April 20, 2014 7:20 pm

Northampton’s Cobblers fight for the very soul of football

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Game with Portsmouth is life or death for the Cobblers
Northampton Town's Clive Platt (left) vies for the ball against Bradford City's Rory McArdle during the English League 2 Play-Off Final football in 2013©AFP

A few months before England won the 1966 World Cup, a small boy stood in a large crowd on the duckboards that used to line the touchline at Northampton Town Football Club (“the Cobblers”) to watch perhaps their greatest victory ever: 2-1 over then-mighty Leeds United.

This was no fluky one-off cup tie. This game was in the old First Division, the pinnacle of English football, which Northampton had reached only four years after climbing out of the Fourth. They got there thanks to an imaginative manager, Dave Bowen, who put together a team dominated by men who played like nightclub bouncers and scared the daylights out of opposing Fancy Dans.

It was all a bit of a joke: the rugged team; the unfortunate nickname; the slummy ground shared with the cricket club where the wingers’ paths crossed the fast bowlers’ run-ups. Bowen used to sign players elsewhere before they could see what a dump it was. And the glory was fleeting. The team were relegated after a single season, unluckily – that small boy can now tell you.

I was probably the only person, even in Northampton, not to realise the whole adventure was an aberration. Just like England winning the World Cup. Northampton went back to the Fourth Division even quicker than they left it, and have been there for most of the intervening years. In the next fortnight, they might leave it – through the trap door.

This afternoon they are playing for their footballing lives, to avoid relegation out of rebranded League Two (it’s still the damn Fourth Division, whatever they call it) and into outer darkness.

Their opponents Portsmouth – proud Pompey, who won the FA Cup only six years ago – are also in notional danger, along with all 12 teams in the lower half of the division. Pompey may be safe by nightfall, but this is a furious dogfight.

The fifth division, the Conference Premier, is notoriously hard to escape. Only one team gets automatic promotion and several Conference clubs have owners with cash to flash, although these characters often have short attention spans. Four of that bottom 12, including Portsmouth, are majority-owned by supporters’ groups.

Northampton’s owners, the Cardoza family, have been staunch for 11 years, almost as many managers and an estimated £8m. “We used to be in finance. Now it’s the reverse,” says the chairman, David Cardoza. “It goes against everything you think is right because the economics of the game are barking mad. Income and expenditure don’t match.”

But he regrets nothing, except buying players to get a quick fix instead of concentrating more on youth policy. But even as he says that, he knows the realities. Go out of the League and there is a mini-parachute payment, as given to teams relegated from the Premiership. But it only lasts one season. Stay out, and you can find yourself out of cash and disbanding the youth scheme before it produces a single player.

None of the Cardozas stood on the duckboards with me. They came from London and picked Northampton Town because they were hunting a club and saw an underachieving team with a stadium (the club left their decrepit old home 20 years ago) and a catchment area, that both had potential. With council help, they are now perking up the premises, putting in a hotel/conference centre and the Cobblers’ first ever corporate boxes. Which will look pretty sick if the club are trying to sell local executives the chance to watch Alfreton Town and North Ferriby United.

A few weeks ago, Northampton were seven points adrift at the bottom. A win over Portsmouth, and they could be out of the relegation zone with two to play. There is hope, not a commodity we set much store in – we lugubrious fatalists who have supported Northampton through thin and thinner since that win over Leeds. But this is the reality of professional football as much as the glitz you see on TV. More so, actually.

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