What else was I going to do with a free Saturday in March? On a balmy hot Spring Saturday, I traveled to Sixfields, Northampton in search of football’s heart and soul.
It’s Thursday evening and a tough day at work has left me exhausted. For about an hour, I turn into my old man: the man I remember from my childhood. He would come in from work, sit in his worn-out armchair, and doze. As a ten-year-old, I never understood why he was always so tired after work. Now I understand. He was once me – as I am now, and I am now him – as he once was. I recline, and with a couple of taps on my mobile, I am staring at this weekend’s football fixtures. Unusually, I am surplus to requirements this coming Saturday. As far as family duties are concerned, I am not even on the bench. So, I’m looking for somewhere to go and something to do. I’ve made up my mind. I’m a football writer after all; I’m going to the football.
With it being the international break, my choices are limited to League One or below. I settle on the League Two match between third-placed Northampton Town and mid-table Hartlepool United. Purchasing a seat for the North Stand on the club website is a breeze and I select a seat behind the goal with the home fans. I smile. I start my research. I start to plan.
The first priority is finding where to go for a pre-match pint and this proves much easier than I had feared. I let my Twitter followers know that I’m off to Sixfields on Saturday and I ask for a recommendation for a decent pub within walking distance from the ground. In a few minutes, I have six or seven pubs to choose from and some great advice from some ‘Cobblers’ fans about where to park. Social Media can be quite amazing. I make my decision and reply saying that I am heading for the Melbourne Arms in Duston. This would prove to be one of my better decisions.
It’s Friday and I use my break time (I’m a school teacher) to research Northampton Town Football Club. I start by looking at the club’s history and discover that the club was formed by a group of local school teachers (small world) who wanted to name the club Northampton Football Club but added the ‘Town’ following objections from the rugby club. I learn about a former manager, the late Dave Bowen, and how he guided the club from the fourth division in 1959 to the first division (akin to the Premier League) in just six seasons. I read about the move from the County Ground and about the legal wrangling over the sale of land behind the East Stand, which remains unfinished after seven years.
Then, I draw my own conclusions about the style of football that I am expecting to see based on the stats available on the internet. Northampton concede relatively few goals, but they don’t score many either. Almost half the goals have come from the two centre-backs, Fraser Horsfall and Jon Guthrie, so I imagine that they are an aerial threat at set-pieces. The bell goes and break time is over. My Year 9 class arrives and I get back to work. One hour to go until the weekend. I’ll have to finish my research in Northampton.
It’s Saturday morning and I’m out of the house before nine. It’s a stunning day: there’s not a cloud in the sky. All is right with the world.
Shortly after eleven-thirty, I arrive in Northampton. My route takes me past the stadium and I’m impressed by the compact and modern design as I glance to my right out of the car window. My destination is about half a mile from the stadium and, like a Sherpa, my Sat Nav guides me safely to the mountain peak, which is a car park opposite the Melbourne Arms in Duston.
Like an experienced jockey walking the turf before a classic race, I trace my route to the ground. It’s too early for a pint anyway and I could do with a walk after sitting in the car for two and a half hours. I’d got no further than twenty yards from the pub car park before I am stopped by a man who is busy edging the front lawn of his bungalow. Noticing my BVB Borussia Dortmund zip-up training top, he asks me if I am a fan of German football. I tell him that I am and that before the pandemic I had been to Germany to watch football on a number of occasions. He is a Villa fan and his accent is distinctly Brummie. He tells me that he has enjoyed some trips to Germany to watch Villa in pre-season. He feels like he needs to tell me that Villa aren’t in Europe anymore; like it’s a surprise to me. I play along. We compare notes on stadiums and cities visited before I continue along Orchard Way and down the hill towards Sixfields.
Sixfields is on the outskirts of Northampton, constructed on a leisure park, consisting of a cinema, bowling alley, and a number of restaurants. I resist the urge to shout echo, like a five-year-old, as I stroll through the underpass taking me under the dual carriageway and into the park itself. There are relatively few people around as I make my way past a couple of Mexican-style restaurants toward the stadium which is now only a couple of hundred yards in front of me.
Approaching from the North, Sixfields is set in a dip; a steep grass bank separating the leisure park from the stadium. Standing at the top of the bank, I can see right into the ground. About a third of the pitch is visible from here and I stop and take a few photographs for the blog. I can see the unfinished East Stand rising up to my left and the disused running track behind it, about which there had been so much controversy and legal challenge. The North and South stand, behind each goal, are small and covered: quaint. The West Stand is the main stand and looks like it can hold about 4500-5000. I’ve noticed a Costa, back through the underpass, and I turn to head in that direction. I don’t get far.
Heading towards me with some purpose is an older gentleman in a flat cap. He’s just stepped off a bus and he’s spotted me for what I am, a football tourist. He’s not going to let me off lightly. He confirms his suspicions with a couple of friendly questions before impressing upon me his membership of the 92 club. I’m suitably impressed and emboldened by my interest, he tells me that he’s also ‘done’ all the Scottish grounds too. After talking me through the complexities of promotion and relegation to the Scottish League 2, (apparently Cowdenbeath are in trouble) he gives me some insight into the ‘Cobblers’ recent form. He’s off to have lunch at Sainsbury’s and we part ways.
After a cup of tea at Costa, I make my way back up the hill for a pint before the match. I’ve barely taken a sip when I hear a Cobblers fan talking about how he had been drumming up extra business for the pub on Twitter in the week. I let him know that it has worked and he asks the barman for a free pint as commission. He is denied. I discover that he is called Dave and his mate is Tim. Dave is a committed Cobblers fan and Tim is a Luton fan who is back in town to support his local club. We have a nice chat about all things football and even get on to American Football and Baseball. Time passes quickly and I say my goodbyes and head off.
The match is a good one and the Cobblers run out 2-0 winners. Earlier Dave had picked out Mitch Pinnock as “one to watch” and he has a great game. I am impressed by the Cobblers’ keeper and two centre-backs; these three are clearly the platform for Northampton’s promotion push. Going forward, the Cobblers can play some nice stuff and the opening goal is a nice example of this. A well-worked move between Louis Appéré and Sam Hoskins results in a smart finish from Hoskins, between the keeper’s legs. There are chances at either end before Chanka Zimba, on loan from Cardiff City, puts the game to bed shortly after coming on for Appéré. A devilishly fierce free-kick from the left is poorly dealt with by the Hartlepool defence and Zimba seems to have time to pour himself a cocktail before sliding the ball under the keeper and into the net.
I leave in injury time and hear the final whistle as I climb the grass bank away from the stadium. I take one final look over my shoulder at the ground and Sixfields Stadium and vow to come back again one day. As I make my way back under the underpass some kid shouts ‘echo’ and I am transported.