was buoyant at the interval and we felt if we stuck to our gameplan then the goal would eventually come. The opening fifteen minutes of the restart couldn’t have gone much worse. We gifted Scunny a very soft goal, conceding from a corner and then had our skipper sent off on the hour for a second bookable offence. Our backs were well and truly against the wall but we were a different side now to the one that would perhaps have buckled pre January. We hit back from a set piece almost instantly with Zander Diamond flicking in a Carter delivery and produced a tremendous defensive display for the remaining twenty five minutes which ensured a point. I don’t think there’s a much better feeling as a defender than grinding out a result with ten men and hearing the home crowd boo their team off for a lack of penetration. It was a very significant point, and one which cemented our fans belief that we were now a team worthy of their unwavering support. All was good, until other results came through post game where third bottom Accrington had beaten high flying Chesterfield 3-1 to keep us six points adrift of safety. We weren’t the only ones fighting for our lives.
Although every game since I joined in January carried huge pressure, some games were undoubtedly more important than others and we faced Exeter away on the Tuesday night which was our game in hand on others around us and a game we simply couldn’t lose. Unlike the Torquay game, preparations went smoothly and we were fully able to rest up in a hotel prior to the game and get the journey out of our legs. Football is a very strange game at times and unlike the Torquay game where preparation was poor yet we shot out of the blocks, this was the polar opposite. For some reason, though the pitch was well sodden, Exeter decided to drench the pitch pre game making it almost unplayable, which was strange as it seemed to affect their game more than ours. To say we were awful in that first half would have been very kind but looking back perhaps playing with ten man the previous Saturday had taken its toll. We should have went one down early but their right winger contrived to miss a sitter from three yards. We got to half time largely untroubled after that early scare where for the first time the gaffer gave us a right rollicking. Gregor Robertson even got a rap on the chest for sitting too close to the arm gesturing of the gaffer in mid rollick stage which was one of those moments like at school where we all wanted to laugh but daren’t. We upped our performance second half and a moment of quality from Hacks on the right produced a delicious cross which Ian Morris done well to convert. That was all we needed and it was as comfortable a 1-0 win as you could wish for as they offered very little going forward. It was such a great feeling to get the win whilst not being at even close to our best, and for the dedication of the forty seven Cobblers that made the journey to support us I’m sure it was a journey well made.
That was now eleven points out of a possible fifteen, we were now three points behind Exeter and we had Mansfield at home on the Saturday who were a strong physical side but going through their own sticky patch of form. Confidence was high going into the game and we felt this was the weekend we’d get back on an even keel with the teams above us and set ourselves up nicely for the remaining ten games. We started the game very well and perhaps could and should have been two nil up after ten minutes but our inability to make life easy for ourselves was to haunt us as they played one ball over the top and a moment of indecision resulted in us being down by one. Half time was one of frustration as we should have been out of sight but found ourselves behind but we were told to keep playing the way we were and relax more in the final third. The second half commenced and we started the second period like we did the first and lady luck finally started to smile on us. They had a man sent off for handball on the line as he failed to deal with a cross from the right and Carts dispatched the resultant penalty to draw us level. Mansfield were now on the ropes but defended pretty doggedly and we just couldn’t find a second goal, although Hacks shot a great volley unmarked over the bar from six yards in the dying moments. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel like two points dropped but it was another point on the board, another game unbeaten and we were now only two points away from third bottom, as for the first time since my arrival, other results went our way. Lady Luck, it seemed had just bought a Sixfields season ticket and she was ready to play her part in the final ten games.
The 18th of March saw the two form sides in the division face off as high flying Rochdale arrived at Sixfields. At some point after a sequence of positive results, a blip occurs, an unexplainable performance that nobody sees coming and this was ours. Our Achilles heel of gifting an early goal struck again and Rochdale never looked back. They controlled the game from start to finish and even though they had a man sent off for over-celebrating a goal, we had nothing of note to offer despite playing against ten man for half an hour. In fact, they appeared more in control being down to ten men then they did with eleven. We lost 3-0 and the dressing room was dead afterwards. To be fair to the gaffer, he never got too excited with a win and never went the other way in defeat. The message was, ‘it’s one defeat in eight against the top team, you’ve done magnificent until now let’s make sure we bounce back’. Next up was Morecambe away.
We travelled to Morecambe on the Friday, training at Blackburn prior to the game. For the past few weeks, the astro turf we were training on had taken its toll on my lower back and the long journey to Morecambe didn’t help so despite giving myself every opportunity to play, I simply couldn’t turn without holding my breath so unfortunately I had to miss out. Sitting in the stand, not being able to play a part is a hard experience especially with the importance of the games growing week after week but after they hit the post early in the first half, we went one nil up through an own goal, but sat back for the rest of the game allowing them to gain a foothold and they eventually equalised with probably their best move of the game. Another point gained that we could so easily have lost, especially as we almost gifted them a goal in injury time as a mix up between our retreating defender and goalie saw their player nick in and lob the ball goalward but it thankfully fell just wide of the post. With the events of the past games, luck and fate would suggest that they were on our side, other teams were scoring our goals, players were being sent off and penalties awarded. Things were now looking very positive.
The arrival of AFC Wimbledon on the Tuesday night gave us our first chance to move out of the bottom two, I had recovered from my stiff back and went straight back into the starting eleven. Like so many other times, we conceded early and gave ourselves a mountain to climb. Like most football matches, but more significantly lower league football, the team that scores first usually wins the game so we were doing ourselves no favours. Sometimes I thought it would be better if the manager told us we were one down before we went out as we only ever seemed to settle after we conceded or scored early but all jokes aside this was a game where we needed something. After a scramble in the box from a corner, Midson blocked a goal bound effort on the line with his hand and was sent for a bath. I was happy to see him go because he caught me flush in the chest with a sneaky elbow that felt like I’d been hit by a truck and affected my breathing. It was such a blow, I’m still feeling it now. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t logged the incident and had him earmarked for retribution, totally fair, within the laws of the game retribution I hasten to add. So him going off gave me one less thing to worry about. Up stepped cool as you like Carts from the spot and the score was one one with over an hour for us to play against ten men. The second half was a tense game of cat and mouse. They sat deep with two banks of four and said come break us down and we struggled to create anything of note. With the game entering the latter stages, Carts let fly from twenty five yards which took a wicked deflection causing the ball to loop viciously, beating the keeper at his near post. At that point, we were out of the drop zone and against ten men with little over ten minutes to go. They threw everything at us but we were well in control, but Northampton being Northampton there was always going to be a twist. In the ninety ninth minute no less, they lumped a hopeful ball into the box, it broke to their player six yards out and the equaliser was theirs. Barely time for the restart. Back to the dressing room, dejected and feeling like a loss.
A heated exchange between me and Hacks followed from the pitch into the dressing room, with him ultimately blaming me for their equaliser saying I shouldn’t have been bombing forward into their box in the ninetieth minute. I understood where he was coming from to a point but my argument was, if the ball I played across the six yard box wasn’t on a plate for our striker to make it 3-1 or if we were the team with the ten men then I’d have accepted his viewpoint. I thought it was a harsh criticism but arguments like that, within reason, are a good thing in a dressing room as it shows it matters to the players. Sometimes, the easiest thing in the world is to say nothing and let it slide but we were all hurting and a good rant off is sometimes the best tonic. Needless to say we kissed and made up on the following Thursday training session and were fully focused for Bury on the Saturday.
The Bury game was Rochdale all over again, nobody could have quite seen this result. We went one down early down, then one became two after a looped effort deceived our keeper and two became three after a poor back pass led to their third. The less said about that game the better. We let ourselves and the fans down and it was a massive set back. The loss to Rochdale and the last minute capitulation against Wimbledon which felt like a loss was now compounded by a damning defeat to a fellow relegation threatened side. I think the phrase “lower than a snakes belly” sums up how we felt. Again, the gaffer didn’t lambast us which he would have been well within his rights to do but instead stated the importance of bouncing back like we had done before. Despite the g-up, that was the first time I felt we could go down. Thankfully that thought only lasted all night Saturday and Sunday, and after looking how other results went for us, checking our own fixtures, I was mister positivity again as Monday training arrived. Without question, football is, indeed, a mindfuck, but the focus was now shifted to Accrington away.
We arrived at Accrington knowing it was basically a case of shit or bust and thankfully we got off to a flying start with Hacks converting a chance from the tightest of angles after four minutes. We were by far the dominant team and created several further chances first half to increase our lead but again failed to make life easy for ourselves. Despite coming under pressure in the last ten minutes with Accrington opting to go very direct, we dealt with everything they could muster and our goal was never really threatened. The final whistle went and we left the pitch with a well deserved one nil win and clean sheet in the bag. Now to see how the other teams got on, surely we were level on points with the teams above us? As you’ve guessed, both Wycombe and Portsmouth won, and Bristol Rovers drew keeping us three points adrift and with our goal difference being so poor in comparison with our relegation rivals, our jubilation soon turned to disbelief as news filtered through of these results. Was there any danger of results going our way? If the great escape was to be achieved, it was definitely going to have to be done the hard way, but our fate was in our own hands and I liked them odds.
The following weekend saw us pitted against Burton Albion who still had one eye on automatic promotion and were sitting comfortably in the play off places. The game was all the more special for me as my parents made the trip over from Ireland so I was desperate for them to see a good performance and a nice three points. We shuffled formation due to injuries and I was asked to play as one of three centre halves in a 3-5-2 formation. For me, playing different positions isn’t much of a problem but centre half, albeit in a back three, was a new one for me. It was a lovely day at Sixfields that Saturday. The sun was beaming and the crowd turned up in numbers to help us to victory. The club introduced ‘clappers’ on each seat to increase the noise level and the support we received that day was simply fantastic. Lady Luck again came to our aid as the Burton keeper threw in a John Marquis drive which 99 times out of 100 he’d usually save but we weren’t complaining in the slightest. It was a much deserved one nil win and a performance which belied our position. We now had back to back wins at a crucial point of the season. I had a win in front of my folks which was very pleasing and I ticked off another position played, which now left the position of goalkeeper as the only position I’ve not played in in league football, and let’s hope it stays that way.
With that win, we were now level on points with Wycombe, confidence was sky high and they were up next on the schedule away at Adams Park. That game was to be a tense affair, we stuck with the 3-5-2 formation but I moved from centre half to a more recognisable right wing back role. Coming out at the start of the game and being greeted by over two thousand of our own supporters was a special feeling and a phenomenal effort by all involved. We started brightly and a hopeful punt into the box by Ricky Ravenhill was caught and spilled into the Wycombe net by the home goalkeeper. It seemed as though we didn’t even have to score our own goals anymore as the opposition were doing it for us. Upon scoring, we endured a crazy fifteen minutes where we seemed desperate to press the self destruct button and it was no surprise we conceded the equaliser in this period, a bullet header from a set piece. We thankfully regrouped, and there was no further chances of note for either side until the last minute of injury time. A Wycombe free kick at the edge of our box was brilliantly saved by Dukey in net only for the ball to be tapped home. It seemed Wycombe had stolen it and with that our football league status but up went the linesman’s flag. Never have I been as relieved as I was at that moment. The game ended not long after and tv replays showed that that last gasp Wycombe goal should have stood but as I’ve said before, Lady Luck appeared to be a Cobbler.
With Friday over, we needed every minute of the weekend to recover and focus on the Easter Monday clash with Portsmouth at home. That Wycombe game was draining for all involved, and at right wing back I felt I had run a marathon. In a nutshell, I was spent both physically and mentally and quite a few of us were in the same boat but Monday was closing fast. No time to dwell on tiredness. The scene was perfectly set for us to break out of the relegation zone, could we now take our chance?
With Portsmouth selling out their away allocation, Sixfields was bouncing. The ‘clappers’ were out in force again and the atmosphere was why you play football. We set out again in a 3-5-2 that had worked so well for us in past matches, but we just couldn’t get going or get up the pitch. We conceded early again from a set piece knock down and despite matching them up in a 4-4-2, with me moving to right midfield, we simply couldn’t find an equaliser. I’m not making excuses for the loss, but perhaps Portsmouth securing survival on the previous Friday which allowed them to implement five or six changes for our game, gave them a slight edge in regards to freshness and energy but once again our opportunity to escape the dreaded drop zone had eluded us. The only silver lining was that results went in our favour, and it was now a four horse race to avoid that last relegation place between ourselves, Wycombe, Exeter and Bristol Rovers. Our fate was in still in our own hands.
Dagenham away was the place where our destiny would be decided. With Wycombe playing Bristol, and Exeter at home to table toppers Scunthorpe, we knew a win would put one Northampton foot in League 2 for the 2014-2015 season. I found out I was dropped for the Dagenham game on the Friday with not a word mentioned, which is always a shit sandwich, but more than that, I knew then, that that would be it for me in regards to an extended deal. We still had a huge job to complete and regardless of contract scenarios, we were all in it together and too much sweat had been spilt since January to let it slip away now. Dagenham had nothing to play for as they were safe in mid table and started the game in flip flops trying to pass the ball around like Liverpool. Who were they trying to kid? We pressed them high up the park and won the ball time and time again in their defensive third allowing us to gain real momentum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and young striker Ivan Toney scored inside five minutes after a pinpoint cross from Ian Morris. One was to become two after twelve minutes as Dagenham half cleared a corner to the edge of the box and Ian Morris spectacularly volleyed home from twenty yards. Dagenham, at this point, were already in the queue for Sugar Hut and that man Toney bicycle kicked home an effort on forty minutes to seal the match. It truly was a fantastic performance from a young guy who saw no match action since I arrived in January, and it was an ingenious gamble by the manager to put his faith in someone so young and raw, but for him to explode onto the scene in such a fashion was truly fairytale stuff, you couldn’t make it up. Spare a thought also for Morro, he probably won’t score a better or more important goal in all his career and as everyone swooned over Ivan’s performance, Morro’s goal got lost in the furore. He mentioned it enough times on the journey back so I’m pretty sure it did really happen, what a strike though. That win proved monumental as, with Exeter somehow managing to beat Scunny and secure their own safety, a draw or defeat for us would have put our destiny in the hands of others. After nineteen games, it appeared we timed our escape to perfection and we were now out of the relegation zone at long last, needing just a point from our last game to ensure football league status.
And so, to the last game of the season against the gaffer’s old club Oxford who he left to take over at Sixfields back in January. It was always going to come down to this game wasn’t it? The question was, would there be a sting in the tail or would he get a sweet victory over the club that failed to back him? The sun was shining, Sixfields was packed with squeaky bums everywhere and we upheld our tradition of giving away a soft early goal from a set piece. You could cut the tension with a knife as that Oxford goal went in and with early news filtering through that Wycombe were beating Torquay and Bristol drawing, we were on our way out of the league. We looked nervous, and the longer the game remained one nil who knows what might have happened, but I’ve mentioned Lady Luck a few times in this blog and on that final Saturday she showed up in full Northampton kit, scarf and underwear. In the space of fifteen minutes, they had a man sent off for an off the ball incident, we equalised, and then went ahead. There was no stopping us now from achieving our great escape. Doumbs headed home early in the second half to make it a comfortable afternoon for us and the party had well and truly started.
The final whistle went and the inevitable pitch invasion of relieved spectators flowed onto the Sixfield’s grass. It truly was a very satisfying feeling having achieved the objective set forth in January. After twenty games of incessant pressure, we had achieved the seemingly impossible and along the way averaged over one and a half points per game, which was promotion chasing form. The job was finally done. I am very proud to have played a significant part in the club’s survival and be part of a very together, determined and banterful dressing room, but at the same time hurt and disappointed that, after all that commitment and effort, I won’t have the opportunity to carry on the progression of the football club but hey ho, that’s football. My mind, from January, was completely consumed by the relegation battle and the added stress of not knowing my footballing future. Now, that it’s finally done and the great escape has been accomplished, I can switch off and relax until my next port of call where it all starts again, and you know what, I wouldn’t change it for the world.