FEATURE: The Cobblers in the play-offs match-by-match... the glory and despair

The Cobblers will be aiming to snatch their golden chance at promotion from Sky Bet League Two when they take on Cheltenham Town in the play-offs over the next few days.

By Jeremy Casey
Thursday, 18th June 2020, 11:15 am
The Cobblers celebrate their Wembley win in 1997
The Cobblers celebrate their Wembley win in 1997

Keith Curle's entertain the the Robins in the first leg at the PTS Academy Stadium tonight (Thursday, ko 7.45pm), before travelling to Whaddon Road for the second-leg on Monday.

Both games will be played behind closed doors due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, but the matches will be shown live on Sky Sports and the Cobblers fans will be willing their team on to victory.

Town have reached the play-offs on several occasions in the past, and have something of a mixed record.

In all the Cobblers have played in 13 play-off matches, winning seven of them, losing five and drawing one.

They have reached the Wembley showpiece on three occasions, and Charlie Goode and Co will be determined to take that total to four come Monday night.

And they will then be aiming to improve on Town;s record of only one Wembley victory... but that's all in the future!

Here, we detail every match the club has competed in the play-offs, starting with their debut in 1997, and ending with a painful Wembley trip in 2013.

Division Three play-offs 1997: First leg - Cardiff City 0 Cobblers 1

The Cobblers took their play-offs bow on a Sunday lunchtime at Ninian Park.

Town were the underdogs heading to south Wales, but they returned with a precious victory thanks to a stunning Sean Parrish goal on 77 minutes - with the Cobblers having just been reduced to 10 men.

Parrish, a Welshman, picked up the ball well inside his own half and glided past a couple of Bluebirds defenders as if they weren't there, before dispatching a 25-yard left-footed strike into the top corner.

Ian Clarkson celebrates scoring his goal in the 1998 semi-final second leg win over Bristol Rovers

It was a thing of beauty, and up there with the best goal Town have scored in play-off games, although there are other contenders.

The one downside to the trip to Cardiff was that 70th-minute dismissal of striker Mark Cooper for two yellow cards.

Cooper would never play for the club again.

Division Three play-offs 1997: Second leg - Cobblers 3 Cardiff City 2

Andy Woodman saves Kevin Donovan's penalty at Wembley in 1998

That Parrish wonder-goal gave Town the edge as they prepared to host Cardiff in the return at a jam-packed Sixfields, but there was still plenty of nerves and tension - and why wouldn't there be with the 90 minutes away from securing the club's first visit to Wembley Stadium.

Those nerves were settled somewhat on 23 minutes when Ian Sampson edged the Cobblers ahead on the night, and 2-0 on aggregate.

Two minutes later, referee Uriah Rennie took centre stage as he red-carded Cardiff's Jeff Eckhardt for a swinging arm, and surely that was the end of it?

But no, the Bluebirds hit back as Jason Fowler netted to make it 2-1 on aggregate, and again the nerves were jangling.

Despite the Cobblers having the extra man, it was all pretty nip and tuck until the 68th minute when Ray Warburton scored to make it 2-1 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate, and the celebrations got into full swing nine minutes later when a John Gayle goal put Town clear.

To their credit, Cardiff didn't give up and Simon Haworth netted in the final minute, but it was too little too late.

The Cobblers players watch the penalty shoot out drama at Mansfield Town in 2004

The Cobblers and their supporters were off to Wembley for the very first time.

Division Three play-offs 1997: Final - Cobblers 1 Swansea City 0

In one of the most famous days in the club's 100-year history, John Frain became the most unlikely of Cobblers' heroes.

An amazing 32,000 Town fans made the trip to north London to back the team, but if the truth be told, the match was a bit of a stinker.

There wasn't a lot of goalmouth action to talk about, although both teams did have presentable opportunities, and it looked destined to be heading to extra-time - until the Cobblers were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Swansea penalty area in stoppage time.

We all know what happened next of course, as Frain curled his retaken free-kick perfectly around the defensive wall and into the corner of Roger Freestone's net.

It secured a Wembley win, a trip up the famous Royal Box steps, promotion to the third tier of English football - and an afternoon,evening and night of wild celebrations for everybody connected with the club.

Division Two play-offs 1998: First leg - Bristol Rovers 3 Cobblers 1

A year on from that first appearance in the play-offs, the Cobblers were there again as they travelled to the west country to take on Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Stadium.

After a disastrous opening 46 minutes, any hopes of a swift Wembley return looked to have been dashed as the Gas raced into a 3-0 lead, and it could have been more!!

But the Cobblers hung in there, and with the clock ticking down they gave themselves a lifeline as John Gayle pulled one back to make it 3-1 - and these were the days when away goals still counted double.

Town had given themselves a sniff, and when the Rovers PA started broadcasting Wembley ticket details for the Rovers fans after the game, they also had a reason to ram those words back down his throat.

Division Two play-offs 1998: Second leg - Cobblers 3 Bristol Rovers 0

And ram those words down the PA's throat the Cobblers did, in emphatic style.

On one of the most electric nights that Sixfields has seen, if not the most electric, the Cobblers simply blew Ian Holloway's incexperienced Rovers team away.

The ball was set rolling the first half thanks to a close range Carl Heggs finish, and then wrapped up after the break with goals from Ian Clarkson and Ray Warburton.

Town had fought back from 3-0 down to win 4-3, and anybody who was at Sixfields to witness that match will never forget it.

Division Two play-offs 1998: Final - Grimsby Town 1 Cobblers 0

There was to be no dream Wembley win to take the Cobblers into the second tier of English football for the first time since the mid-1960s.

Town probably played better than they had 12 months earlier in seeing off Swansea, but despite the backing of an incredible 41,000 supporters under the shadow of the famous twin towers, it wasn't to be for Ian Atkins' side.

The only goal of the game came on 19 minutes, when Kevin Donovan pounced on a slip by Town defender Colin Hill and slotted the ball past Andy Woodman.

The charismatic Cobblers goalkeeper did give the fans something to cheer about in the second half when he kept his team in it with a penalty save from Donovan, but Town couldn't find an equaliser.

Division Three play-offs 2004: First leg - Cobblers 0 Mansfield Town 2

Colin Calderwood's team had enjoyed a spectacular run-in to the season to secure a play-off place, and then promptly turned in a horror show to deservedly lose to Mansfield in the first-leg at Sixfields.

Goals either side of half-time from Rhys Day and future Cobbler Junior Mendes ensured the Stags claimed control of proceedings, and it could have been worse but for Ashley Westwood sacrificing himself in the final minute of the 90.

Another future Cobbler, Colin Larkin, was in on goal and looking good to make it 3-0 when Westwood intervened, and that so nearly proved to be a pivotal moment in this two-legged tie...

Division Three play-offs 2004: Second leg - Mansfield Town 1 Cobblers 3

The Cobblers travelled to Field Mill in hope more than expectation, but proceedings very quickly took a turn in their favour.

The pressure of being in control led to Mansfield not knowing whether to stick or twist, and a stunning burst of three goals in 10 minutes from a Town team with nothing to lose left the home side rocking.

Marc Richards set the ball rolling with a net-busting volley on 36 minutes, before Chris Hargreaves headed home six minutes later to level the tie.

Just 60 seconds after the restart, Martin Smith netted to put Town 3-0 up on the night and 3-2 up on aggregate, and the comeback to end all comebacks was on... before referee Phil Crossley messed things up.

Tom Curtis should have been sent-off for a foul on Eric Sabin. He wasn't.

Town should have been awarded a free-kick for that infringement. They weren't.

Instead, Crossley awarded Mansfield a free-kick for some mystery foul.

Seconds later, Curtis scored for Mansfield to make it 3-3 on aggregate.

Neither side could find a winner, the tie went to penalties,and it was Mansfield who won through 5-4, with Sabin the unfortunate Town player to see his effort saved.

One of the best performances I have seen any Town team produce, but the night still ended in misery and despair.

Division Three play-offs 2005: First leg - Cobblers 0 Southend United 0

A year later, the Cobblers were back in the play-offs, but they were up against a Southend side who had been a bit of a bogey team over the regular season.

Colin Calderwood's men lost to the Shrimpers twice in the league, and also went down to them 2-1 at home in the Football League Trophy.

The first-leg at Sixfields was very cagey, and pretty dull.

Both sides had their cautious heads on, and the match ended 0-0, meaning there would be all to play for at Roots Hall the following Saturday...

Division Three play-offs 2005: Second leg -- Southend United 1 Cobblers 0

The Cobblers' clash on the east coast was the tea-time TV dessert following the coverage of the FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Arsenal, but there was nothing sweet about it.

Town simply never got into gear in another drab encounter, which was settled by a contentious penalty award early in the second half, with Nicky Nicolau adjudged to have been fouled.

Fredy Eastwood rolled the ball home from the spot, and although Town huffed and puffed, they couldn't get back into the game.

The best chance for the Cobblers fell to striker Scott McGleish in the dying minutes, but Daryl Flahavan saved, leaving Southend boss Steve Tilson to admit 'it was a great save at the death that kept us in the tie'.

League Two play-offs 2013: First leg - Cobblers 1 Cheltenham Town 0

Aidy Boothroyd's team's charge to play-offs was built on their impressive home form, with the team at one stage winning 10 matches in a row at Sixfields.

But in the play-offs, they came up against a Cheltenham side that had beaten them twice in the regular season, and hadn't lost at their Whaddon Road home for seven months!

The first-leg at Sixfields saw the Cobblers on top, and they went ahead on 26 minutes thanks to a smart finish from Roy O'Donovan.

But that goal from the Irishman was all they could muster, meaning they travelled to Gloucestershire the following Sunday protecting the narrowest of advantages...

League Two play-offs 2013: Second leg - Cheltenham Town 0 Cobblers 1

The Robins were right up for this game, and were in very confident mood thanks to that unbeaten home record, which stretched back to September.

The home side started like a steam train, and were all over the Cobblers in the opening stages.

The pressure finally told as Ben Tozer's reckless challenge on Russell Penn in the area led to a penalty award for Cheltenham.

Marlon Pack stepped up to take it, and saw his effort superbly saved by Lee Nicholls to keep the Cobblers level on the night, and ahead on aggregate.

On 27 minutes, that aggregate lead was 2-0, Luke Guttridge's producing a stunning volley from 25 yards after being teed up by Adebayo Akinfenwa.

Cheltenham pressed hard to get back into the game, but there was no way past Nicholls and the Cobblers, and their joyous travelling army of 1,500 supporters, were able to celebrate a memorable victory.

Town were on their way back to Wembley, for the first time in 15 years...

League Two play-offs 2013: Final - Cobblers 0 Bradford City 3

And 27 minutes into the play-off final against Bradford City, the 27,000 supporters who made the trip were wishing they hadn't bothered.

The Cobblers were all at sea as Bradford ran all over them to take an unassailable 3-0 lead inside the opening third.

It was a horrible afternoon, and one that still grates with Cobblers supporters, particularly the decision by manager Aidy Boothroyd to leave out the club's talisman and leading scorer Adebayo Akinfenwa.

Instead, he picked Clive Platt, who hadn't played any football for five weeks, and the move backfired horribly.

Thankfully, there was no further damage in terms of the scoreline as the match ended 3-0, but more severe damage had been done to Boothroyd's reputation and his standing among the Cobblers support.

In short, many of them never forgave him, and he was sacked the following December.

Division Three play-offs 2020: Semi-finals - Cobblers v Cheltenham Town

Nobody can predict what's going to happen over the next few days, but all we can say is good luck, Cobblers! We're right behind you.

Fredy Eastwood runs away to celebrate after scoring Southend's winner in 2005
Luke Guttridge and supporter Chris Marriott are all smiles after the 2013 semi-final win over Cheltenham Town
Aidy Boothroyd his devastated Cobblers players after their Wembley defeat to Bradford in 2013