LOOKING BACK: Ref justice for the Cobblers on a night of high drama and raw emotion at Mansfield...

A dip into the archives and memory banks to recall an incredible, but ultimately desperately disappointing play-off semi-final.

By Jeremy Casey
Thursday, 21st May 2020, 10:34 am
The Cobblers players watch the penalty shootout (Pictures: Pete Norton)
The Cobblers players watch the penalty shootout (Pictures: Pete Norton)

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...

Number seven looks back at a night of play-off heartbreak for the Cobblers at Mansfield Town 16 years ago this week.

THE EVENT

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Nationwide League Division Three play-off semi-final second-leg

Mansfield Town 1 Northampton Town 3

Marc Richards celebrates with Paul Trollope after his stunning opening goal on the night

When I am asked what game involving the Cobblers is the best I have seen, there are a few contenders.

On this website over the past few weeks I have looked back on two of them, the win at Shrewsbury to stay in the Football League, and then the play-off semi-final win over Bristol Rovers in 1998.

You can then throw into the mix the stupendous penalty shootout win over five-times European champions Liverpool at Anfield in 2010, as well as any number of great performances by the title-winning machines built by Graham Carr and Chris Wilder in 1986/87 and 2015/16 respectively.

The day out at Torquay in 2000 when Kevin Wilson’s team sealed promotion was pretty special, as was the final day win over Oxford United in 2014 to again secure that precious Football League status.

A hidden Chris Hargreaves heads the Cobblers 2-0 up on the night, and level on aggregate

Then there are great days of celebration, great moments when perhaps the match itself didn’t quite live up to the occasion.

Such as ‘John Frain in the 93rd’ and that famous 1-0 win over Swansea City to seal the play-off win at Wembley in 1997, and the 1-0 win over Chester City that secured promotion for Colin Calderwood’s class of 2006.

The thing that links all of these matches is that they ended in the Cobblers coming out on top, whether it be lifting silverware, grabbing promotion, or avoiding what would have been arguably fatal relegations to non-League.

And that’s where what I think is the greatest Cobblers match I have seen differs... because it ended in sporting devastation and heartbreak.

The Cobblers players mob Martin Smith after he fired Town into a 3-0 lead on the night

I am getting goosebumps as I type these words, because when I recall the play-off semi-final second-leg at Mansfield Town on May 20, 2004, it brings all the emotions of an incredible night flooding back.

It was a match that had absolutely everything.

There were great goals, a stunning Cobblers performance and fightback, controversies, an absolutely incredible atmosphere and a penalty shootout.

There were maximum highs, ground-scraping lows, with tears of joy one minute followed by tears of pain, anger and despair the next.

I guarantee that anybody who was at the game, from both sides, will have gone through every single emotion on a dramatic night.

And, of course, there was also a villain of of the piece... step forward referee Phil Crossley. A man who I have to admit I have still not forgiven all of these years later!

Colin Calderwood watches on from the Field Mill bench

Bitter? Me? You bet.

But first, let’s set the scene, and it was a span of a couple of weeks where the Cobblers and Mansfield saw a lot of each other!

Under the guidance of rookie boss Calderwood and his assistant John Deehan, the Cobblers had produced a storming second half of the season to earn themselves a chance at promotion.

They confirmed their place in the play-offs on May 8 with a 2-1 final day win over the Stags at Field Mill, thanks to goals from Eric Sabin and left-back Robert Ullathorne.

A week later, on May 16, the first-leg of the semi-finals was played at Sixfields and it proved to be a nightmare for Calderwood’s team as they failed to show up and lost 2-0, with Ashley Westwood also sacrificing himself and being sent off in the final minute, ensuring the score stayed at 2-0.

That still left Town with a mountain to climb in the second leg, but it was a mountain the Cobblers fans could see being scaled, an army of 2,600 made the trip up the M1, with extra seats being made available for visiting supporters in the normally unused Bishop Street Stand.

That happened to be where the press box was as well, and it made for a pretty unique experience for that play-off clash on Thursday, May 20.

On the final day of the season, it was just me, my colleague Jefferson Lake and a handful of other reporters who sat in that deserted stand. For the play-offs, we were joined by a couple of hundred raucous Cobblers fans, and it was great!

On a lovely sunny evening, the atmosphere prior to kick-off was electric, with the massed ranks of Cobblers supporters in the Quarry Lane End making one hell of a noise, more than matching what seemed to be a nervy home crowd.

The Cobblers started the game well, but it was goalless for the opening 35 minutes, before, BOOM! A brilliant strike from Marc Richards got the fireworks started!

The Town supporters were now believing the miracle could happen, and just six minutes later they were in ecstasy as midfielder Chris Hargreaves thumped home a header from close range to make it 2-0 and all square on aggregate.

It had been a dream first half for Cobblers, and Mansfield were stunned and rocking. Just seconds after the interval, the home fans looked on in disbelief as Martin Smith slotted home to make it 3-0, and get the Cobblers in front for the first time in the tie.

Three goals in the space of 10 crazy minutes, and a place in the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was now very much in Town’s grasp!

Calderwood’s team were on top and in total control, while Keith Curle’s Stags were, well, staggering and dazed.

The atmosphere among the Cobblers supporters was feverish, but had their team peaked too early?

Well, they were still in control of the match when referee Crossley entered the fray, writing his name in Cobblers folkore - for all the wrong reasons.

It all happened right in front of me near the halfway line, so I had a great view, and here’s how my 35-year-old self reported the key incident of the match in the Chron the following morning:

“Town were 23 minutes away from victory when the outstanding Eric Sabin went in for a crunching 50-50 challenge with Alex John Baptiste on the halfway line.

“There was no whistle and Sabin came up with the ball, only to be crudely hacked down by Tom Curtis, who had already been booked, and this time Crossley, who was three yards away, blew the whistle.

“Players from both sides jumped in for a bit of handbags and Crossley calmed things down before consulting both of his assistants and the fourth official.

“Curtis, who had been pulled to one side by the referee, must have feared the worst – but amazingly Crossley changed his initial decision, awarded Mansfield a freekick and booked Sabin!

“To rub salt into Town’s wounds, Adam Eaton pumped the free-kick into the Cobblers’ box, the ball fell to Curtis 18 yards out and he scored.

“Town should have been 3-2 up on aggregate with Mansfield down to 10 men, instead it was all square with the man who should have been sent off the scorer.”

Crossley simply bottled it, no question.

He was going to send Curtis off, but clearly didn’t want to in front of the home fans, and took his time to work out a way of avoiding dishing out that red.

I’ve got to admit, it still makes the blood boil!

As research for writing this, I watched the highlights back from the game, and after Curtis scores there is are some telling words from ITV commentator Jon Champion, a neutral on the night.

After the Mansfield man drills the ball home, Champion says: "Curtis!! Oh, well he might not have been on the pitch... maybe he shouldn't be on the pitch, but he has just levelled up the game again!

"How many more twists to this semi-final?

"There will be a great feeling of injustice in the Northampton camp, because they will point out that Curtis might well have been sent off."

He wasn't wrong... and the sense of injustice wouldn’t end there.

The match was still all square going into the final moments, when that man Baptiste was involved again, laying two hands on Derek Asamoah and pushing the Cobblers striker to the ground in the box.

It was a clear a penalty as you will see, but not as far as Crossley was concerned.

He and his assistant, who was a matter of yards away, felt it was a fair challenge.

Incredible.

After the match, skipper Paul Reid said: “It was such a clear penalty I didn’t even appeal, I just thought it would be given.”

Well, it wasn’t, and the Cobblers faced 30 minutes of extra-time which, compared to the quality and chaos of the 90 minutes that preceded it, were something of an anti-climax as we headed for a penalty shootout.

The prize up for grabs was a final in Cardiff against Huddersfield Town, who had seen off Lincoln City in the other semi the previous night.

More than 10 months of hard graft had come down to 10 kicks of the ball at Field Mill, and sadly for the Cobblers and that man Sabin there was to be no happy ending.

The Frenchman was the only player to fail to score, as his effort was saved by Kevin Pilkington, and that gave Colin Larkin the chance to send Mansfield into the final.

The Irishman stepped up, sent Lee Harper the wrong way, and slotted home to spark wild celebrations among the home supporters and leave the brilliant travelling fans dumbstruck.

But that stunned silence soon turned into cheers and acknowledgment of a quite superb performance from their team.

But boy, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

I still wonder what might have been if Town had won that night, and then gone on to win promotion.

It was a strong Cobblers team, with a great blend of youth and experience, and in David Cardoza the club had an ambitious chairman who would have invested more money.

As it turned out, off the back of the disappointment the team was broken up as for various reasons Ian Sampson, Paul Trollope, Asamoah and Reid never played for the club again.

Indeed, one of my starkest memories of that night at Field Mill occurred on the way home.

We were with photographer Pete Norton and stopped for petrol on the way home. Also filling his car was Chris Hargreaves, and as he looked up to acknowledge us his eyes were full of tears.

It's often said that players don't care, that it's all just a job to them, well here was proof what this defeat meant to Hargreaves, a player who had given four years loyal service at Sixfields.

Sadly, he too would never pull on a Cobblers shirt again.

Ultimately, this was just one game at the end of a long season, but it was one that proved to be so pivotal for so many people, and it took Town two more years to eventually get themselves promoted.

To this day I don’t think justice was done at Field Mill that night, and, even now, whenever I hear the name Phil Crossley I must admit I have a little grumble to myself.

I guarantee I won’t be the only one!

MATCH FACTS

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Nationwide League Division Three Play-off semi-final, second-leg

Field Mill, Mansfield

Mansfield Town 1 Northampton Town 3

(3-3 on aggregate, Mansfield win 5-4 on penalties)

Teams: Cobblers: Harper, Sampson, Reid, Willmott, Ullathorne, Trollope, Low (Taylor, 117m) , Hargreaves, Sabin, Richards (Asamoah, 76 m, Reeves for Asamoah, 118m), Smith. Not used: Thompson, Chambers

Mansfield: Pilkington, Day, Eaton, Hassell, Baptiste, Curtis, Lawrence, Corden, Disley (Larkin, 55m), Williamson, Mendes (D’Jaffo, 74m). Not used: Coates, Artell, Mackenzie

Goals: Mansfield: 68m - Curtis. Cobblers: 36m - Richards; 42m - Hargreaves; 46m - Smith

Bookings: Mansfield: 9m Day; 40m Curtis; 45+2m Mendes; 54m Disley; 114m D’Jaffo Cobblers: 31m Ullathorne; 35m Low; 69m Sabin; 90m Smith

Referee: Phil Crossley (Booooo!!)

Attendance: 9,243 (Cobblers fans 2,600)

REACTION

Cobblers boss COLIN CALDERWOOD

“WE had to do something special in this game, and we did. There are no faults to be levelled at this team, in my mind

they are all heroes.

“Football is called the beautiful game but it can be a cruel game at times. My players haven’t got the rewards that our efforts deserved from this game.

“There are lots of reasons to be proud and not too many reasons to be disappointed, although the disappointment from this game takes over and it is hard to take.

“It was a fantastic strike from Marc Richards that set us off, and after that we took the performance on and got stronger.

“In the build-up to their goal, the referee blew for a foul on Eric Sabin, and then, whatever happened, the decision was changed to a freekick for Mansfield.

“We also feel we should have had a penalty near the end.

“But despite a fantastic effort it wasn’t to be and I feel very disappointed for the fans because, like the players, they deserve more.

“Eric was very upset in the dressing room afterwards because he didn’t score his penalty, and we had to drag him out to go and salute the fans at the end, but he has nothing to be ashamed about.

“Somebody in those situations has to miss, and he has done as much as anybody in recent weeks to get us this far.

“It has been a really exciting season for us since October, but we haven’t quite managed to get to that next level.”

Cobblers striker MARC RICHARDS

“THE lads gave it their all and you couldn’t ask any more from the players and staff but it just wasn’t to be in the end.

“I don’t want to say too much about the referee because I might get into trouble but he let play continue and then Eric Sabin got fouled.

“He then gave them the freekick for the first challenge but I can’t see where he got that from – both players went in strongly and Eric won the ball. It was a dubious one and consequently they got the goal from it.

“We had a good view of the penalty appeal and you could see Derek was clean through and the player pulled him back.

“The linesman and referee bottled it and it could’ve been different with Martin Smith stepping up for the penalty.

“You can blame referees and linesmen but we’ve given our all and it wasn’t to be in the end.”

Cobblers striker DEREK ASAMOAH

“The lads couldn’t have given any more. We showed our character and got on level terms to give ourselves a great chance.

“To lose the way we did was so cruel and you just can’t describe how the boys are feeling in the dressing room.

“Everyone’s so down and depressed but we’ve got to bounce back from this and come back strongly next season.

“We thought we were there when it went to 3-0 but we knew Mansfield had quality and they were always capable of doing something.

“ I got fouled for what I thought was a blatant penalty – their player pulled me back but I think the occasion got to the referee and it was very poor on his behalf.”

Mansfield Town boss KEITH CURLE

“There’s a right way, a wrong way and a Mansfield Town way to do things and we did it the Mansfield Town way.

“The players had to believe they were going to put the ball in as they were walking up to the penalty spot.

“They decided who was going to take them but we didn’t practice them in training at all so I’m delighted.

“I tried to distance myself from everyone else during the penalties and at that time I had a little look round at the fans and everyone else.

“This night will stay with me for a long time.

“I was nervous but if you don’t get nervous for games like this you should be stacking shelves at Sainsbury’s.”

Phil Crossley (right) discusses the controversial Tom Curtis/Eric Sabin incident with his assistant, who was 50 yards away at the time. Crossley was about a metre away
Paul Reid consoles Eric Sabin after his miss in the penalty shootout
Current Cobblers boss Keith Curle, then manager at Mansfield, enjoys the win with Liam Lawrence
The Chron's front page the day after the game