LOOKING BACK: The day the Cobblers went toe-to-toe with the European champions

A dip into the archives and memory banks to recall the 1982 afternoon the Cobblers took on the best team in Europe...
Action from the Cobblers' clash with Aston Villa back in 1982Action from the Cobblers' clash with Aston Villa back in 1982
Action from the Cobblers' clash with Aston Villa back in 1982

Sports editor JEREMY CASEY has been watching Northampton sport for 45 years now, the first 13 as a fan and for the past 32 years as a journalist.

With live sport shut down for the foreseeable future, Jeremy delves into his memory banks and the Chron’s archive to relive and revisit some of the great town sporting moments he has been lucky enough to witness... number two is the Cobblers versus European champions Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round.

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First up are Jeremy's recollections of the day, followed by the reaction of the key players of the day, as recorded in the Chronicle & Echo at the time.

A big thank you goes to John Atkinson for access to the back copies of the paper.

When you are the supporter of a division four club, it’s not often the European champions come riding into town - but that’s what happened on a crisp winter’s day in Northampton back in 1983.

Aston Villa had secured the biggest pot the continent had to offer the previous spring.

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Tony Barton, who a little more than a year later would bizarrely be managing the Cobblers, was in charge as the Villains saw off Bayern Munich in the final in Rotterdam.

The Chron back page on the Monday following the gameThe Chron back page on the Monday following the game
The Chron back page on the Monday following the game

They won the final 1-0 thanks to a Peter Withe strike - and just eight months later they were walking out at the rather less glamorous surroundings of the County Ground to take on the mighty Cobblers.

The match was the biggest staged at Town’s unique three-sided home since George Best and Manchester United romped to an 8-2 win in the same competition 13 years earlier.

Villa were a team at the top of their game, having followed up their League Championship win of 1981 with that European Cup triumph 12 months later.

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Then, just a matter of weeks after taking on the Cobblers, they would to see off the mighty Barcelona over two legs to win the European Super Cup as well - thumping the Catalan giants 3-0 at Villa Park to secure a 3-1 aggregate victory!

The Sports Pink front page on the day of the gameThe Sports Pink front page on the day of the game
The Sports Pink front page on the day of the game

When they turned up in Northampton, there was none of today’s talk of squad rotation, as all the big guns were all rolled out at a packed County Ground.

The Villa team included the likes of Gordon Cowans, Dennis Mortimer, Tony Morley, Withe, future Cobblers goalkeeping coach Nigel Spink between the sticks, and a teenage attacker called Mark Walters, who had only found out he was playing 30 minutes before kick-off after Gary Shaw failed a late fitness test.

Villa fielded nine of the team that saw off Bayern in the European final. They meant business!

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The excitement had been building up for weeks, ever since the second round draw had been made in early December.

Cobblers boss Clive WalkerCobblers boss Clive Walker
Cobblers boss Clive Walker

The Cobblers, who were managed by Clive Walker and enjoying a pretty standard mid-table season in division four, had drawn their original tie 1-1 against Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium.

So both teams knew the juicy and money-spinning prize that was up for grabs when they pulled up for the Abington Avenue replay on Tuesday, December 14.

It was a humdinger of a game, and I stood behind the goal on the Hotel End and celebrated wildly as the Cobblers came from behind to win 3-2, netting a dramatic 88th-minute winner in the process.

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A young Frankie Belfon was the supersub hero as he scored twice, one of them a thumping volley, while goal machine Steve Massey got the other to send the Town fans among the 4,290 at the game into an FA Cup frenzy!

It was confirmed, the Cobblers were going to be taking on the kings of Europe!

With three weeks between that win over the Gills and Villa’s visit, Town had time to maximise the golden egg that had come their way - and they did just that!

Aston Villa striker mark WaltersAston Villa striker mark Walters
Aston Villa striker mark Walters

A shrewd cookie at the club came up with the idea that fans had to attend the league clash against Crewe on December 27 to get a voucher to guarantee a Villa ticket, and instead of the usual 2,500 or so that trundled up for a home game - just shy of 8,000 were there to see the Railwaymen rolled over 4-0! Happy days.

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It was a chance to put a few extra quid in the coffers, and it wasn’t wasted!

On the day, Villa turned up and they will have been very confident of avoiding the FA Cup banana skin awaiting them and securing a place in the fourth round.

For me as a 13-year-old fan, I was as excited as I had ever been going to watch a Cobblers match.

The pre-match reports had been that 17,000 were going to turn up, with 1,000s making the short trip from Birmingham to fill the old Spion Kop.

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This was the early 80s, and the height of football hooliganism in England, and there were headlines in the Chronicle & Echo about Villa ‘invaders’ on the day of the game, and that local business were going to shut early on the Saturday just in case.

Indeed, all police leave was cancelled.

So, due to a mixture of wanting to get my regular spot, and my mum and dad wanting me to get in the ground early so I didn’t bump into any of those pesky Villa fans, I headed off from my Headlands home to the County Ground not long after midday.

With my lucky claret and white bar scarf snuggly round my neck, I was soon outside the old big metal gates by the County Tavern pub, and I was straight through the turnstiles when they opened at 1pm.

After tucking into that County Ground delicacy that was a boiled burger (which, somehow, still tasted pretty good!), I headed for my usual spot, right behind the goal, towards the back of the terrace where we always went.

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It was a place I loved, the sights, the sounds and even the smells, well, some of them at least - I still can’t smell tobacco smoke from a pipe without thinking of football terraces - but by 2pm the place was absolutely heaving.

That was not something I was used to, big crowds in the Hotel End, and I have to admit, I couldn’t hack it, indeed it was pretty scary.

I decided against sticking that out, and headed down the front of the terracing instead, standing just to the the right of the goal, finding some welcome space!

It actually that proved to be a good decision, as it meant I was just a matter of yards away from Walters as he produced a piece of magic to score the only goal of the game - but we will come to that shortly.

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At just before 3pm, and with the winter sun shining the players emerged from the tunnel in the middle of the old main stand.

The Cobblers were in their then traditional white shorts, claret shorts and white socks, while Villa were wearing what has become their classic Le Coq Sportif claret and blue kit.

Town boss Walker had made some interesting team selections.

Second round goal hero Belfon was left out of the match day 12, while maverick winger Mark Heeley was given the nod - despite being in trouble for having gone AWOL and missing the big win over Crewe at Christmas!

Central defender Adrian Burrows also declared himself fit after shrugging off an ankle strain, but Town were without injured key men Peter Denyer and Paul Saunders.

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Cheered on by the majority of the 14,529 crowd, the Cobblers started brightly on a pitch that was in good condition, with Massey causing the Villa defence plenty of problems, and John Buchanan and Peter Coffill battling away in the centre of midfield.

Buchanan went close with a pot-shot and Massey hit the outside of a post from a tight angle as Town certainly gave as good as they got, with Villa struggling to impose their supposed superiority on proceedings.

But that was to change as the clock ticked past 35 minutes, as Walters chose that moment to produce a piece of sublime skill to break the deadlock - and he did it right in front of me.

A matter of minutes after Massey had gone close at the other end, the Villa man received Morley’s low cross from the left wing on the corner of the six yard box, controlling the ball and turning to face marker Burrows in one move.

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He then feigned to cross with his right foot, completely fooling Burrows, to give himself the space to shift the ball on to his left foot and fire and arrow-like shot across goalkeeper Neil Freeman and into the net via the inside of the far post.

It was a moment of pure quality, with BBC commentator Barry Davies summing it up by saying it was ‘a truly memorable goal’.

And he was right.

I have certainly never forgotten it, and I was privileged to have such a close up view.

The goal meant the Cobblers now really had a mountain to climb.

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The closest they came to levelling it up was when Buchanan let fly from 20 yards, but Spink dived to save low to his left.

Town huffed and puffed in the second half, but Villa showed all their composure and class to comfortably see the game out, with the Cobblers, attacking the packed Hotel End, not able to really create a clear-cut chance as they were kept at arm’s length.

The fact that there was no grandstand finish meant I left the match slightly disappointed, still not quite understanding that such a gulf in class between two teams is very, very difficult to bridge.

But I was still proud that the team had given the European champions a decent game, proud to watch the game on Match Of The Day later that night, and, of course, proud to be a Cobbler.

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That all meant that the next home game I was back on the Hotel End and was able to retake my regular place at the back behind the goal.

And there was no worries about it being too crowded either as I took my place among the 2,290 who turned out to watch a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon.

It seems that about 8,000 Cobblers supporters had suddenly remembered they had better things to do on a Saturday afternoon.

Some would say things never change, do they?

MATCH STATS

January, 8, 1983

FA Cup third round

Northampton Town 0 Aston Villa 1 (Walters 35 mins)

Cobblers: (4-4-2) Freeman; Tucker, Gage, Burrows, Phillips; Heeley (Muir, 78mins), Coffill, Buchanan, Saxby; Syrett, Massey.

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Aston Villa: (4-4-2) Spink; Jones, McNaught, Evans, Williams; Bremner, Mortimer, Cowans, Morley; Withe, Walters. Sub: Blair

Attendance: 14,529 (Villa fans, 4,000)

THE REACTION

Aston Villa manager Tony Barton - on why he clapped the Cobblers players off the pitch

“The Northampton lads deserved it. I knew they would fight like mad, and they did.

“They are a gritty little side and we had to match them in that respect or we would have been in trouble.

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“It was a tremendous goal, but we didn’t do very much with the chances we had late in the game, so I was disappointed in that.”

Cobblers boss Clive Walker

“We were not humiliated and that can always happen against sides of this class if they get away early. It looked good for us until they scored.

“I did notice that they looked relieved to have scored rather than cocky, as if they expected to get a goal at any time. I was disappointed we didn’t make more of our first half chances.

“I thought Steve Massey might have squared the ball instead of shooting, and I thought John Buchanan should have scored.

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"Having said that, both players made the chances for themselves.”

Mark Walters - only knew he was playing 30 minutes before the game

“I didn’t have a chance to be nervous. It is a goal that I will savour for a long time.”

Cobblers chairman Nev Ronson - on the club taking gate receipts of £27,000 - a record at the time

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“I feel it was a very good public relations exercise for the club.

"I thought Dave Bowen and his staff did an excellent job of handling the tickets and we are delighted with how smoothly the day went.

“The police did an excellent job and it was a real pleasure that there were no problems to mar the day. It is just a pity we couldn’t quite get them back to their place.”

Brian Barron - Chronicle & Echo Cobblers correspondent

“One flash of world class genius from a player who should have even been playing separated the reluctant talent of Aston Villa from the spit, sawdust and rolled up sleeves of the Cobblers.

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“It was the tiniest margin possible in the scoreline, but it was a strangely subdued afternoon.

“Amid the unaccustomed hubbub of quote-seeking journalists, TV and radio interviews and a reinforced squad of autograph hunters., there was a sneaking suspicion of anti-climax.

“Villa rarely played like the kings of Europe, but that one goal from England Youth striker Mark Walters 10 minutes from half-time doused the passion that had so upstaged Villa in the opening half hour.

“The Cobblers were competent rather than passionate, and the longer the game went on the less the players seemed to believe that miracles can happen.

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“In many ways the anticipation was rather more enjoyable than the actual event - rather like a gorgeous steak that’s not quite done to your liking.

“Still, give me underdone steak to fish and chips any day of the week.”

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