LOOKING BACK: Rovers and out... Cobblers deliver stunning play-off fightback at a rocking Sixfields

A dip into the archives and memory banks to recall one of the greatest Sixfields nights... if not the very best.

By Jeremy Casey
Friday, 15th May 2020, 10:16 am
Goalscorers Carl Heggs, Ian Clarkson and Ray Warburton
Goalscorers Carl Heggs, Ian Clarkson and Ray Warburton

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 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 six, we go back 22 years to the night the Cobblers defied the odds to beat Bristol Rovers in the play-off semi-finals to reach Wembley in 1998.

Event - Nationwide League Division Two play-off semi-final, second leg

May 13, 1998, Sixfields Stadum, Northampton

Northampton Town 3 Bristol Rovers 0

It was in the good old days of the Chron being a daily paper ( I still miss them), and I was down for the Sunday office shift.

Ian Clarkson celebrates firing the Cobblers into a 2-0 lead

The Saturday Sports Pink ‘Un had gone a few years earlier, to be replaced by a 16-page Monday supplement.

That meant somebody had to put the pages together, and on Sunday, May 10, 1998 it was down to me, so I ended up listening to the first-leg of the Cobblers’ play-off semi-final first-leg against Bristol Rovers on the radio.

Just 12 months on from Town’s historic Wembley win over Swansea City, Ian Atkins and his players were aiming for a swift return to the Twin Towers.

The Cobblers travelled to the Memorial Stadium in confident mood.

Ian Atkins and the players celebrate after their dramatic win

For one, they had finished a point and place higher than Rovers in the table.

But perhaps more relevant was the fact Town had won 2-0 in the league game at the same venue just weeks before, Chris Freestone and Jason Dozzell on target.

But things did not go to plan on that bright spring afternoon in Gloucestershire.

I could hardly believe my ears as the Cobblers stumbled out of the blocks.

One of the pages from the Chronicle & Echo the following day

Normally so tight and reliable as a defensive unit, Atkins’ men were run ragged and were 3-0 down after 46 minutes, and that Wembley and second successive promotion dream looked dead and buried.

There were a few choice words being thrown around in my back garden I can tell you!

But then, a lifeline.

Big John Gayle scored an excellent goal to make it 3-1, and the Cobblers were back in the hunt.

There were to be no further goals as Ian Holloway’s team secured an excellent win, and it was still definitely advantage to the Gas.

But that goal had given Town hope.

Reaction in the following day's Chron

Then, at the final whistle and with the players still on the pitch, the match announcer at the Memorial started going on about Rovers heading to ‘Wemberlee’ and giving out ticket details for the final... well, that was all the motivation Atkins and his players needed.

Little did he know it, but Gas PA Nick Day had fired the Cobblers crew up, and set the wheels in motion for arguably the most dramatic night Sixfields has ever seen

In truth, the Cobblers had been well beaten by Rovers - with skipper Ray Warburton admitting they were lucky to only lose 3-1 - but that tannoy announcement, and the Rovers’ players perceived triumphalism after the game, only served to inspire Atkins and his players.

The second-leg was three days later on the Wednesday night, and the Town boss immediately set about lifting the mood in his camp - and lighting a strategically planned rocket under the club’s supporters.

Ahead of the match, Atkins and his players used the pages of Chron and every other media outlet they could find to rally the fans.

They shrugged off what had happened in Bristol, and made it clear they felt the game was still there for the winning, that another trip to Wembley was still there for the taking - and the momentum, and the belief, started to build.

The Chron’s front and back pages on the day were rallying calls, urging the supporters to believe that the impossible really could be achieved - and in the days when away goals counted in the play-offs, there was no doubt it could.

Atkins, always a manager who held great belief in getting into the heads of his players, and being 100 per cent positive, pinned pictures of artwork of the famous Wembley ‘Twin Towers’ around the dressing room walls.

He also pinned up the Chron front page, as well as other positive headlines and good luck messages.

The Cobblers team was a tight-knit unit, full of experienced and season campaigners.

They had also been through a home play-off semi-final just a year before when they saw off Cardiff City on the way to Wembley glory and promotion.

And they knew when they walked out on to the Sixfields pitch that a 2-0 win would be enough.

Yes, it was a big ask, especially as Rovers had been so superior to them only a few days earlier. But it was far from an impossible equation.

Atkins had made it crystal clear with all of his pre-match interviews that he was convinced his team would be good enough to get the job done - and, perhaps more importantly, so did the players.

The atmosphere around and inside the ground on that night was without question the best I have witnessed at Sixfields.

The place was packed, so much so that I couldn’t even get a seat in the press box.

I was there to help out the Chron’s football writer Andy Roberts with the post-match reaction, and ended up having to sit on the steps at the back of the west stand... to be honest, I didn’t mind as it meant I could stand for most of the match!

I was too nervous to sit still...

The home supporters, in what was then a record attendance at the ground, were on the top of their game from the very first minute, and they simply didn’t let up for a second.

All-seater stadia sometimes get criticism for a lack of atmosphere, well that night at Sixfields surpassed anything that the old County Ground had ever had to offer in my lifetime.

Rovers were backed by 1,300 vociferous fans of their own, and it all took the breath away.

The match itself was something of a slow-burner.

The Cobblers were totally dominant against an edgy looking Gas, but they failed to get the early goal that would really have set the cat among the pigeons.

Attacking the massed ranks of Rovers fans in the south stand, Town nearly got that early strike when Gayle thumped a header against the post, but it was to be the 34th minute before the blue, or should that be claret and white, touchpaper was lit.

Carl Heggs was the man to make the crucial breakthrough, ghosting in unmarked to slot home from close range after striker Freestone had headed John Frain’s deep corner back across goal.

It was advantage Cobblers, and you could just sense the belief growing in the players that this was going to be their night.

The team went in at the break with the raucous cheers of the home fans ringing in their ears - they were leading 1-0, and knew that just one more goal might well be enough.

A stunned looking Rovers had barely got into the Cobblers penalty area, and the second half started in exactly the same manner.

Attacking midfielder Heggs in particular was causing the visiting defence all sorts of problems, and the former Swansea man - on the losing side against Town at Wembley 12 months earlier - was almost unplayable all night.

The Rovers defenders simply did not know how to handle him.

And it was to be Heggs who produced the moment of magic to get Town ahead thanks to that away goals rule, beating his man on the left wing and hammering in a low cross that was met by right-back Ian Clarkson who couldn’t miss from a couple of yards out.

Quite what Clarkson was doing in that position was anybody’s guess, but he was, and nobody was complaining! It was 3-3 on aggregate, and it if it stayed like that then Town were on their way to Wembley.

Although it seemed barely impossible, the frenzied backing from the Cobblers fans grew even more intense as they sensed their team pulling off one of the most remarkable comebacks in play-off history - and there was more to come.

But first, goalkeeper and crowd favourite Andy Woodman had to do his bit, making his only save of the night to turn Peter Beadle’s header around the post.

It was a moment that was just as crucial as any of Town’s goals.

With 13 minutes left on the clock, it proved to be very unlucky for Rovers, as captain fantastic Warburton chose the perfect time to score his first goal of the season, rising highest at the far post to hammer home a header from James Hunt’s inswinging corner.

It was now bedlam inside Sixfields, but the job wasn’t done yet.

There was still some tension as a goal for Rovers in the closing minutes would have sent the match into extra-time, but in all honesty, they never looked like scoring. They had been battered by Town all night.

They were on the ropes, and simply couldn’t find the will to get off them and land any sort of blow.

They were done.

When referee Mick Fletcher blew the final whistle it sparked ecstatic scenes of celebration all around Sixfields.

Strangers hugged each other as fans invaded the pitch, while the stunned and dazed Rovers players mooched off to consider quite how they had thrown this one away.

The celebrations went on and on, with the players returning to the pitch to join in the party with the fans, who were already planning their tickets and travel for the trip to Wembley.

It was an incredible night and one to be remembered by everybody who was there, although I am sure the Rovers fans in attendance have done their best to erase if from their memory banks!

A couple of weeks later, an incredible 41,000 Cobblers fans would head down to London to see their team in the play-off final against Grimsby Town.

Sadly, there would be no fairy-tale this time, no last-minute winner from Frain and no celebrations, as the Mariners claimed a 1-0 victory to deny Town promotion.

But no matter.

That result can still never take away the thrill, excitement, brilliance and total magic of that semi-final win over Bristol Rovers.

It ranks with many Cobblers supporters as their best moment in the 25-year history of Sixfields.

And I think I would have to agree.

MATCH FACTS

Wednesday, May 13, 1998

Nationwide League Division Two play-off semi-final, second leg

Northampton Town 3 Bristol Rovers 0 (Cobblers win 4-3 on aggregate)

Teams: Cobblers: Woodman, Clarkson, Sampson, Warburton, Hill, Frain, Hunt, Peer, Heggs, Freestone (Brightwell, 88m), Gayle. Sub not used: Gibb.

Bristol Rovers: Jones, Pritchard, Lockwood, Penrice, Foster, Tillson, Zabek, Ramasut (Power, 72m), Beadle, Bennett (Hayfield, 78m), Hayles.

Goals: Cobblers: 34 mins: Heggs; 61 mins: Clarkson; 77 mins: Warburton.

Bookings: Cobblers: 31 mins - Warburton; 43 mins - Heggs; 51 mins - Hill. Bristol Rovers: 35 mins - Foster; 73 mins - Hayles; 80 mins - Lockwood.

Referee: Mick Fletcher

Attendance: 7,501 (Rovers fans: 1,300)

MATCH REACTION

Cobblers boss IAN ATKINS

“THIS was the best team performance I have been part of in my entire career, both as a player and a manager.

“It was awesome stuff and I can’t speak highly enough of my players and the club’s supporters.

“The pressure we put on Bristol Rovers was relentless and we thoroughly deserved the result, while the supporters were terrific for all 90 minutes.

“We wound them up a bit during the last few days, urging them to get behind us from the off and really make it a cup tie atmosphere.

“They responded magnificently and it really does give the players a lift - if the team got that kind of support every week then we wouldn’t lose a game.

“We were focused on what we needed to do. I told the players before the start what job I expected them to do and they didn’t let me down.”

Cobblers skipper RAY WARBURTON

“WE knew what we had to do and the lads all stuck to their task, kept their calm and kept their nerve.

“That is one of the best team performances I have ever been involved in, and we knew we could pull it back, we had to.

“We took a bit of a peppering in the first leg and we probably had a bit of good fortune to come away only losing 3-1. But everybody did their job this time and we scored at the right times.

“The atmosphere was unbelievable... we have been winding the fans up in the Chronicle & Echo all week, and they responded magnificently.

“The first ever game at Sixfields against Barnet was an electric atmosphere, but this game surpassed everything.”

Cobblers goalkeeper ANDY WOODMAN

“THIS stadium hasn’t been up for very long and I don’t think there will be a better night here as long as I am alive. It was superb.

“Nobody gave us a prayer but I think we proved a lot of people wrong.

“A lot of the Bristol Rovers lads on Sunday were talking about their Wembley tickets in the tunnel after the game and celebrating.

“That’s something that stuck in my head and stuck in a few of the other players’ heads and I am really chuffed to shove that up them.

“We deserved a little bit of respect from off them, and they didn't give us any after the first-leg result.

"They had the chance to win 5-0 on Sunday, they didn’t, and they have made a massive error.”

Bristol Rovers boss IAN HOLLOWAY

“I THINK Northampton thoroughly deserve to go to Wembley after that performance, and it stemmed from Sunday when they didn’t let their heads go down when they were 3-0 down.

“At that point, our lads stopped doing what they were supposed to be doing and Northampton quite rightly got a goal back.

“In this game they showed that they have got what we haven’t yet got, which is a burning desire and a belief in themselves, and my young team fell apart. You could see the desire in Northampton, and I think they have shown fantastic character all season after coming up last season and all credit to them.

“Full credit to Ian Atkins. He refused to talk about last weekend’s game which was the right thing to do.

“He’s come back and got his boys so focused that they went on to the pitch and outfought us for everything.”

Chronicle & Echo football writer ANDY ROBERTS

“SIXFIELDS has certainly never seen anything like it. The history book on the shelf really is repeating itself.

“A dream sequence of goalscoring rocketed the Cobblers to Wembley for the second year running.

“In normal time.

“No need for extra-time nerves. For away goal calculations. For a gut-wrenching penalty shootout.

“Bristol Rovers were blitzed within 90 minutes.”

Andy Roberts' match report