For years they traded like every other small club. As soon as the "Cobblers" produced a moderately talented player he was booted out to make ends meet. Not any more. The Jean-Marc Bosman case means that clubs investing in young players simply to sell them for profit must reconsider. Northampton have already done so.
According to Paul Curtis, the former Charlton Athletic player and now youth team director at Northampton, the old theory that the small clubs can only survive by selling the players they develop themselves is out of date. The crucial difference in modern football is that it is now much cheaper to produce potential first-team players thanks to the two-year YTS scheme, which allows them to assess a youngster's potential in the crucial years between 16 and 18 without too great a commitment. This has become as much a lifeline as TV money.
The cost is still not inconsequential - about pounds 10,000 per player over the YTS period - but Curtis insists that with good housekeeping a club like his can virtually ignore the threats of losing out on their investments. He said: "This ruling is not going to have an outrageous effect on clubs who develop players for their own use. After all, at any time during a player's contract you can renegotiate: the idea will be that players are never out of contract.
"Not all clubs have thought this out. It comes down to individual clubs and what they want from their youth development policy. We would all like to get million-pound players and sell them on, but you've got to decide what you are developing youth for. People like ourselves look past the pay-day and towards first-team survival. I think clubs that used to rely on selling players will have to look at youngsters more as potential first-team members.
"The decision may make smaller clubs even more aware of the need to develop up to six or seven professional players a season. But the YTS scheme has come to the rescue of clubs like us. We started our School of Excellence just two years ago, so only time will tell whether our work will be a success
"We have two of our former YTS boys in the first-team squad. As yet we haven't got our money back, but I'm optimistic." Most non-League clubs have long accepted that relying on incoming transfer fees and the chance of meeting Manchester United in the Cup is no way to run a business. Curtis says that the only lower division clubs who are seriously worried by Bosman are those who have not yet changed their policy. Selling a young player in future should be nothing more than a nice bonus, not an essential.