LOOKING BACK FEATURE: It was 50 years ago today... George Best scored SIX goals against the Cobblers
It was 50 years ago today... Georgie Best showed the Cobblers how to play... or something like that!
Yes, it is now half a century since the Northern Irish footballing magician made FA Cup history by scoring six times against the Cobblers at the County Ground.
February 7, 1970, was the day Town fans were treated to the sight of a genius absolutely running their team ragged - and being privileged to do so!
Best was unplayable as he inspired top flight Manchester United to a remarkable 8-2 success over Division Four Town in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Now, the fact that I was only a little more than 10 months old at the time of the game rules me out of bringing you any personal memories of that infamous day, but there will be many current Cobblers fans who were there - and will have never forgotten it, whether they were in the Hotel End, the Spion Kop, the main stand, or even standing on the duckboards!
Aside from the day itself, the build up to the big match was also dominated by Best, who was returning to action for his first match after serving a six-game Football Association ban for knocking the ball from referee Jack Taylor's hands in a League Cup semi-final first-leg defeat in to Manchester City.
He had spent four weeks on the sidelines and might have been considered to be a bit rusty, but manager Wilf McGuinness, who had taken over the reins from Matt Busby the previous summer, threw the Northern Irishman straight into the action - and it's fair to say that proved a shrewd move!!
The TV cameras were in attendance, the pitch was wet, muddy and a bit of a mess, and every Cobblers supporter, along with most neutrals, will have been hoping for an upset... they were to be left sorely disappointed on that front.
But their consolation was to see greatness in action.
Here, we recap on the build-up, the match itself, the players involved, and the reaction to one of the most memorable days in the career of the footballing genius that was George Best, and also in the history of Northampton Town Football Club.
The Cobblers had reached the fifth round draw for only the third time in the club's history (they didn't manage it again until a few weeks ago!) with a 0-0 draw against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.
The fifth round draw was made before the replay, which meant both clubs knew a visit from the 1968 European champions and one of the biggest clubs in the country was the reward for a victory.
More than 16,000 turned up at the County Ground hoping Dave Bowen's team could do the business - and they did, seeing off Rovers 2-1 thanks to first-half goals from Graham Felton and Frank Rankmore.
That set up the tie against United, who had beaten Ipswich and Manchester City to reach the fifth round.
The Red Devils were a side on the wane from that European Cup winning glory night just a couple of years earlier, but were still a formidable outfit, including the likes of Bobby Charlton, Alex Stepney, Willie Morgan, Brian Kidd and Paddy Crerand (who would later go on to manage the Cobblers) in their side.
United were obviously huge favourites for the game, and Busby, now general manager, said: "It should be a first class FA Cup tie, and our players will not underestimate Northampton Town."
Town boss Bowen said: "United are expecting to win and cannot afford to make a slip. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain."
It was a bright and sunny day as the teams took to the field of play from the old main stand on the Abington Avenue side of the County Ground, to be greeted by a sell-out crowd of 21,677.
The fans were packed into the two-and-a-half permanent sides of the ground, as well as the duckboards along the cricket side. which was the side from where the TV cameras captured the action.
The playing surface was typical of its day for a Saturday afternoon on a February at any given ground up and down the country, including Old Trafford, meaning it was muddy and bobbly - but it wasn't to prove to be any sort of leveller
The opening stages were fairly even and the match was still goalless after 27 minutes, but then Best broke the deadlock, heading home after an assist from Kidd in front of a packed Hotel End.
Nine minutes later, Best doubled his and United's tally, slotting past goalkeeper Kim Book after a slide-rule Crerand pass, and that was how it stayed until the half-time break.
In all honesty, the Cobblers will have probably been pretty pleased with that - but it was to all go horribly wrong in the second half!
After 51 minutes, Best had his hat-trick after another assist from Kidd, with Joe Kiernan's block on the line from Best's initial shot coming to no avail as the ball dropped kindly to the Irishman who made no mistake second time around at the Spion Kop end.
The Cobblers had a great chance to get back in the game when they were awarded a penalty, after Dixie McNeill was upended by Paul Edwards, but Frank Rankmore's penalty was saved by Alex Stepney, who also smothered top scorer John Fairbrother's follow up.
It was to prove costly as minutes later Best made it 4-0 thanks to another Kidd assist, before the latter got himself on the scoresheet to make it 5-0 with 20 minutes to play.
It was now a rout, and almost straight from the restart Kidd crossed for Best to score his fifth and United's sixth with a glancing header, before Kidd scored his second to put United 7-0 up.
It was a cruel scoreline on the Cobblers, but they did at least finish with a bit of a flourish.
McNeill pulled one back on 81 minutes, before Best completed his double hat-trick with arguably the pick of his goals, sitting keeper Book on the floor before rolling the ball into the empty net and then leaning against the post of the goal. It was 8-1 to United.
There was at least to be one further consolation for the Cobblers, with Frank Large heading home to complete the scoring, but it was a day and a game that was all about George Best, and the history he had made.
Cobblers: Kim Book, Ray Fairfax, Eric Brookes, John Clarke, Frank Rankmore, Joe Kiernan, Graham Felton, Eric Ross, Frank Large, John Fairbrother, Dixie McNeil, Brian Knight.
Manchester United: Alex Stepney, Paul Edwards, Tony Dunne, Paddy Crerand, Ian Ure, David Sadler, Willie Morgan, Carlo Sartori, Bobby Charlton, Brian Kidd, George Best, Francis Burns.
Referee: Peter Baldwin
Attendance: 21,667 - this was the sixth highest attendance at the County Ground, and the last game to attract a 20,000-plus crowd
It is fair to say the Cobblers chairman at the time, Eric Northover, was not a happy man with the players' performance...
A chemist by trade, Northover didn’t try to hide his embarrassment, and let rip in some style after the game as he told the press: “It was disgraceful.
”To lose 8-2 on your own ground is unforgivable. Six of the Best? I would call them six of the easiest.
“When we missed a penalty at 3-0 we should have recognised that we were not going to catch up and should have put the pride of Northampton first.
"Instead we tried to match United skill for skill and went into these absurd attacking positions to give them goal after goal.
“I am only an amateur but this is how I feel and it hurts.”
Can't imagine Kelvin Thomas being quite so outspoken nowadays, no matter the result!
Best himself was delighted with his efforts, and felt he had shut up some of his surprisingly many critics.
Still only 23 at the time of the clash at the Cobblers, Best was the 19-goal top scorer the previous season and would again top the charts in the 1969/70 campaign, finishing with 23 goals.
Speaking the day after the game, Best said: “While I’ve been suspended I’ve had letters from cranks saying that the team played better without me.
“I felt that if we were beaten by Northampton, people would say it was my fault.
“People think that just because I’m a bit of a showman and lose my temper occasionally I’m not trying but I do as much running as anyone.
"During the past week I drove myself harder than ever in training and when I went out yesterday I felt really great.”
Straight after the match, he had said: "I scored two with my head so I really will have to wash my hair tonight!
"For the first 20 minutes Northampton played well and had us worried though."
Goalkeeper Book decided it was time to joke about Best's FA punishment, saying: "Discipline is too soft... If Best had been out for five weeks instead of four this would never have happened!
"Every time the ball went to Best I though, 'hell, here he comes again!"
As the years went on, other Cobblers players from the day have also had their day at different times, with Graham Felton admitting: "I lined up opposite my hero George Best.
"I looked around and saw Bobby Charlton, Pat Crerand and Alex Stepney. I was in awe of the situation.
"We were up against a genius that day. We were lucky to have been there."
Dixie McNeil said: "They often show clips of George Best's six goals, but fail to show the two Frank Large and I scored for Northampton.
"Just to score against Manchester United is a memorable occasion."
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT...
George Best's was the first double hat-trick to be scored in the main rounds of the FA Cup, but the record stood for less than two years, as Bournemouth’s Ted MacDougal helped himself to NINE goals in an 11-0 first-round win over Margate in November, 1971.
Best's six goals is still a Manchester United record for goals in one match though, and also stayed the record for the most goals scored in one game at the County Ground..
His efforts earned Best an invite to 10 Downing Street, where he met the Prime Minister Harold Wilson - who was by all accounts a bit of a fan of the Manchester United legend!
The Red Devils went on to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup, where they lost to Leeds United after a second replay - what would Jurgen Klopp say about that?
Bizzarely, United then played in the first FA Cup third-place play-off against the other losing semi-finalists, who were Watford.
For what it's worth, they won that game, which was played at Highbury, 2-0 thanks to two goals from Kidd. The third place play-off last for five seasons, before being abolished.
United finished the season eighth in Football League Division One.
Best would play for United for three-and-a-half more seasons before leaving the club in the summer of 1974.
The Cobblers went on to finish in 14th division four, staying in the basement division for 15 of the next 16 seasons - the one exception being the 1976/77 campaign.
They spent one season in division three before being relegated again!... something certainly sounds vaguely familiar about that!!