LOOKING BACK: Joy and pain for Northampton Town at Wembley Stadium

A dip into the archives and memory banks to recall a 12-month spell when Wembley became something of a second home for the Cobblers.
John Frain's last-gasp free-kick hits the net in 1997John Frain's last-gasp free-kick hits the net in 1997
John Frain's last-gasp free-kick hits the net in 1997

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 continuing to be 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...

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Number eight sees Jeremy recall the year when the Cobblers played at the world famous Wembley Stadium not just once, but twice!

Party time for the Cobblers at Wembley in 1997Party time for the Cobblers at Wembley in 1997
Party time for the Cobblers at Wembley in 1997


May 24, 1997 & May 24, 1998

Nationwide League Division Three and Two play-off finals

1997: Northampton Town 1 Swansea City 0

Ray Warburton tussles with Grimsby's Jack Lester in the 1998 finalRay Warburton tussles with Grimsby's Jack Lester in the 1998 final
Ray Warburton tussles with Grimsby's Jack Lester in the 1998 final

1998: Northampton Town 0 Grimsby Town 1

Typical isn’t it? You wait your whole life for a trip to Wembley to watch the Cobblers - and then two come along at once!

That was certainly the case for myself and 1,000s of other Town fans in the late 1990s.

The super-charged play-off semi-final second leg win over Cardiff City in May, 1997 was the day when the penny dropped that one of my sporting dreams was going to come true.

Cobblers goalkeeper Andy Woodman saves a penalty in the defeat to Grimsby in 1998Cobblers goalkeeper Andy Woodman saves a penalty in the defeat to Grimsby in 1998
Cobblers goalkeeper Andy Woodman saves a penalty in the defeat to Grimsby in 1998
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Yep, just four years after THAT win at Shrewsbury to keep the team in the Football League, I was now going to see my home town team play at Wembley.

As a football-mad kid in the 1970s and 80s, Wembley really was the home of football - it was a place of wonder.

In the pre-all-seater days there was the fact 100,000 people could get in to watch a game, there was twin towers, the 39 steps up to the Royal Box, and that the players emerged from the tunnel behind the goal before that long walk to the halfway line.

It was a place where the greats of the game got to strut their stuff.

The Cobblers fans were out in force in both finalsThe Cobblers fans were out in force in both finals
The Cobblers fans were out in force in both finals
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So many historic and iconic matches had been played there, from European Cup finals, FA Cup finals, League Cup finals, big internationals - and of course England lifting the World Cup on a sunny July afternoon in 1966.

For most of my life, the chances of me getting to watch the Cobblers at Wembley were miniscule to say the least - but then along came the play-offs...

It was a controversial move at the time when they were first introduced, and even more controversial when the staging of the play-off finals, previously just held a neutral venue, were moved to Wembley in 1990.

But what it did do was open the door to every club from every level, offering them the opportunity of playing at perhaps the most famous football ground in the world - and of course their supporters the chance to watch them there.

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Aside from Graham Carr’s team just missing out in 1988, it was to be a long time before the Cobblers even got close to reaching the play-offs again, but the arrival of Ian Atkins as manager in 1995 set the wheels in motion.

The 1996/97 season saw his hard-working and honest team reach the play-offs and then see off Cardiff to set up a first trip to the home of football... and it was a trick they repeated just 12 months later!

Sports editor Jeremy Casey's pals enjoy a pre-match beer or two in 1997Sports editor Jeremy Casey's pals enjoy a pre-match beer or two in 1997
Sports editor Jeremy Casey's pals enjoy a pre-match beer or two in 1997

The Cobblers had never played at Wembley in their 100-year existence - and suddenly they had done it twice in a year!

Now, I was lucky enough to be at both games, and here I take you through my experiences at both of those play-off finals.

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One was watched from among 1,000s of fellow Cobblers fans in the stands, and one was watched from the luxury of the Wembley press box...

We’ll kick off with that win over Swansea shall we?

Saturday, May 24, 1997

Northampton Town 1 Swansea City 0

I had been part of the Chron sports desk for about four years and the late 90s was an exciting period.

Andy Roberts was the football writer at the time while I was still a desk man, a sub-editor.

I am still not sure how I wangled it, but for the clash against the Swans I managed to convince the sports editor it would be a good idea to do what’s called ‘a colour piece’.

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So basically, I was to travel to with the fans (my mates), have a great time, sup a few pints, watch the game and then tell everybody about what a great time I had in the paper.

So I did!

In the days leading up to final, I can still remember the sense of excitement around the town, as an incredible 32,000 tickets were snapped by by fans wanting to be part of the big day - pretty impressive for a club with an average gate around the 5,000 mark.

On the Saturday we headed to Castle Station, to be met with a line of hundreds of Town supporters waiting for the ‘Cobblers Specials’ that were rolling into Wembley Central.

Thankfully, there seemed to be less demand for the trains to Euston, so we took that option, with the plan being a few beers and then head out to Wembley on the Tube for the match.

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We ended up in Kilburn, and there was a great atmosphere, with pockets of Cobblers fans enjoying the day in various pubs.

A worrying stoppage on the Tube on the way to the game very nearly put a spanner in the works, but we got to Wembley just in time to see Ray Warburton lead the players out to a fireworks and a ticker-tape reception on what was a glorious afternoon.

Our seats were behind the goal on the Royal Box side of the ground - and as it happened that was to prove a very good spot indeed!

The Cobblers fans outnumbered the Swans fans by almost three to one, and it was a great atmosphere from the off - although the game struggled to live up to expectation. In truth, it was a pretty dire encounter.

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Swansea’s Carl Heggs - soon to be a Town player - saw an early volley tipped over the top by Andy Woodman, but as the game wore on the Cobblers were just about edging proceedings.

Chances were at a premium though, and the game seemed destined to be heading for a 0-0 draw - but in the second minute of stoppage time, Town were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Swans’ box for a foul on Christian Lee by Keith Walker.

John Frain lined up the shot at goal, a goal that was backed on that famous Wembley curve by 30,000-plus Town supporters - would this be the moment?

Well, no - Frain’s strike was blocked by the wall.

But hang on a second, referee Terry Heilbron declared that Jonathon Coates was closer than 10 yards and demanded the kick was taken again.

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Once the fans realised Frain was going to get another crack, then the excitement and volume levels were cranked up even higher.

Handily, the ball was placed in a slightly different position for the re-take, offering Frain a better angle to shoot.

I was standing on my ‘seat’ - a bit of plastic screwed on to the old terrace steps - which was directly behind the path of Frain’s second free-kick. This had to be the moment didn’t it?

It seemed every Cobblers fan at Wembley could sense it.

Frain stepped up and struck the free-kick sweetly.

Just for a moment, time stood still as 32,000 Cobblers fans held their breath....

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The ball flew past the wall, but I could see that it wasn’t heading right for the corner... surely Swans keeper Roger Freestone would get a hand on it?

What happened next still ranks as one of the most joyous moments in my life, as a flailing Freestone grabbed at thin air, and the ball flew past him and nestled into the Wembley net.

It’s in! It’s a goal! The Cobblers were winning at Wembley!

Cue absolute pandemonium in the stands and on the pitch as everybody celebrated.

The noise from the Cobblers end was deafening - and it got even louder about 30 seconds later when the final whistle was blown, Swansea having barely had time to take the kick-off.

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The next hour was simply as good as it has got for fans of the Cobblers.

Ray Warburton lifted the FA Cup-like play-off trophy aloft in the Royal Box, and that somewhat surreal moment was followed by one of the biggest parties Wembley will surely have seen as the players and staff got stuck into their lap of honour, savouring every moment.

I have grown to hate Simply The Best by Tina Turner, but I loved it and sang every single note that day! Along with tunes by Queen, Quo and whatever else they played.

I have to admit, it is a bit of a blur!

Once the players had finally exited down the tunnel to start their own party in earnest, we headed off to The Green Man pub just down the road and proceeded to drink in one of the greatest sporting moments of our lives.

Oh, and to celebrate promotion as well!

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The late train home to Northampton was packed with celebrating Cobblers fans, and the mood in the town centre when we all returned that night was triumphant.

After 100 years of existence, the Cobblers had not only played at Wembley for the first time,but they had won there too - and with the most dramatic of last-gasp winners to boot.

Incredible stuff.

Town fans had to soak it all in, because it had taken all that time to play at Wembley, and who knew how long it would be before the Cobblers got there again?

Well. not very long at all as it happened!

Sunday, May 24, 1998

Northampton Town 0 Grimsby Town 1

EXACTLY a year later, Wembley fever had once again gripped the Town squad and their supporters following that stunning semi-final comeback win over Bristol Rovers.

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News had clearly got around how great it was to see off Swansea, as even more Town fans headed down the M1 and on the trains this time - a mind-boggling 41,000 of them!

But there was no jolly boys outing for me this time around, I was ‘on duty’ for this one, and got to sample how a play-off final feels from the Wembley press box.

I was joined by the main man Andy Roberts and colleague Nick Hoult, and we took our seats, which gave us a spectacular view of the great old stadium.

As kick-off approached, to the right there were about 20,000 Grimsby fans, a pretty impressive turnout.

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But to the left, more than half of Wembley was a sea of claret and white. Northampton was out in force again, and it was a spectacular sight.

There was a tinge of jealousy knowing my wife, Fiona, and my pals were enjoying another big day out at the tunnel end of the ground - but it was such a privilege to be covering such an occasion for the Chron, and in such a grand setting too.

The match itself was better than the one 12 months earlier, and the Cobblers played better, but this time Atkins’men were on the back foot early on after defender Colin Hill’s slip allowed Kevin Donovan in to score the opener on 18 minutes.

Town huffed and puffed, but were blunt in attack - and the highlight for the Cobblers fans came in the 77th minute when they could cheer a penalty save from Woodman, brilliantly denying Donovan to keep his team in the game.

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There was a late rally from the Cobblers, but it came to nothing, and there was to be no dream Wembley ending this time around as the Mariners sealed the win, and promotion to the second tier of English football.

After the match, we decamped to the Cobblers’ team hotel (the same base where the Sunderland players were staying ahead of what was to be an epic 4-4 draw with Charlton the following day) to get reaction from the players.

There was a private team function organised in a room at the hotel, but there was, not surprisingly, a low-key, sombre atmosphere among the group - although the free bar and disco helped to raise the spirits as the night wore on.

And this was a Cobblers team that certainly had nothing to be ashamed of.

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No team has matched their fourth place finish in the third tier since, and they had certainly not disgraced themselves.

It had just proved to be a step too far an Atkins team that had been on one hell of a run!

So, in the space of 12 months, the Cobblers experienced the highs and lows of a day out at Wembley Stadium.

They were both great days out, and proud days for the football club, but there won’t be much argument over which one is remembered the more fondly.

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So, altogether now ‘John Frain, in the 93rd, John Frain, in the 93rd...’


Saturday, May 24, 1997

Nationwide League Division Three Play-off Final, Wembley Stadium

Northampton Town 1 Swansea City 0

Teams: Cobblers: Woodman, Rennie (40m. Peer), Warburton, Sampson, Clarkson, Frain, Hunter, Parrish, Lee, Gayle (76m White) Grayson. Sub not used: Gibb.

Swansea: Freestone, Penney, Edwards, Walker, Moreira, Ampadu, Mølby, Coates, Torpey, Heggs, Thomas (83m, Brown). Not used: Chapple, Casey

Goal: Cobblers: 90+3 mins: Frain.

Referee: Terry Heilbron

Attendance: 46,804 (Cobblers fans 32,000)

Sunday, May 24, 1998

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Nationwide League Division Two Play-off Final, Wembley Stadium

Northampton Town 0 Grimsby Town 1

Teams: Cobblers: Woodman, Clarkson, Frain, Hill (60m, Gibb), Sampson, Warburton, Peer, Hunt, Gayle (56m, Seal), Freestone, Heggs. Sub not used: Dozzell

Grimsby Town: Davison, McDermott, Gallimore, Lever, Handyside, Burnett, Groves, Donovan, Smith (66m, Black), Lester, Nogan (60m, Livingstone). Sub not used: Jobling

Goal: Grimsby: 18 mins - Donovan.

Referee: Terry Heilbron (yep, him again!)

Attendance: 62,988

Cobblers fans: 41,000



Cobblers boss IAN ATKINS (Speaking in 2007)

“I THINK people appreciate it more now than they did at the time because we were in administration before we got to Wembley.

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“You could say that if that period hadn’t been as successful, the two years building up to it and then the Wembley game itself, Northampton might well be a non-League club.

"That was the most important period in the club’s history, because a few years before they nearly went out of the League.

“I do wonder where Northampton might be if the directors hadn’t put their faith in me at that time.”

JOHN FRAIN (Speaking in 2007)

“WHEN we got to 90 minutes I was bracing myself for extra-time. We got a free-kick on the edge of the box, it was on the right-hand side and I was on set-pieces so I had a crack.

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“For the first effort, by the time I hit it one of their players had broken out of the wall and he was about five yards from me.

“The referee ordered it to be re-taken, and the ball was slightly moved so it was more central. It wasn’t a massive difference but it opened up both sides of the goal.

“The first one I could only hit to the goalkeeper’s left, but the movement changed that.

“I just concentrated on hitting the target and getting a good strike in, and from then on things seemed to go in slow motion.

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“The way I hit it felt nice, but it seemed to be in slow motion until it hit the back of the net. That was an amazing feeling, and the whistle went 30 seconds later and that again that was amazing!

“You practice it in the back garden for years as a kid, and then to do it at Wembley was very special.”

SEAN PARRISH (Speaking in 2007

“THE goal and the celebrations afterwards are the things that stick in your mind.

“The game can and went that quickly, but going around the ground afterwards and being with all the fans, that was very special.

“We could have stayed out there all night!

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“The game was the greatest spectacle, but to finish it in that manner with Frainy popping up with the winner, and the timing of it, it couldn’t have been any better.”


Cobblers boss IAN ATKINS

“IT is disappointing to lose any game, but I am trying not to be too despondent.

“We have achieved an awful lot this season, and nobody gave us a prayer of getting into the play-offs two years running, but it still hurts.

“I feel especially sad for the players, who have worked so hard.

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“What is getting to me is that this game was a golden opportunity to win promotion out of division two.

“I don’t think it’s going to be so easy next season because there are going to be some very useful sides in the division.”

Note: The Cobblers were relegated at the end of the following campaign

Cobblers skipper RAY WARBURTON

“IT was a tearful dressing room after the game, and I think virtually every player cried.

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“After the high of last year’s Wembley win, we have now experienced the other side of the coin - and it hurts.

“The result of this game was in our own hands, and we can only really blame ourselves, but I can promise everybody we did all we could out there. It has been said before that Wembley is no place for losers, and I can vouch for that.

“The supporters were absolutely magnificent, and for a third tier club to take 40,000 to Wembley is a record I don’t think will ever be beaten.”

Grimsby Town boss ALAN BUCKLEY

“Anybody who says they enjoy play-offs aren’t football managers.

“When the 90 minutes were up and the referee said there were another six minutes to play, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”