Football Commentary: Cobblers advance on the road to survival

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The Independent Online
IN THE churchyard opposite the ramshackle structure that passes for a stand at Northampton Town there is a hoarding bearing a message which seems peculiarly pertinent to the plight of the Football League's bottom club. 'Mud thrown,' it warns, 'is ground lost.'

Dirt aplenty is likely to be dished between now and the end of the season if Northampton stay rooted to the foot of the Third Division - and John Barnwell's side are seven points adrift despite beating Scarborough 3-2 - while Kettering and Kidderminster remain in the running for the Vauxhall Conference title.

Northampton's nightmare scenario has Kettering, 15 miles away, swanning into the place they have held for 74 years. The fact that their neighbours are now guided by Graham Carr, part of Northampton's First Division team in the mid- 1960s and their most successful manager of modern times, intensifies the rivalry.

County Ground insiders point to Kettering's prolonged brush with insolvency (though Northampton themselves are unhappily familiar with administration, the last stop before receivership). Hardly the kind of outfit, the argument runs, the League should risk after embarrassments with Maidstone and Barnet.

Then there is Kidderminster's chairman, pledging to fight a League ruling that the Conference leaders failed to meet a deadline for upgrading facilities and are therefore ineligible for promotion. He remarked pointedly that his competition would accept Northampton, 'even though their ground doesn't come up to the requirements'.

If the League holds firm, Northampton could survive even if their last stand turns out to be built on sand. In the meantime, those aspiring to replace them, as well as their companions in distress, should be warned that the Cobblers are by no means ready for the knacker's yard. After Saturday's victory the talk was of ground gained, in more ways than one.

For at whatever level Northampton start next season, they will no longer be based at the country's only two-and-a-half-sided stadium. It is farewell to the Meccano-style stand (357 seats), adjacent county cricket pitch and atmosphere of a morgue. They are off to a new, all-seated and covered, 7,600-capacity home near the M1, to be called Sixfields, currently under construction by the council at a cost of pounds 4.5m.

In the shorter term, a team as makeshift as their surroundings believe they can beat the drop, just as they did on last season's final day. While that 'triumph' has increasingly resembled a suspended sentence rather than a reprieve, Northampton have now won successive fixtures for the first time in 10 months.

Following last week's pounds 70,000 sale of Steve Brown to Wycombe - which enabled Northampton to begin paying off pounds 350,000 promised to creditors - the former Wolves manager, Barnwell, made Ian Gilzean captain. The son of Spurs and Scotland's Alan, albeit with a Cockney accent, his leadership was rewarded with the decisive goal.

Gilzean has had more surgery than Michael Jackson, including cruciate ops on both knees in one day, yet makes up for what he lacks in mobility with heart, height and no little ability. His header against the bar set up Darren Harmon's opener and, after Scarborough had deservedly taken the lead, he was also involved when Paul Fitzpatrick equalised.

Barnwell reckoned there was something of Gilly Snr about the way his centre-forward glanced home the winner. Five minutes earlier, Craig Whitington had struck the underside of the home crossbar; 10 minutes later, Scarborough's hopes of stretching their unbeaten run to eight games effectively ended with Darren Davis's dismissal for a professional foul. Perhaps Northampton's luck was turning at last.

Not quite: Hereford, one place ahead, had won at Darlington. Barnwell was asked if he knew. 'No, not interested. Couldn't care less. It's what we do.' Would Northampton stay up? 'Oh yes,' he replied, as if the question were absurd. 'Our hand's on the door and we've got to open it further, making sure it doesn't slam in our faces.'

Northampton's dressing-room has had a revolving door lately, and three players made home debuts as part of the manager's drive to cobble together some fresh faces untainted by failure. None excited the 2,974 diehards like Efon Elad, Hackney-born though reputedly on the fringe of Cameroon's World Cup squad, who was recommended to Barnwell by an acquaintance in Germany.

With his dummies, drag-backs and dreadlocks, Elad looked like Ruud Gullit of the lower Third at times. 'He's a bottle of pop, totally unpredictable,' Barnwell enthused. 'He'll put a thousand on the gate and get the punters going. . . one of the few players I've seen who continually plays with a smile on his face.'

As cold and dark closed in, arms could be seen turning and bats flashing under the light of the indoor nets. By the time the willow wand is waved in earnest, following a March during which they meet all four sides directly above them, Northampton should know whether their grounds for optimism are justified.

Goals: Harmon (5) 1-0; Whitington (34) 1-1; Murray (38) 1-2; Fitzpatrick (46) 2-2; Gilzean (71) 3-2.

Northampton Town (4-4-2): Richardson; Fleming, Chard, Warburton, Gillard; Elad, Fitzpatrick, Harmon, Bell; Wilkin, Gilzean. Substitutes not used: Patmore, Burnham, Sherwood (gk).

Scarborough (4-4-2): Evans; Knowles (Dineen, 25), Meyer, Davis, Charles; Thompson, Toman, Calvert, Murray; White, Whitington. Substitutes not used: Young, Robinson (gk).

Referee: J Kirkby (Sheffield).

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