Thursday, 14 April 2016

#23 Sixfields Stadium, Northampton Town

Northampton Town 2 Bristol Rovers 2
Saturday 9th April, League Two

We were into the last six games of the season. Rovers started the day sat in 3rd place on goal difference but level on points with both Accrington and Plymouth. Northampton had run away with the top spot and needed only a draw from today to clinch automatic promotion if other results went their way. Having missed out on an away ticket, I had been spared attending the beamback at the Mem by my old friend Sam (a Northampton-based Manchester United fan who also follows the Cobblers) who brought us both a home ticket for the big occasion.

I would like, dear reader, for you to forget about Leicester City for one moment and consider what I believe to be the true miracle of the 2015/16 season. Northampton Town have spent the last seven seasons in League Two. They barely escaped relegation to the conference when we went down, confirming their survival on the final day. This season looked almost certain to be the club's last after the Cobblers were issued with a winding-up petition on the 7th of November 2015 to the tune of a missing £10.25 million that the council had lent the club to revamp the stadium's East Stand.

In the five months that followed a bizarre and complicated saga was played out, eventually culminating in the arrest of former chairman David Cardoza, charged with misappropriating funds. It was difficult not to feel sorry for the Cobblers during this period and many football fans from across the country contributed to the supporters club fighting fund. Luckily former Oxford chairman Kelvin Thomas decided to buy the club at the 11th hour, ensuring their survival. Now this in itself isn't the miracle, lower league clubs stagger in and out of financial devastation all the time.

The wonderful part of the story is the fact that despite all this chaos, the team took League Two by storm. It's normal for clubs facing this kind of mortal threat to crumble on the pitch, due to pressure and unpaid wages but Northampton thrived and were top of the league two months after the winding-up petition was delivered, a position they have yet to relinquish. From starting the season looking almost certain to go under, they now look almost certain to be champions. These were the circumstances in which Rovers travelled, hoping to delay that party for one more week.

After a few beers and a short walk Sam and I arrived at Sixfields, resisting the temptations of both the nearby funfair and the offer of a quick £5 sausage polish on the way

Sixfields is a very modern, quite compact all-seater stadium. Much like after my trip to Ashton Gate I'm left struggling a bit for things to write about since the main event, the rebuilt East Stand that nearly killed the whole club remains an unfinished shell of scaffolding and a grim reminder of what almost was. This despite the fans' previous attempts to gussy it up with John-Joe O'Toole flags. However the powers that be had seen fit to install the first row of new seats for the previous match against Notts County in order to deal with the extra crowds, so it wasn't so bad to look at. My favourite part of the whole stadium were the glass-walled concourses, which look like a huge greenhouse has been cut in half and stuck to the side of the stadium. These provide inspiring views of the surrounding car parks and chain restaurants for people to enjoy whilst waiting for their tea.

One thing that really catches the eye is the ground's location at the bottom of a massive hill. I thought it seemed crazy that a sizeable chunk of Coventry City fans were able to watch their team's games from the hill in protest during their tenure at Sixfields but you really can see a lot of the pitch from there. Indeed a cheeky smattering of locals amassed on this occasion to watch the second half for free.

Sam and I took our seats in the front row of the West Stand, right next to the away supporters and the game began. The first twenty minutes were a cagey affair, with only a missed shot from Marquis and a couple of corners to note. First blood was drawn when Leadbitter slipped after getting in front of his man, giving Holmes time and space to lob the ball beautifully into the centre of the box for Adams to nod in. The home team came within inches of doubling their lead in the 42nd minute when a well-taken free kick on the edge of the box rattled the crossbar, bounced on the goal line and was eventually cleared.

Things looked bleaker still for us after Northampton actually did make it two right out of the blocks in the second half. Rose made a dummy run, leaving Hoskins open and Danny Leadbitter wasn't quick enough to stop his flick in near the far post. At this point I'd resigned all hope of getting anything from this game and took to people watching. One person who stuck out was a chap with 90s Bono hair who spent the entire match kissing the badge on his pink Northampton away shirt. Another who was clearly worse for ale, was having a lovely time trying to photobomb my crowd shots but mistiming it badly. He was nice enough to offer me a hand when I made an absolute meal of trying to squirm through the barriers at half time like the ungainly prat I am.

Watching from the home section gives you a rare opportunity to observe your own fans from a third-person perspective. I'd never realised quite how many pudgy, bald, middle-aged blokes that think it's the 70s and they're still strapping, fearsome agro merchants we had. A gaggle of about half-a-dozen of the aforementioned decided to spend their entire afternoon staring unblinkingly at the home fans, occasionally making indecipherable arm gestures. The home fans near us took delight in this with a chant of "Dad's army! Dad's army!"

Geriatric belters aside our fans were superb, bringing numbers, noise, colour and smoke. I was proud to watch the scenes unfold as Rovers clawed one back in the 76th minute when Leadbitter ran a ball from Lockyer into the corner and pinged it across goal for Matty Taylor to slip in with his heel. The momentum of the game had completely turned by this point and it only took Lee Brown and Ellis Harrison 12 minutes to make it evens with pretty much the same move on the other side of the pitch. My poker face was pushed to it's limit at this point as I vice-gripped Sam's arm and emitted a high-pitched humming sound, whilst the players celebrated in front of us and Cristian Montaño shouted "fucking have that then!" at the Cobblers fans.

Great comeback and valuable point though it was, it all proved academic for Northampton as news filtered through about a Wimbledon goal scored by none other than former Cobblers human fridge Akinfenwa, which was enough to mathematically secure them at least 3rd position and automatic promotion. Sam, being Sam, refused to accept this fact even when we were on the pitch with the celebrating home fans, frantically doing the maths on his phone.

Bless 'im.

Tragically I've always wanted to be part of a pitch invasion, so I was preparing myself for an acrobatic vault over the barriers carried by the force of the enthused locals in the seats behind me. Alas it was more of a pleasant stroll when the time came, leaving me to wander around soaking in the atmosphere and finding a cool dog with a scarf.

All in all a pleasant day for both of us and a deserved good ending to what had been a terrifying season for the Cobblers. It may have just been the sentiment of the occasion but I felt genuinely very pleased for them. We on the other hand still had work to do.

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