Given Chris Wilder seems to write his own script, there was never any other way his return to Sixfields was going to end. Even in football’s grand array of fairytale stories, this one takes quite some beating.
Back at the scene of two of his finest ever triumphs – final day survival and a promotion against all odds – Wilder made it a hat-trick on Saturday when his Sheffield United side confirmed the inevitable and returned to the Championship.
Of all the places and of all the days, it just had to be Sixfields and on this weekend; the same spot exactly a year on from when his Cobblers team capped off their own sensational journey and celebrated promotion.
With 52 wins to his name and counting, in addition to over 150 goals and successive promotions with different teams in different leagues, Wilder’s achievements over the past two seasons are unrivalled in the past two decades.
He’s a manager who blends passion and emotion with tactical nous to get the best out of his players and not one Northampton fan should begrudge him this success at his boyhood club, where he’s gone from fan to ballboy to player and now manager.
And nor will they. Few managers can expect a warm welcome when they return to a former club but such was Wilder’s achievements at Sixfields, few have earned one as much as he did on Saturday.
His time as Cobblers boss was characterised by dramatic snapshots and memorable moments that belong more in Hollywood than Northampton; final day survival, the hair-raising speech at Notts County and Ricky Holmes’ Stevenage winner to name but a few.
It’s the way he does things, so when his return to Sixfields was confirmed for April, there was always the strong possibility the game would have something riding on it.
Indeed it did, and predictably Wilder’s side did it the hard way before inevitably coming up trumps.
Initially, his team were off-colour in a sluggish first-half and deservedly found themselves behind after Marc Richards’ brilliant thunderbolt fizzed Northampton into a half-time lead they had thoroughly deserved for a fine first 45 minutes against the league leaders.
Previously, Simon Moore denied Michael Smith whilst United stuttered and stumbled as their bright start fizzled out and Adam Smith remained untroubled.
That, though, quickly changed. Smith went from spectator to main man in the second-half when, triggered into life by Richards’ goal, the Blades came out flying after half-time. In all, they were denied four times by Smith’s heroics as he thwarted Jack O’Connell, Billy Sharp, Chris Basham and and John Fleck with a raft of fine saves.
Zander Diamond, perhaps Town’s most undervalued player this season, produced a stellar performance and was key in repelling the United bombardment with a series of important interventions at centre-back, while Brendan Moloney’s marauding runs forward from right-back added a new dimension to Northampton’s attack.
Luke Williams showed some neat touches but lacked substance in midfield before Matty Taylor and John-Joe O’Toole became overrun when Wilder brought on the big boys in Billy Sharp and James Hanson.
Of all the places and of all the days, it had to be Sixfields and on this weekend; the same spot exactly a year on from when his Cobblers team capped off their own sensational journey and celebrated promotion.
On the front-foot and always looking to attack, United’s second-half display had all the hallmarks of a Wilder team, and they were a class above Northampton for much of it, as they’ve been a class above the whole of League One this season.
Leon Clarke clinically bought the Blades level on the hour-mark and even with Fleetwood losing elsewhere, they were not intent on leaving Sixfields without all three points as their quest for the title and 100 points goes on.
Beaten by two 88th minute winners, Wilder certainly hasn’t handed out any favours to his old club this season.
After Keiron Freeman at Bramall Lane, this time it was Fleck whose late, dramatic goal denied Northampton what would have been a hard-fought and well-earned point.
From a Cobblers perspective, this was an afternoon of encouragement tinged with frustration. Not only did they watch another team party in their backyard a year on from their own promotion, they were also hit by yet another last-gasp winner, a theme of their season.
But it should not sound any alarm bells because United have done it to many sides throughout the season and with the bit between their teeth and the prize in their sights, they were always going to be difficult to stop on Saturday.
And given this is a team who have lost just three times since August and not once in the past 12 games, the Cobblers did well to match them for as long as they did, continuing their recent high standards set in performances against Rochdale, Bolton and Wimbledon as they succumbed to only a second defeat in seven games.
One of several plus points to come out of Saturday was how the Cobblers responded to taking the lead. When it times gone by they may have retreated, such as against Bradford, on this occasion they tried to push up the pitch and find that crucial second goal.
It didn’t pay off and they became stretched at times, allowing United to stroll through an exposed midfield, but it was still a welcome and pleasing to change to previous instances when they’ve taken the lead and instantly dropped off.
At the end of the day, games against sides of the quality and the resources of Sheffield United are not fair gauges by which to judge Northampton. That will come in their final four games, especially the last three, as well as next season when they will hope for a smoother ride in League One after Edinburgh has had a summer to reshape and remodel his squad.
The scenes at full-time on Saturday were reminiscent of 12 months ago when, on that occasion, it was Northampton fans that covered the Sixfields pitch and chanted Wilder’s name.
But times have moved on and there should be no ill-feeling towards Wilder or the Blades, who have been the division’s outstanding side, a fact that will be confirmed in the coming weeks.
The Cobblers must now focus on their own battles, starting with another tough assignment at Millwall on Good Friday.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Outstanding second-half after a relatively quiet first, repeatedly denying United with a string of terrific saves to keep his side in the contest before eventually succumbing to Fleck’s winner... 8
Brendan Moloney - No sign of rustiness on his first start since November, regularly powering forward on the right and forcing United back. As good as Phillips has been, Moloney adds a whole different dimension to the Cobblers... 8
Zander Diamond - Possibly his finest display of a stellar season, particularly first-half when he nullified Clarke and co to superb effect. Kept the scoreline to a minimum thanks to a succession of excellent and important interventions, was unfortunate to be on the losing side... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Lewin Nyatanga - Caught out slightly for United’s first when trying to play a high line, allowing Clarke to race through, and also misjudged a ball down the line in the build-up to the second. He was relatively comfortable otherwise but those mistakes proved fatal for his side... 6
David Buchanan - Pretty steady as usual, though United’s second goal stemmed from his side and could easily have been prevented. Was never going to give anything but his all in front of his old boss... 7
Matty Taylor - Good first-half when he got on the ball and worked hard to keep control of the game in midfield but became overrun by United’s quality and pace on the break in the second, leaving Town’s defence exposed... 7
Paul Anderson - Unable to back up last week’s excellent performance, despite playing a key role in Richards’ goal. Was loose in possession and not able to influence the game as he’d have liked... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Ran rings around United’s midfield with some silky touches but visibly tired towards the end, most likely due to the groin injury he’s been carrying... 7
Luke Williams - Produced plenty of neat and tidy touches and often found great positions but his decision-making let him down at the important moment. Also opted to go backwards and play safe instead of driving forward... 7
Michael Smith - Released Richards for the opener after being denied by Moore himself. Was everywhere on the pitch except where you wanted him to be - in the box... 7
Marc Richards - Sensational finish fired Town ahead, stupendously finding the top corner from an acute angle. Was also instrumental in setting up Smith for an earlier chance and had a real battle against United’s back three throughout the 90 minutes... 8
Alex Revell - 6
Shaun McWilliams - 6
Rod McDonald - 6