Back to the future III: Northampton (a)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

11 November 2006

We can't see him. Where is he?

Northampton Town 0 Grimsby Town 0

Around 500 happy hopping Mariners bopped in the aisles of the garden shed of earthly delights, this soulless warehouse on the edge of nowhere. Doesn't it have a retractable roof so it's a Matalan by day and football stadium by night? Oooh, don't give Fenty more ideas.

Town lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation as follows: Barnes, Croft, Fenton, Whittle, Newey, Harkins, Toner, Bolland, Boshell, Hegggarty, North. The substitutes were McDermott, Murray, Taylor, Chamberlain and Ashton. Gary Napkins played right in the middle of the pitch, hoovering between defence and midfield, after doing the Shake 'n' Vac, while North played the part of the disaffected youth, trundling around on his own waiting for someone or something to show him the way. Toner and Hegggarty supported North from the flanks and Town were clearly designed to stop and search, smothering Cobblers in a blanket of curmudgeonly northernness. Ah, but will Graham's gargoyles have breathed in the magic incense, the aromatherapy of passing and movement? If they don't pass and move then He will be incensed.

We're so happy we can hardly count the number of cones Watkiss dropped with a resigned air upon the turf. And he never lost a game while in charge: what a record for the board to ignore.

Who gives an aimless punt about the home team? Yeah, Jason Crowe was in their team. He used to play for Arsenal you know.

We know they got promoted last year, we were there. All promotion means is that you get relegated from a different league.

Right, let's get on with it. Standing still waiting for something to happen won't change anything - that's what the midfield has been doing all season.

First half
Town kicked off. Now, what happened next?

Feeling apprehensive? Feeling groovy? They passed it to each other, from side to side; just short passes to teammates with no panicky walloping and midgets playing fightball 10 feet in the air. It was immediately clear what we were seeing: a Grimsby Town team playing Grimsby Town football. You could hear the smile in the Town support: the old slippers are so comfortable.

After a minute Big Bad Bojic, on their right, underhit a backpass towards Mr Bunn the faker in their goal. North cast off his cape, threw aside his raffish cane and tap-danced away, knocking the ball wide of the keeper towards the bye-line. His touch was heavy, but North retrieved the ball, turned to his right foot and crossed to the near post, where Toner waited, surrounded by trees. One of the stout Northamptonshire oaks barged the ball away for a corner. Newey clipped and the keeper whipped the ball away with a punch.

There followed three minutes of throw-ins. Throw-ins are boring, they mean nothing. Vive la difference! Sir, in the wonderful world of Buckley they mean everything. The old Buckley triangles returned, with Town retaining possession with short throw-ins tapped back, then tapped inside. The purple people were piggies in the middle, made to look like little kids chasing their dads around the garden. It meant Town kept the ball and Town passed sideways with one touch and a pass; a rhythm was beating, a clock was ticking. The backbeat was there; over it pleasing melodies were played. The guitar solos can come later.

From a throw-in Town advanced down the right; Croft to Toner to Harkins to Heggggarty, and the ball now on the left, with Newey roaming, stepping infield and thwaddling a thumping shot towards the top right corner. Mr Bunn the savemaker stretched and clawed the ball around the post. Phwoar, what a scorcher! Toner curled the corner in from the left, the ball dropping in to the middle of the six-yard box. North leapt, dunked his head and grazed a flicked header that crawled over the crossbar onto the roof of the net.

Five minutes gone, three Town chances; Northampton had barely touched the ball.

It is likely that Ian Taylor headed the ball very high and very wide after a free kick was pumped into the Town area. Normally I wouldn't bother with this sort of humdrum nothingness, but one wishes to be fair to our charming hosts and highlight their highlights. Ten minutes of Town domination: that's Grimsby, not Northampton. Which team is in which division?

Ah, hubris is a dish best served to someone else. After 11 comfortable minutes of nostalgia Northampton strung three, count them, three passes together. The ball was played into the centre, on the edge of the penalty area, and laid off first time to Jess, who curled a shot around Town's centre-backs and a few feet wide of Barnes' left post. Hubris with chips isn't so bad after all.

The game returned to normal, or at least what passed for normal in the 1990s. Newey and Croft always ran to the touchline ready to receive the ball, Barnes hardly kicked and the whole team calmly pieced together the jigsaw, starting with the edges. You know, you start with the basics. Newey roamed freely, supporting Hegggggarty and causing the Cobblers to unbuckle their shoes. Ah, more Town throw-ins: serenity.

Ah, another Town throw-in, on the right about 20 yards out. Croft lobbed to Toner, who tapped it back. Boshell joined this conga line and Croft dinked a drooping googly over and through Jason-the-confused-Crowe. Boshell sauntered away towards the bye-line, took a sneaky look and espied North free, 15 yards out level with the near post. The Mighty Bosh dragged a pass back and North whacked a first-time shot low towards the bottom right corner. Bunn clung to the ball at the foot of the post. Excellent move, excellent shot, excellent save. How long has this been going on? About 20 minutes.

Mr Bunn the half-baked keeper was a constant source of concern to the Cobblers' centre-backs with his mad pursuit of the ball outside of his area. Town exploited his flakiness with dinks and dunks into the corners. North chased and Bunn laced up his pantyhose, hitched up his skirt and raced out, slicing the ball out for Town throw-ins. Mmmm, throw-ins.

They had a long throw-in bloke. Looked dangerous, produced nothing. Blame our centre-backs for defensive adequacy. We are not used to this lack of incompetence: we are confused. Fenton superbly blocked a cross from their right after Watt, for once, skipped away from Newey. Another isolated moment of maroon mayhem.

Another Town breakaway with Hegggarty prodding, North ram-raiding and Newey bedraggling a shot safely wide from 25 yards. Ah, shame, but it was a lovely journey even if the destination was forgettable. Perhaps they have a gift shop?

What is this? Justin the Playmaker? Wasn't he a 15th-century king of Sweden? Whittle whooshing, swaying and hip-swivellingly toying with these ruffians to curl a perfect pass to North's feet. Fenton and Whittle started to play keep-ball between them, waiting for the Cobblers before teasing with wiggles and pleasing with passes. And up the field Town went, through the maze to the centre of the garden to sit on the bench and have a picnic. They have been shown the way and they remembered how to get there.

With a couple of minutes left North chased a dink behind Crowe, who swung his left boot, the ball swaying high behind him towards goal. North bumped the lazyboy aside and looped a cross towards the far post, but Mr Bunn the taker plucked the ball away from prying foreheads. A minute later Hegggarty and Bolland mugged Bojic on their right, but Heggggarty's looping volley-cross curled just beyond North to the far post, where the Lump was waiting in our imagination. The reality was a goal kick.

There was one minute of added time. If Buckley has truly returned then we'd concede a daft goal right now, wouldn't we. They got a free kick in the middle of their half, which they took quickly. Watt powered away down their left, outpacing Toner and crashing a low cross through the six-yard box. McGleish waited at the far post, but Newey threw himself at the ball and chested it a foot past the post for a corner.

Corner cleared, the half over. Please stand up and applaud.

Town looked thoroughly competent, like a team following orders and schooled in the art of continental possession football. The score flattered the Cobblers, who looked inferior. Town harried and hassled in midfield, but were determined to keep the ball, with the central three midfielders exceptional. Harkins excelled as the protector and prodder, while Bolland returned to his perpetual pest role. Above all, there was movement when any Town player had the ball and there was always someone to pass to. It was just like watching an Alan Buckley Town team. I think we'd forgotten just what that meant.

Ah, the half-time team talk. Oh dear, they usually take a nap now: let's see, shall we.

Second half
The cobblingpeople replaced Big Bad Bojic with one of the many Andy Holts in our lives. Like we care, eh?

He's back! He's there in the technical area. His lips move but we can't hear what he's saying. What did he say? Blessed are the cheesemakers? Cue 10 minutes of personalised karaoke from a hundred excited souls behind the goal. ABBAWA? Wasn't that a song by Genesis? You want it, you got it, now you know.

Whoops, they had a shot. Lovely for them; worth the admission price, I'm sure. Scuffler McGleish popped up from behind his magic mushroom and scruffled a shot from just outside the area, through a thicket of legs and a throcket of pegs. The ball bumbled, stumbled and rumbled a few inches wide.

We tipped, we tapped, the fans rapped: "Give us a wave!" He's a real manager: he knows the difference between clapping and waving.

Hmm, they're getting closer. A long ball from their left was nodded on and McGleish, unmarked beyond the far post, chested it down and slapped a half-volley uninterestingly over the angle of post and bar. Sure, the locals yapped, but we could see the way their world was crumbling.

This is all so nice and relaxing, with Whittle and Fenton gliding across the turf to flick debris into their bin bags and Harkins walking behind the Cobblehorse with a shovel. Feast on those isolated moments of Town nearlyness. North trying but tiring, his midfield minders making occasional visits to check on his welfare. Six, seven, eight passes... a Newey shot apologising through the area; on target but off piste. Is that a...? No. Almost, but not quite; beautiful plumage, though.

Near the hour Northampton decided to say hello and wave goodbye to Barnes. A long throw zoomed in, ricocheted off a couple of talking heads and fell to McGleish, ten yards out on their right. He twisted and hooked a first-time volley through the goalmouth. The ball hurtled along the ground, rolling, rolling, rolling, curling, drifting, and lifting our spirits as it missed by inches. Is McGleish incapable of kicking the ball properly?

Oh how the minutes must have dragged for the homesters, as Town just kept possession, cobbling attacks foundering on the twin rocks and triple alliance. But the merest flicker of light could be see between Town's shutters. Look, there, down the sides. Northampton's right winger, Watt, started to burn up Newey's calories with some searing darts and jinks. They started to hit longer, higher, more diagonal balls towards Town's penalty area, focusing upon Newey, who failed to win a header: a weakness being exposed.

With 20 minutes left Watt cut infield through Heggggarty and Newey, Kirk flicked and McGleish, on the centre-right of the penalty area, peeled away from Fenton and volleyed into the outer limits of the known Town support. Credit where credit is due. The ball remained in the ground and went out for a goal kick, not a throw-in. Great move, awful finish. A minute later Watt shimmied through our foggy-bottom boys on the left, shook his hips at Fenton and curled a low shot straight at Barnes. At last he's had to touch the ball.

Can you feel it now? That old flaw of sinking back towards goal, the opposition leathering and lathering, using passion not possession to defeat.

North was replaced by Taylor. So that's our sixth-choice striker replaced by the seventh. Context is everything.

With a quarter of an hour left we had the defining minute. The Sixfield Swingers sang a jazzy little number, swinging a free kick into the Town box. The ball dropped, bodies talked, knees jerked, toes tapped and the ball fell to Doig, just left of the penalty spot. He poked the ball goalwards and Barnes froze: he couldn't see the ball. On it floated, through the purple haze, through the motionless monotones and reappeared, gliding towards the bottom left corner. Out came an arm; his body swayed and Barnes tipped the ball on to the post. McGleish minced towards his inflatable desire; Barnes and two defenders threw themselves in the way and undeserved disaster was diverted, some say averted. The corner curled in from their right to the centre of the area, where Holt rose and firmly headed down from about eight yards out. The ball bounced across Barnes towards the top left corner and Hegggarty, standing on the line by the post, leapt and noodled the ball away as more marooners menaced.

Shall we take a breath?

Go on, breathe a little deeper; that's better. They've just taken off Watt, who was their most dangerous player. John Gorman: thank you very much for taking him off, thank you very much, thank you very, very much. The Cobblers cobbled together nothing after this, not even an old brown shoe, for their right was only half of what was wrong.

Like a warm bath on a cold winter's evening, let's just wallow in some old-fashioned Town-ness. Fenton and Whittle started to have a little fun with their opponents, drawing them close then pinging 30-yard passes to Croft, and then McDermott. Macca? Oh yes, he replaced Croft with about five minutes left. There's nothing left to say about Northampton. They'd spent their pocket money on some gobstoppers and a damp banger. Thwup. See, they lit it and all they got was a puff of smoke and a disappointed child tugging their coat.

Town, Town, oh Town. Macca cleared a corner straight to Heggggggarty, who zipped while Taylor zapped and the Napkin lapped the milk into the stodgy porridge of the Northampton defence. Boshell, in the centre 10 yards out, scrubbed a low shot straight at Mr Bunn. Taylor and Toner exchanged passes, McD supported, Taylor briefly spun free but was blocked by a big bullying defender. Ooh, that was football. Another minute and Taylor spun again, as Town broke from defence. Boshell flew forward on his gyrocopter, carried the ball 30 yards down the centre and across the face of goal, cut in and dinked a left-footed chip towards the top right corner. Bunn took two steps back and held the ball easily underneath the crossbar. Nice move though: let's savour the crispiness of the passing.

There were three minutes of added time, which couldn't have been easier for this team of professionals. The game ended with Northampton whimpering as they banged a cross straight out of play. He who must be obeyed shook Watkiss's hand, patted Gorman's back and walked off down the tunnel. The players wandered across to receive the ovation that they deserved.

Didn't we do well? Good game, good game. Alan Buckley? Nice to see you, to see you nice: let's just remember that points make prizes.

Town ticked over nicely. The engine repair may not be complete, but at least it's running now. How far it'll go and how long it will last - well, we'll just have to wait and see. I think you can trust it will move, and move in the right direction.

The clouds are not so heavy, the sun is beginning to glint, there is hope in our hearts. The big yellow taxi of management is back. You know, it just felt like watching Town.

Nicko's unsponsored man of the match
Everyone was magnificent, though some were more magnificent than others. The weakest link was probably Toner, who was a little uncomfortable out on the right, frequently holding up play and losing momentum. But that's to look for fault in a collection of great dance songs. Newey had a marvellous first half but, overall, the chief ticker was Mr Danny Boshell: he was omnipresent.

Official Warning
Mr R Shoebridge was probably the best referee we've had so far this season. A couple of slightly wayward decisions were balanced by his determination to avoid charges of a home-philic bent. He controlled the game, controlled the players and you just felt you could trust him to not make a daft decision: 8.876.

The Others
They didn't try very hard in the first half, seemingly content to rest on their superior status. Even when they woke up they were powder puffs and easily repelled. They had better players, but not a better team. It looked like a game between two teams in the same division, with us at the higher end. There we are: perhaps they'll have learned their lesson next time.