SPECIAL FEATURE: Zander Diamond looks back on his Cobblers career: 'It was a humbling time for all of us'
Zander Diamond admits he had a '˜fantastic time' during his three-and-a-half years with the Cobblers.
The Scotsman played 125 times in the claret and white, played his part in the great escape of 2014, and the Sky Bet League Two title triumph of 2016.
He ended his Sixfields stint having been voted the club’s supporters’ player of the year.
But it is probably the club’s time of crisis in 2015, some of its darkest hours, indeed, almost its final hours, that stirs the most emotion when the 32-year-old looks back on his time as a Cobbler.
Diamond turned down the offer of a new Sixfields contract to sign for Mansfield at the end of the season, but took time out to talk to the Chron about his time at Town - and it is the club surviving that financial meltdown that dominated the conversation.
Diamond spoke of the true extent of the money problems that actually surfaced in the summer rather than the autumn, and how humbling it was for the players to do their bit for the staff and supporters to ensure the club survived.
“I would think people at Northampton say they never do things in a straight line, it is always a roller-coaster ride,” said Diamond.
“We came back after the summer (in 2015) and there were whispers that we weren’t going to get paid, and it’s the last thing you want to be thinking about going into pre-season.
“But fair play to the boys, we just got on with it and tried to hide that.
“So pre-season was the first time we found out that we weren’t getting paid on time.
“You realise there might be glitch here or there, but when it happened for a second time we thought ‘there could be a lot of problems here’.
“We were hearing rumours every other day, and we had meetings with Gareth (Willsher, head of media) and James (Whiting, chief executive), and that’s when things started getting a wee bit more real.
“But we as players were putting that jersey on to represent the people of Northampton and the football club, so we were in a privileged position where we could channel our energy into producing the goods, training wise and in matches.
“But when it did all break, it was like ‘where’s this going?’.”
At the end of October and into November, the threat of the Cobblers ceasing to exist was a very real one, with Diamond remembering: “We were on a run at that time and winning games, and we went to Coventry in the FA Cup, and that was when it became real.
“I’m not going to say you live in a fantasy land, but until somebody says ‘right, this is happening’, you don’t really believe it, and then suddenly it’s like ‘wow’.
“Credit does go to the players, but off the field it has been well documented about the spirit of the staff at the club, from the office staff, to stewards, to medical care, to those in the club shop, it was special.
“We as players had a union, but these guys, coming up to the festive period, that’s who you really felt for and we tried to do as much as we could.
“We were a close-knit group, but that brought us closer.
“At the time we probably didn’t even realise, but if you look back now, then it did.
“The players were just united, and that’s all we could be.
“When you put that jersey on, you have to put your problems to one side and go out and play football.
“They were unsettling times, and I don’t know what it must have been like for the staff, as we still got our wages, albeit late.
“We knew that these guys didn’t know where their next pay packet was coming from.
“Despite that, they were still out getting your jerseys ready, getting the merchandise sold, getting the ground ready, and it made it so much easier for us.
“You then fast forward six months and you hope you have rewarded them in some way, with winning the league.”
There were big supporter turnouts at Newport, Coventry and Notts County as the fans showed their love for their club, and Diamond said: “The fans turned out in numbers, fighting for their club, and we as players could only fight on the pitch for them.
“You look at the scenes at Coventry, the scenes at Notts County, and at Newport.
“I mean, the guys there might not have had a football club the following week, and they are there on the terraces.
“Players come and go, but these fans are here week in, week out, year in, year out, and you feel humble.
“You think of those guys and what the club means to them, and the history of the football club, and that it could be going to the wall.
“You would look at the fans’ faces, look at all the supporters, and we knew as players we couldn’t down tools and just say ‘well, we’re not getting paid’.
“You see that and you are humbled, you become emotional. It was a humbling time for all of us.”
Thankfully, as we all know. things turned out well in the end, with Kelvin Thomas buying the club from David Cardoza, and the players starring on the pitch to win the league two title at a canter to spark wild celebrations.
“The second half of the season was fantastic, and just because Kelvin came in and you were getting paid, nothing changed on the pitch,” said Diamond.
“The momentum started to grow, we were ticking the wins off, and we never knew when we were beaten. That went on into the latter months.
“Even when we’d go 1-0 down or 2-0 down, like at Mansfield or Stevenage, the boys would rally together.
“You’d get out on that pitch, chests puffed out, you stand 10 foot tall and you meet every challenge you face head on.
“You think ‘there is something special happening here’, and the next thing you are top of the table, you’re still winning games, and it goes on and on, and then the more attention you and the club gets.
“It was a fantastic journey and when you talk about it it brings a smile to your face, the memories are just so fantastic.”
There were also celebrations a few months into Diamond’s stint as a Cobbler, but for very different reasons.
Going into the final third of the 2014 season, with new manager Chris Wilder at the helm, the team were adrift at the bottom of league two and looked destined for the drop out of the Football League.
That’s when Wilder sent out an SOS to Diamond, who was out of favour at Burton Albion at the time.
“I remember it like yesterday, Chris gave me a call, and you looked at the table and I think Northampton were seven points adrift at the bottom of the table or something,” said the Scot.
“But Chris was full of optimism, and said ‘listen if we get the right loan players in, we’ve got a chance’.”
“It started well, but then we hit a spell we weren’t winning games, and I remember we went up to Accrington and Chris Hackett scored early - although I always said to him it was a cross!
“It was a long afternoon, our goal got peppered, but we got out of there with a 1-0 win, and we thought ‘we have a chance here’.
“But every time we seemed to win, the other teams would win as well, and it wasn’t until we went to Dagenham and won that our destiny was in our own hands, going into the last day of the season.”
That last day saw Diamond and the Cobblers beat Oxford United 3-1 to preserve their Football League status, which in hindsight was perhaps the most important moment of Diamond’s, and Wilder’s, time at Sixfields.
“I was pleased that I had played my part in keeping the club in the Football League, but to get offered a contract a day later, to sign for the club for three years, was a great reward,” said Diamond.
“You see clubs go down and they don’t come back for a number of years, or they never come back at all, and it was so important.
“It gave us the springboard to build with Chris, and do what he wanted to do over the next couple of years.”
And what a job Wilder did, stabilising the club and then steering them to a league two title, and Diamond is full of admiration for his former manager.
“It was all about hard work with Chris,” he said.
“He got every ounce out of you as a player, and as a team.
“Recruitment wise he got things spot on, and we had match winners in a team that worked so hard.
“You had players that could go and do the dirty side of the game, and also players who could create and score goals. You add all of that together, and you have success.
“Everybody played their part, and Chris doesn’t always like to take credit for stuff, but a hell of a lot of it is down to him as he made that team.
“He fills you with confidence, he never expected second best and demanded we win every game, even when we had won the league with a few games to go, and if we don’t win, we don’t lose.
“We have seen it again this season just gone at Sheffield United, and that is like a mirror image of what we achieved.
“The credit goes to Chris, to build Northampton up from what it was when I went to what it is now.”
Diamond now moves on to the next chapter in his football career at Mansfield. but admitted: “I had a fantastic time at Northampton. I made some great friends, from the groundsman up to the office staff.
“I think I had just turned 29 when I went there and going into my peak years as a central defender, although I hope I still have a few to go!”
Diamond has sympathy for ex-boss Page
ROB PAGE’S brief managerial career at the Cobblers didn’t go to plan for all concerned, but you won’t hear a bad word about the Welshman from Zander Diamond.
Page had a very difficult act to follow in Chris Wilder, and although things started well enough, they ended badly, with Page sacked in January after a run of nine defeats in 11 matches, the final straw a 5-0 thumping at Bristol Rovers.
Diamond, recovering from a fractured cheekbone suffered in November’s derby defeat to Peterborough United, had to watch on from the sidelines for most of that dismal run, and he had sympathy for Page.
“You look at successful teams up and down the country, one or two players always move on, but when your manager goes it is a double blow,” said the Scot, referring to Wilder’s decision to quit the Cobblers and take the Sheffield United job just days after the 2015/16 season had finished.
“You wonder who is going to come in? Are we going to build on the success, on the momentum?
“But as a professional you have to just say you will give the same application to whoever comes in, and see how it pans out.”
Page was the man hired by chairman Kelvin Thomas to take the club into league one, where he had managed successfully the previous two seasons with Port Vale.
Wilder was undoubtedly a tough act to follow, but Page initially did well, with the club in the play-off places in October, but then the wheels started to fall off, and Town started to slide down the table.
“Rob came in and had his own ideas, and I have gone on record to say I got on very well with him,” said Diamond.
“I spoke to him after the end of the season and still keep in touch with him, but from a player’s point of view, he played me every game, so I had no qualms with what he did.
“However, we did lose momentum for whatever reason.
“A new manager comes in with new ideas, a new style of football, and players have got to buy into it.
“Some will be dropped, some won’t be needed, and that is the harsh reality of football.
“A new manager will bring in people he thinks will improve the team, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
“That is just football for you.
“I have no issues with Rob, and nobody likes a manager to lose his job, especially one you are playing for, but I think the writing was on the wall for him.”
Page was replaced by Justin Edinburgh in mid-January, and Diamond played every game under the former Southend United boss as Town battled, and eventually succeeded, in staving off relegation.
“When Justin came in it was to steady the ship, and the main aim when he came in was to save the club and consolidate them in league one, and that is what he has achieved,” said the former Aberdeen defender.
“I am sure he will now be looking to build on that and get his own players in.
“As with Rob, players will come in, players will move on, and that is just football, it forever evolves.”
So what difference did Edinburgh make on his arrival at Sixfields?
“When any new manager comes into a club where there has been on a downward spiral, then the only way is up,” said Diamond.
“Justin came in, he said a few things in the changing room and players have to buy into that, if not, then you don’t play or are surplus to requirements.
“There was intensity there, there was a bit of fight, and as the season went on we grew into his methods, his training, and we achieved what his sole goal was when he came into the football club, so he did his job.”