From transfer list to title hero: O'Toole admits he almost left club before leading Cobblers to glory in 2016

John-Joe O'Toole heads home the winner against Bristol Rovers on the opening day of the 2015/16 season.John-Joe O'Toole heads home the winner against Bristol Rovers on the opening day of the 2015/16 season.
John-Joe O'Toole heads home the winner against Bristol Rovers on the opening day of the 2015/16 season. | Getty
'Chris made it clear I wasn’t in his plans at all and when that happens, you’re really best to get out when you can.'

Even now, four years on from the pinnacle of his career, John-Joe O’Toole struggles to comprehend his extraordinary turnaround that saw him go from Cobblers outcast to title hero.

It is a story that begins in 2014 when O’Toole left Bristol Rovers in acrimonious circumstances and moved to Northampton who, just a few weeks earlier, dramatically survived relegation to non-league at the Pirates’ expense.

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But despite coming off an impressive season with Rovers, scoring 15 times, O’Toole was not in the best place mentally and subsequently endured a difficult first season at the Cobblers, so much so he was told to find a new club by then-manager Chris Wilder.

O'Toole celebrates his goal at Luton.O'Toole celebrates his goal at Luton.
O'Toole celebrates his goal at Luton. | Getty

“It was a very hard first season at the club,” admits the 31-year-old.

“I wouldn’t say I was set to leave the club but I was on the transfer list and I could completely understand why the manager did that because it hadn’t worked out at all.

“He thought it was best that I moved on and progressed my career elsewhere and I also had a lot of groin troubles in that season so I was working really hard to get that right.”

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So, given everything pointed to his exit just one year after joining, why did O’Toole ultimately stay at the Cobblers?

He looked set to leave at the end of 2014/15, told by manager Chris Wilder to find a new club.He looked set to leave at the end of 2014/15, told by manager Chris Wilder to find a new club.
He looked set to leave at the end of 2014/15, told by manager Chris Wilder to find a new club.

“I don’t think there was any takers to be honest!

“I didn’t have any options and in a way that was actually a good thing because it worked out, although at the time there weren’t too many clubs interested in me.

“A couple showed a little bit of interest but nothing more than that, which turned out to be a good thing because if I had a few options on the table, the chances are I would have felt it’d be best to leave.

“Chris made it clear I wasn’t in his plans at all and when that happens, you’re really best to get out when you can.

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“It was a bit mad to think that nobody wanted me at the time but obviously it worked out in the end!”

O’Toole remained down the pecking order even after he stayed, but when an unlikely place in the team opened up on the first day of the 2015/16 season – at Bristol Rovers, of all places – he grabbed it with both hands, scoring the only goal of the game with a second-half header.

Although it would be a further six weeks until he established himself as a regular starter, the stars aligned and the rest, as they say, is history.

“In pre-season I got the feeling that we had a really good squad,” adds O’Toole when asked what led to such a dramatic upturn in fortunes.

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“We signed a couple of loan players from the season before and we also brought in Nicky Adams and a few others.

“You just sensed that the squad was stronger than the previous season and I think that massively helped me.

“With the players we had, I just felt that this team could do something so I was desperate to stay at the club and get myself in the team.

“That first day, by hook or by crook, I got myself in for the Bristol Rovers game and managed to score the winner.

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“I thought ‘this is it now’ and I felt like I was going to really kick-on because I felt good and I had that feeling that I was going to score in any game I played.

“But I was dropped and I remember thinking ‘here we go again’ because I was only getting five or 10 minutes at the end of the odd game.

"But we had a couple of suspensions I think and I managed to get into the team and from there I stayed in it."

Not only did he go from outcast to regular, O’Toole became a vital cog in a team that romped to the League Two title.

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"My groin felt really good and that wasn't the case the season before because when you're in and out of the team and you have a niggle, you can never get your match fitness up," he explains.

"I couldn't get through a 90 minutes even when I was picked and I just found it so much harder so that was a lot better and the squad felt so strong.

"I played in central midfield whereas the previous year I played just behind the striker but with the way we played and the squad we had, it just didn't really work for me.

"But when I did get in the team and I played in central midfield, I felt a lot better. It's where I naturally play anyway and it just felt right.

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"Me and Joel (Byrom) played there for the most part and he's really good to play alongside and I think we complemented each other in a lot of ways.

"Every player wants to stay in the team but I really felt like I had something to prove to the manager, to the fans and even to myself.

"I got in the team when there was a few suspensions and I thought 'now I'm in, I'm not coming out of it' - that was my mindset and I was just doing anything I could.

"I had the bit between my teeth and that helped me in a lot of ways, especially because I feared I would be the first one out of the team if there was any changes.

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"But I scored at Wimbledon and then I scored again a couple of games later and that was the point that I said to myself 'I'm not coming out of this team' and fortunately I didn't.

"It was just about personal pride and I wanted to prove myself."

And to cap it all off, O’Toole was voted the club’s player of the season.

He continues: "It's absolutely mad when I look back now. If you said to me that I would spend five years at Northampton after the first three or four months or even while I was out on loan, I'd have said no chance.

"It's pretty crazy but that's just football. It's a mad, mad sport."