BY GLENN BILLINGHAM
A perennial nearly club, in a perennial nearly town. Northampton Town FC. Geographically one could argue the town is on the edge of the Midlands, or the periphery of East Anglia. Nearly north and nearly south. Nestled alongside the M1 between the bright lights of Birmingham and London. Nearly everywhere, yet nowhere at the same time.
The same could be said of the football team, with the exception being 50 years ago.
Last Saturday, October 17th 2015, amidst takeover too-ing and fro-ing, and a winding up order issued by HMRC, they were defeated 2-1 at newly promoted Cambridge United. Thus cementing the Cobblers’ place of mid-table obscurity in League Two.
Nearly pushing for the play-offs, yet just as close to edging into a relegation dog fight.
Off the field they’re nearly facing meltdown, or they’re close to a takeover and a fresh start, depending upon whose media quips you believe. The plight of their ground redevelopment is the cause of this potential meltdown. The development and its somewhat shady planning and financing, is nicely summarised here and here.
Regrettably, the Claret Army are used to both the underwhelming on-field continuity, and the off-field implosions. In Northampton Town’s somewhat uninspiring one hundred and seventeen year history, the club have spent just four seasons outside the bottom two divisions. Those four seasons all came in the magical mid-sixties. Starting with promotion from Division Four in 1961, the Cobblers had climbed all the way to the top flight by 1965, and somewhat inevitably all the way back down again by 1969.
Naturally, for a club flirting so closely with the professional football abyss, there have been close shaves with relegation from the Football League. The Cobblers have finished bottom of the Football League on two occasions, but didn’t suffer relegation. In 1994, the Aggborough ground of Kidderminster Harriers didn’t meet Football League requirements, thus saving the Cobblers. A decade earlier, that same fate was endured by the top three teams up for promotion, and Northampton lived to play another season on the bottom rung. As recently as 2014, a victory over Oxford United on the last day was needed to preserve Football League status.
Other than that, it’s been lower league continuity.
However, between 1960 and 1965, Northampton Town threw caution to the wind, and went gung-ho towards the top flight of English football. An unprecedented rise from the old fourth division, all the way to the first. They claimed league titles, promotions, smashed over one hundred league goals in a single season, reached the League Cup quarter-finals twice… and then plummeted straight back to Division Four in time for the 1969/70 campaign.
The greatest rise and fall English football has ever seen, an ‘achievement’ most likely to never be repeated, and all completed in under a single decade.
Dave Bowen is seen by many as the catalyst for change. Having played for the club in the late 1940’s, Bowen returned as player/manager in 1959. In the nine years he’d been away from the County Ground, Bowen had established himself as a Welsh international, captaining his country in the 1958 World Cup, and in the process, marked a 17-year-old Pele against Brazil in the group stages. He’d captained Arsenal for two seasons, and though he didn’t win any major honours, he was selected for a London XI who lost out to Barcelona in the final of the Inter-City Fairs Cup (which preceded the UEFA Cup) in 1956.
As player/manager, Bowen’s first full season in charge was the 1959/60 campaign. Division Four was in its second year of existence following a Football League re-structure, and Northampton Town were starting their fiftieth season without a trophy. The club’s only league title coming in the form of a Southern League Championship in 1909. However, Bowen’s debut season as a manager bought promise, and an improvement on last season to finish in a creditable sixth position.
Pre-money spinning play-offs, this ultimately meant consolidation, naturally,
The 1960/61 season saw Northampton surprise many, and clinch promotion from Division Four. The league’s top four earning the right to a place in Division Three, again, without the need for play-offs. Joining the Cobblers on the way up were Peterborough United, promoted as champions in their Football League debut season. Crystal Palace and Bradford Park Avenue made up the four.
The Cobblers’ first campaign in Division Three, 1961/62, consisted of more respectable consolidation, with the team finishing up in eighth position. Incidentally, it was the same season Liverpool secured the Division Two championship and their return to the top flight. At the County Ground, Bowen was beginning to earn a reputation of being able to piece together a gritty team on a shoestring budget.
Following on from a satisfactory eighth place finish, season 1962/63 was glorious for the Claret Army. The winter of 1963 and its imaginatively named big freeze may have interrupted the fixture list, but the Cobblers were rampant and recorded their first professional league title. Over 100 goals in the league, and many of them courtesy of Alec Ashworth and Frank Large. The championship was, rather sweetly, clinched with a 4-0 win on the home soil of rivals Peterborough United.
Northampton Town were to be joined in Division Two by Swindon Town, themselves somewhat masters of un-remarkable consistency. They had been stuck in Division Three for the previous forty-three seasons.
Both Swindon and Northampton made sure they avoided an immediate return with admirable mid-table finishes in 1963/64’s Division Two. The Cobblers started the season well, even without the inspirational Dave Bowen at the helm. Amidst reports he’d resigned, Bowen stated he needed a break from the game. Something he also did in the September of 1962. With Trainer Jack Jennings in temporary charge, the managers job was advertised. Bowen only made his u-turn after popular ex-manager Bob Dennison put forward an application.
Leeds United stormed to the 1964 Division Two title under the stewardship of Don Revie, and playing the style of football which inspired the ‘Dirty Leeds’ tag. Sunderland were runners-up, despite their 5-1 reverse at the hands of the Cobblers.
Remarkably, Leeds United’s return to the top flight, after seven years absence, saw them narrowly miss out on the Division One championship. They lost out to Manchester United on goal difference.
Meanwhile in Division Two, 1964/65 the gravitational pull was too much for Swindon Town. Despite capturing Northampton’s goalscorer supreme, Frank Large, they were relegated. The Cobblers were slow to start, but a 1-0 win at home to Newcastle United propelled a seventeen match un-beaten run. Curiously, that run also ended against the Magpies, in the shape of a 5-0 defeat. Despite that significant result, the Cobblers would fight with Newcastle hammer and tong for the championship. Eventually, Newcastle came out on top by two points, and the Cobblers claimed runners-up, and promotion, with a 4-1 win away at Bury.
Division One. The top flight. Liverpool. Manchester United. Everton. Arsenal. Illustrious company indeed. Northampton Town were sailing in un-charted waters, and were given an opening day baptism of fire at Goodison Park. Everton won 5-2 with eight internationals in their team. There was hope for the Cobblers, though. Four of those goals came in the last twenty minutes, and they’d held their own till then. Despite picking up points at home to Arsenal, and away at Manchester United, both 1-1 draws, the Cobblers were forced to wait till October 23rd for their first league win. It came in the form of a 2-1 victory at home to West Ham United. Before the turn of the year, further wins were recorded; 2-1 against Aston Villa, 4-1 against nemesis in the making Fulham, and 2-1 against Blackpool, all at the County Ground.
While the Cobblers managed to pick up points, their form was inconsistent, and the numbers in the ‘goals conceded’ column gave serious cause for concern. By the season’s end, ninety-two had been conceded, and seven different players scored hat-tricks against the Cobblers. Heavy defeats came at the hands of Everton, Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Stoke City.
The ups and downs, of course, were expected from a team who started the decade in Division Four. What wasn’t expected, was the Cobblers going into the last two weeks of the season with their fate in their own hands. Blackburn Rovers had confirmed one of the two relegation places in early April, and left Sunderland, Fulham, Sheffield Wednesday, and Aston Villa to tussle it out for the second. As bigger clubs, Villa and Wednesday never seemed to be in any real danger due to their games in hand, which made Fulham the Cobblers’ nemesis.
April 23rd 1966, County Ground, Northampton. Perhaps a little too soon to be called a relegation decider, but in many ways it was. Northampton had put together a good run of form, losing only twice since February 2nd. Disappointingly, Fulham were enjoying a late surge of even better form. The Cobblers took the lead in front of a record attendance of 24,523. Fulham equalised five minutes later, but the Cobblers went in 2-1 at half-time thanks to Joe Kiernan. The pivotal moment came mid-way through the second half. Another strike from Kiernan crashed off the crossbar, and bounced somewhere close to the line. Unable to call for an instant replay, and having not seen it, the referee glanced over to his linesman, who hadn’t seen it either, having slipped and fallen over. Steve Earle then scored a Fulham equaliser, and two further goals in the 87th and 90th minute to seal a 4-2 win.
Going into the penultimate match of 1965/66, Sunderland came to the County Ground and needed only a point to salvage their own top flight status. They found scarred but less than charitable hosts, as the Cobblers won 2-1. Despite this victory, Sunderland finished above the drop zone, and thanks to the continued good form of Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham, the Cobblers still needed favours from other results to secure their safety. Before the final match of the season, away at Blackpool, Dave Bowen had the team watch ‘Sound of Music‘ in a local cinema. However, unlike the Von Trapp family, the Cobblers’ escape had been blocked up. Lady Luck wasn’t wearing claret, the other results didn’t go as favourably as they might have, and Northampton succumbed to a 3-0 defeat away at Blackpool on the last day of the season.
Ending the season in the mid-May sunshine, and on the coast at Blackpool at least lent some picturesque retrospect for the Claret Army. Blackpool wasn’t the low budget stag/hen party venue it is now, and must have provided an almost fairytale like setting for what was most definitely a fairytale-like journey.
The 1965/66 season ended with a tour of West Germany, where matches against Hannover, Russelsheim, and FSV Frankfurt played second fiddle to some well-earned down time, did much to lighten the mood and provide some perspective. The experience would surely stand the club and team in good stead, and a successful season for the reserve team suggested a certain depth of quality in the squad. All in all, surely the relegation from Division One could be classed as an heroic failure, and gallant effort.
However, and perhaps inevitably, the Cobblers pressed the self-destruct button back in Division Two, and were relegated to Division Three in time for the 1967/68 season. The Cobblers finished eighteenth that year, but were relegated again, back to Division Four in 1968/69. The cycle was complete. Back to where they started. A cosmic rise through the leagues via three promotions in five years, and then dropping like a lead balloon. Three relegations in four years.
But what a rise, and what a journey.
In English football, only Swansea City come close to matching this ‘achievement’. The Swans’ rise and fall was encompassed neatly within sixteen years between 1970 and 1986. Carlisle United did it in twenty-two years between 1964 and 1987. Stretching further, Notts County completed the cycle in twenty-seven years, and Oxford United did it in thirty-six years. Wimbledon could have come close, having achieved league status in 1977. They spent 1987-2000 in the First Division (or Premiership), but the change to MK Dons somewhat broke the chain of history.
Northampton Town used 25 players during their top flight campaign. The vast majority of whom stayed in Northamptonshire, and even retired in the area. Many played for Kettering Town and other local non-league teams, and retired in the local area.
Manager Dave Bowen: (Died in 1995, aged 67) The man who captained Wales at (to date) their only World Cup was also manager of the Welsh national team from 1964 till 1974. Bowen also remained close to both the town and club. He had a second stint in charge of the Cobblers from 1969 to 1972, and later served as general manager, secretary, and scout before being made Club President. Sixfields, current home of the Cobblers, has a stand named after him.
Mike Everitt: Named in the Northampton Town ‘team of the century’, another ex-Arsenal player, Everitt left the Cobblers and enjoyed playing spells with; Plymouth Argyle, Brighton & Hove Albion, and Wimbledon. Everitt also had spells coaching Brentford and Wimbledon in the early 1970’s.
Derek Leck: (Died in 2011, aged 74) Affectionately known as ‘Daisy’, Leck is one of a select few who represented the Cobblers in all four divisions. he was ever-present in the 1916/65 campaign. Leck joined Brighton & Hove Albion in 1966, where injury forced early retirement from the game. Leck later became a well-known Baker on the south coast.
Bryan Harvey: (Died in 2006, aged 68) The ex-Newcastle Utd goalkeeper who made penalty saves his speciality was released by the Cobblers in 1968. Harvey played on for a few more seasons with Kettering Town, but retired to manage a chemical company in Northampton.
Terry Branston: (Died in 2010, aged 72) Joined Lincoln City in 1972, and wound down his playing days with his hometown club; V.S. Rugby. Having managed V.S. Rugby, and taken up refereeing local football, Branston retired from the game to return to his Driving School business. Having established the school during his playing days, Branston taught many of his team-mates to drive. In his later years, Branston was also a paying season ticket holder at the Cobblers.
Joe Kiernan: (Died in 2006, aged 66) Ever-present in the Division One campaign, Kiernan was released by the Cobblers in 1972, and joined Ron Atkinson’s Kettering Town. Joe returned to the Cobblers to manage the youth teams in 1986, before being made assistant manager of the first team in 1990. Two years later, Joe returned to his profession as a painter/decorator, as Northampton entered administration.
Charlie Livesey: (Died in 2005, aged 67) Livesey flittered around the edges of the starting eleven most weeks, and was another Cobbler who made his way to Brighton & Hove Albion. He played there for four years, before moving to non-league Crawley Town where he saw out his playing days. Upon retirement, Livesey was a painter and decorator in central London.
Harry Walden: Played 76 games in three seasons with the Cobblers, and made many appearances for Team GB. Walden returned to his only other club, Kettering Town, in 1967.
Bobby Hunt: The forward signed from Colchester United spent just two seasons with the Cobblers. He left Northampton to join Millwall in 1966, and went on to play for Ipswich Town, Reading, Charlton Athletic, and Maidstone. As recently as 2012, Hunt stood as an independent candidate for election on to Colchester Council.
Theo Foley: A Republic of Ireland international, Foley built a solid reputation playing for the Cobblers, and later for Charlton Athletic. Foley started coaching and managing with non-league teams before taking over at Queens Park Rangers. He was also assistant to George Graham’s Millwall, and Arsenal teams, winning the 1987 League Cup, and the 1989 Championship with the Gunners. Foley left Arsenal in 1990 to take the managers position at Northampton, but left in 1992 as the club entered administration. Foley remains a match-day host at Charlton Athletic.
Brian Etheridge: (Died in 2011, aged 67) Etheridge made only a handful of appearances in Division One, and left in 1966 to join Brentford. The following season he departed for Belgium and enjoyed stints at Daring Club de Bruxelles, and Cercle Brugge. Etheridge returned to Northamptonshire to play and manage at Corby Town, Rushden Town, and Wellingborough Town. Tragically, Etheridge suffered from depression, and took his own life in 2011.
Tommy Robson: Played fifteen times in the First Division, scoring three goals. Mid-way through the season Robson departed for Chelsea, and switched to Newcastle United shortly after. He later clocked up a club record five hundred and fifty nine appearances for Peterborough United. He is now a car delivery driver.
Bobby Brown: Top scorer in 1965/66 with ten goals, Brown moved on to Cardiff City in 1967, but was forced into retirement soon after. Brown held coaching positions at the Welsh FA, and an assistant managers role at Hull City. After retiring from football, Brown worked for a shipping company, and owned a pub in Pembrokeshire.
Barry Lines: Became the first Cobblers player to play and score in all four divisions, and stayed with the club till 1969. He later became a sports equipment salesman.
Graham Carr: Carr, the current Head Scout at Newcastle United, had only just broken into the Cobblers side in 1965. He joined York City, and later Bradford Park Avenue. Carr saw out his playing days with Poole and Dartford on the south coast. After managerial stints at Weymouth, Dartford, and Nuneaton Borough, Carr was appointed as Northampton boss in 1985. He managed the ‘Champagne Cobblers’ to their 1987 fourth division title, but was sacked following relegation back to Division Three. He then managed Blackpool, Maidstone United, Kettering Town, and Dagenham & Redbridge, before finding success in various scouting roles with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, and currently, Newcastle United.