Northampton is a perennial middle-of-the-road town. Located almost equidistantly between Birmingham and London, it represents an interestingly unmemorable stopover. Sitting staunchly somewhere between underwhelmingly attractive and downright ugly, Northampton is neither poor nor prosperous. Historically rather significant, it is currently mostly trivial.
As is the case with many British towns, factories and workshops are closed. Northampton’s town centre survives, but barely. Defecating pigeons and an endless array of coffee shops, betting shops, charity shops and empty shops occupy much of the available space. Regrettably, this rather desolate existence has been striven towards in the name of progress; town planning and urban design by the dumbfoundingly stupid. Still, at least the council are brazenly achieving what Luftwaffe pilots didn’t and destroying what was once an aesthetic county town. I digress.
Despite a couple of promotions and relegations here and there, the local football club, Northampton Town, appear to embody the essence of mediocrity. The Cobblers – a nickname deriving from the town’s shoemaking past – have spent just four of their 120-year history outside the bottom two tiers of English football.
In the midst of the Swinging Sixties, though, something the town could once again benefit from, all caution was thrown to the wind. For the Cobblers, mediocrity was out of the equation. In its place came a heady mixture of feelings and emotions – astonishingly bewildering highs and unbearable lows. Between 1960 and 1969, Northampton Town went on one of English football’s most remarkable journeys.
Playing at the alarmingly quirky County Ground, shared with the local cricket club, the Cobblers achieved the unthinkable. Three promotions in five years propelled the club to a solitary season in the top flight. Subsequently, after three relegations in five years they concluded the decade where they had begun, by lining up in Division Four.
Dave Bowen, a wing-half who played for Northampton in the 1940s, is seen by many as the catalyst for their journey. Appointed as player-manager in 1959, Bowen had spent his decade away from Northampton at Arsenal. Coinciding with his time in north London, Bowen had established himself as a Welsh international and captained his country at the 1958 World Cup. One summer he was marking a 17-year-old Pelé as Wales were honourably knocked out by Brazil; the next he was at Northampton.
Firmly perched on the lowest rung of English football’s professional ladder, the playing budget was poor and expectations even lower. Northampton hadn’t tasted promotion or relegation since admittance to the Football League in 1920, and a solitary Southern League title in 1909 stood as the club’s only notable silverware. In his first season at the helm – 1959/60 – Bowen led Northampton to a creditable sixth place in Division Four, but offered few hints of the adventures to come.
Having called time on his own playing career in the summer of 1960, Bowen began to forge a reputation for piecing together a gritty and effective team throughout the following season. Derek Leck, a forward signed from Exeter City, was one of his first signings. Converted from forward to wing-half, Leck would go on to score in all four divisions for the Cobblers, proving influential throughout the club’s first promotion in 1961.
That year’s geographically-challenging Easter weekend saw the Cobblers lose 4-2 at Hartlepool on Saturday, and then travel to Exeter two days later. There, a 3-1 victory all but cemented a promotion place, and would introduce Bowen to another key signing. Cobblers defender Mike Everitt spent much of the afternoon clashing with Exeter’s tenacious young defender, Theo Foley, who would be signed in the summer and soon become club captain.
Read | 100 years bore: the arduous and elongated Football League centenary celebrations in 1988
Alongside Foley, another key signing for the Cobblers came courtesy of Bowen leaning on his Arsenal connections. Having lost top-scorer Laurie Brown to Arsenal in the summer of 1961, Bowen replaced his striker with ex-teammate Cliff Holton. Holton’s 36 goals across the 1961/62 season were a significant force behind an impressive eighth-place finish in Division Three. Elsewhere in English football, Bill Shankly led Liverpool to the Division Two title and promotion in his debut season.
Holton continued his goalscoring form into 1962/63, hitting 14 before being sold to Crystal Palace in December. New signings Frank Large and Alec Ashcroft would also finish the season with double figures. Despite the goals, Northampton stuttered for form in the autumn. Furthermore, Bowen was forced to take an enforced break on medical orders. Fortunately, that winter’s big freeze heavily disrupted Football League fixtures, and provided an opportunistic chance to re-group. Upon the resumption of regular football, the Cobblers were unstoppable.
A collective goal-glut – 109 league goals to be precise – propelled Bowen and his charges to an unexpected Division Three title. Rather sweetly, the championship was confirmed via a 4-0 win away at local rivals Peterborough. Joining Northampton as the division’s runners-up, and only other promotees, were Swindon Town. Masters of mediocrity themselves, the Wiltshire club ended 43 years of football in the same division.
Northampton’s debut season in the second tier proved less spectacular. Rumours circulated that Bowen had resigned, with trainer Jack Jennings even taking temporary charge of the team in the autumn of 1963. Despite periods of illness and openly stating he needed a break, Bowen was talked around, and the club finished safely in mid-table. Despite Large’s fearless endeavours in attack, it was clear to see that goal scoring was proving a significant challenge in a higher league.
The opening day of the 1964/65 season saw Match of the Day broadcast for the first time and featured the top-flight clash between Liverpool and Arsenal. In almost unfathomable circumstances, Northampton would soon share the big stage.
Bowen, sufficiently rejuvenated to take on the additional responsibility of the Welsh national team, began the season by cementing Northampton’s reputation as a stable if not spectacular side. Goals still proved harder to come by, though, and ultimately the season’s success was built on defence rather than attack. Bryan Harvey, a goalkeeper signed from Blackpool, proved a consistent presence, saving seven penalties throughout the season, with two in one match against Southampton.
October saw Bowen take charge of Wales for the first time. The rousing 3-2 victory over Scotland in the season’s first Home International was watched by a crowd of over 50,000 at Ninian Park. Little over 200 miles away in Preston, Roly Mills deputised for Bowen and oversaw a 2-2 stalemate. Other results were favourable, and Northampton sat on top of Division Two, their highest ever league position, on 3 October.
Northampton’s unlikely tenancy close to the league’s summit was sustained by an impressive 17-game unbeaten run leading up to Christmas. Incidentally, the run began and concluded against Newcastle, the team who would eventually pip Northampton to the Division Two title by a solitary point. Tragically, the Cobblers’ chairman, Fred York, would pass away just weeks before the season’s end, providing a rare blemish on an otherwise fairy tale campaign.
Northampton eventually crowned an unthinkable promotion with an emphatic 4-1 win at home against Bury on 17 April. An Easter weekend double header against Plymouth Argyle followed. Easter Monday saw the Cobblers squad arrive in Plymouth via plane, the first time the team had flown to a match, and celebrate promotion by crashing to a 5-2 defeat. Just 24 hours later, the two clubs faced each other again at the County Ground, and Northampton recorded a 3-1 win, giving themselves a shot at the title.
Read | This is how it feels to be Luton Town
Coupled with favourable results elsewhere, a final day victory would crown Northampton champions. Portsmouth provided the opposition, themselves needing at least a point to avoid relegation. Newcastle, kicking off several hours earlier, drew, a feat matched by Northampton. Courtesy of an 84th-minute equaliser, Pompey got their point, and the Cobblers settled for a runners-up spot. The promised land beckoned.
In the summer of 1965 there was no hiding the fact that Northampton were ill-prepared for their elevated status. Despite promotions and some illustrious pre-season friendlies against Dukla Prague and Rapid Vienna, there could be no doubt that club infrastructure remained at Division Four level.
Having to rely on his existing squad, Bowen refused to be drawn on how his team might fare in the top flight. It was a judgement which hindsight defined as wise. Despite his laudable faith in giving the players who had achieved promotion a crack at the top flight, though, the lack of summer transfers was at best naive.
Bowen had wanted to bring in a little-known winger by the name of Mike Summerbee, but Northampton couldn’t raise the necessary finance. Colin Bell was another name on Bowen’s wishlist. Both players would go on to shine at Manchester City and further cement Bowen’s credible reputation for identifying talent.
Only five of the Northampton squad had any top flight experience, and for all of the 25 players who pulled on the claret shirt that season, it was as good as their careers got. Inspirational captain Theo Foley would later achieve success as an assistant to George Graham at Millwall and Arsenal. ‘Strolling’ Joe Kiernan, the Cobblers’ only ever-present throughout the season, won plenty of admirers for his assured presence and range of passing. Bobby Brown would finish top scorer for the second successive year. Collectively, the players counterbalanced a lack of quality and fitness with a physical presence and sheer tenacity, perhaps equatable to a 60s version of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang.
The Cobblers began their season in the sun at Goodison Park on 21 August 1965. Everton provided the opening day opposition, and despite enthusiastically matching their opponents for large swathes of the game, Northampton succumbed to a 5-2 defeat. With eight internationals in the Everton side, superior quality and fitness told as late goals eventually killed off a spirited Cobblers side.
Consecutive home fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester United followed, and if the Cobblers were punch drunk after the opening day defeat, they punched above their weight to claim two 1-1 draws against illustrious opponents. The latter performance included shutting out an attack featuring George Best, Bobby Charlton, and Denis Law.
Creditable draws were followed by four sobering defeats, and Northampton were made to wait until 23 October for their first victory. West Ham, featuring a talented nucleus of players who would go a long way to winning England’s World Cup in 1966, were despatched 2-1 at the County Ground. Three further victories against Aston Villa, Fulham and Blackpool were recorded before Christmas, which – coupled with the poor form of Fulham and Blackburn Rovers – provided an element of hope.
Mid-season sales of Tommy Robson, Ken Leek and Derek Leck raised modest funds, and Bowen was able to belatedly bolster his weary squad. Welsh internationals Graham Moore, Joe Broadfoot and George Hudson arrived from Manchester United, Ipswich Town and Coventry City respectively. The trio of attacking players highlighted a seemingly revolving door of forwards at the club throughout the decade, and only Moore would make more than 20 appearances for the Cobbers.
Read | Manchester United: the 26 barren years
In what was fast-becoming a winter of discontent, difficulties in defence compounded attacking woes. Northampton shipped five goals at Anfield and six goals apiece to Leeds, Manchester United and Stoke. It was, however, the 6-1 reverse at Blackburn which irked Bowen the most. Rovers would go on to confirm their own relegation in April and finish some 13 points below Northampton.
Despite being obviously less fruitful than the 17-game unbeaten stretch, Northampton’s record of two wins and two draws in the late winter of ‘66 proved significant. The 1-1 draw away at West Brom, an impressive 2-1 win at home to Leeds, and an entertaining 3-3 away at Nottingham Forest provided a whole month without defeat, and installed just enough confidence for the fight ahead.
Having been dumped out the FA Cup at the first hurdle, the Cobblers were clear of distraction. Some modest success stories ensued, such as 25-year-old striker Bobby Brown, who began to find the net having caught Bowen’s eye following his goalscoring exploits for Watford, Fulham and Barnet. By early April, with Blackburn’s relegation sealed, the stuttering form of the league’s bottom half, particularly Fulham and Sunderland, provided further hope.
On 23 April 1966, over 24,000 were packed into the County Ground. Whilst not quite a relegation decider, it was most certainly a proverbial ‘six-pointer’, and by far the most important match in the club’s history. Northampton vs Fulham: 20th against 21st in the table. Having opened the scoring and having led 2-1 at half-time, Northampton were in the ascendancy. Naturally, though, there was a turning point to come.
Midway through the second half, referee Jack Taylor – who would go on to officiate the 1974 World Cup final – proved decisive on two occasions, denying the Cobblers a third goal on both occasions. Initially, there was John Mackin’s lofted free-kick, which eluded everyone and dropped into the top corner. Taylor disallowed the goal, apparently spotting a foul on the Fulham goalkeeper. Then Kiernan, scorer of Northampton’s second goal, crashed a shot off the crossbar and back towards the goal line. Unable to see if the ball had crossed the line, Taylor looked to his linesman, who rather unhelpfully was sprawled on the floor having fallen over at the crucial moment. With the notable exception of Taylor and his linesman, most were convinced the ball had bounced over the line.
Exasperated, Northampton conceded an equaliser soon after, and Fulham’s Steve Earle cemented misery with two further goals in the final five minutes. The 4-2 defeat didn’t mathematically seal relegation, but it made survival feel impossible.
If Northampton felt unfortunate against Fulham, a case could also be made for rotten luck with the season’s eventual outcome: relegated with 33 points. In each and every top flight campaign between 1960 and 1974, the tally of 33 points (with two for a win) would have guaranteed safety. The Cobblers picked up 15 points from their final 13 games, which represented a huge achievement for the small club who’d spent every week in the relegation zone. The trouble was Fulham, under the shrewd tutelage of Vic Buckingham, picked up 20 points in the same time frame. In giving that form some context, eventual champions, Liverpool, racked up 18 points.
At least the Cobblers bounced back following the Fulham defeat. Sunderland, needing just a point to confirm their own safety, came to the County Ground two days later and took the lead, but goals from Mike Everitt and George Hudson secured a vital Northampton win. Furthermore, the 2-1 victory meant relegation wasn’t mathematically confirmed yet.
Saturday 30 April, the final day of the season, took Bowen and his charges to Blackpool. Preparations reportedly involved the team watching The Sound of Music at a local cinema. Unlike Captain Von Trapp, Maria, and the children, Bowen and Northampton failed to escape. Regardless of other results ending less than favourably, the Cobblers succumbed to a 3-0 defeat at Blackpool, who themselves were sitting comfortably in mid-table.
Read | Champions of the world: Wolves and the Stan Cullis era
Detracting from the disappointment, Blackpool, in all its idyllic 1966 heyday glories, must have provided a poignant final stop for what was a fairy tale adventure. By rights of budget, history and stature, Northampton had little reason to be a top-flight football team. Players and staff had undoubtedly over-achieved. To get to the final day with a shot at survival represented quite an achievement. Joe Mercer, manager of Manchester City and a close friend of Bowen, would later quip: “The real miracle of 1966 was not England winning the World Cup, it was Northampton reaching Division One.”
A post-season tour of Germany saw three friendlies play second fiddle to prolonging the sense of reflection, good old-fashioned team bonding, and the notion of self-congratulating for coming so far. One year on, the mood proved very different.
Returning to Division Two, it wasn’t quite inconceivable to imagine another push for promotion, or perhaps more realistically, a season of respectable consolidation. Morale stayed high, most of the squad remained, and the performances of a highly-successful second string suggested genuine strength in depth.
Arresting potential, however, failed to translate to results. In addition to failed promise and poor form, horrific luck with injuries – specifically of the type remedied by surgery to remove knee cartilage – significantly contributed to the Cobblers’ failures across 1966/67. In what must be a nearly impossible set of circumstances, no fewer than 12 first-team players saw spells on the sidelines for cartilage operations.
Far more unforgivable in supporters’ minds, a poor defensive record continued to blight their prospects, and morale took a rapid downward spiral. The team who had shipped 92 goals in Division One conceded 84 in the second tier. Northampton recorded just one win throughout the final two months of the season and confirmed a second successive relegation. Captain Foley departed and signed for Charlton in the summer.
Bowen’s resignation followed shortly after, with Tony Marchi, a double winner with Tottenham otspur in 1961 who also played in Italy with Torino and Vicenza, placed in charge for the 1967/68 season. Finishing four points above the drop zone at least put a halt to successive relegations, yet the gravitational force of the football pyramid proved strong.
The Division Three clash against Shrewsbury Town on 8 April 1969 perhaps summed up the decade perfectly. Under the stewardship of player-manager Ron Flowers, Northampton appeared comfortably clear of the relegation zone. Mid-table obscurity was all but confirmed. Coasting and 3-0 up by half-time, Northampton somehow contrived to lose 4-3, thanks in no small part to two own goals. Four defeats and a draw in the final five league games confirmed a return to English football’s bottom tier. Flowers departed a week later, and in keeping with the theme of going back to the start, was replaced by the returning Dave Bowen.
Having settled in at the familiar stomping grounds of Division Four, 7 February 1970 saw Northampton welcome esteemed guests to the County Ground once more. The FA Cup fifth round draw meant that Manchester United, now with George Best in his prime, would come to Northampton. It’s hard to tell which was the most prominent story of that chilly Saturday; Best’s otherworldly ability and personal haul of six goals, or the crushing scoreline of 8-2 and the Cobblers’ helpless performance firmly cementing their own return to mediocrity.
In reality, and in front of over 21,000 fans packed into the County Ground, both stories were told rather poetically.
Northampton, suffice to say, haven’t been out of the bottom two tiers since. They’ve won promotions, league titles, been to Wembley, been relegated, danced dangerously close to non-league football as recently as 2014, and more than once flirted with bankruptcy.
Despite being particularly quick at doing so, they are, however, not alone in having completed a cyclic journey from bottom to top and back again. Between 1970 and 1986, Swansea City recorded the feat, as did Carlisle United between 1964 and 1987. Notts County and Oxford United also achieved the same in 27 and 36 years respectively.
Following a summer of significant investment and the collection of some seemingly shrewd signings, fans of the Cobblers will be quietly hoping 2017/18 concludes with promotion to the Championship. Whether it does or it doesn’t, the journey of the 1960s will surely never be repeated