Tom Reed reflects on a way forward for the Cobblers and asks if restoring fan power could be an answer…
Former Cobblers boss Ian Sampson has been a thoughtful voice on issues at the Cobblers after Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink became the Sixfields club’s fourth manager in three years to be sacked.
Sampson himself got the chop from the top job in Town in 2011 despite guiding Cobblers to victory against Liverpool at Anfield in the League Cup. The club lacks an identity says Sampson with the ex-Northampton centre-back turned gaffer as well placed as any to offer an opinion on the wider problems at the club.
‘Sammo’ was talking mainly about a lack of on pitch direction or an established playing style and he’s correct on that. The fans were happiest seeing Chris Wilder’s brand of attacking football with rapid attacking midfielders and a modified 4-2-3-1 formation. The club talked about continuity when Wilder left with a League 2 title under his belt for Sheffield United, but, his team was broken up and successive managers played with no such style.
The nadir of unattractive football came from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, a striker himself but whose sides are curiously negative and that find hitting the net a severe problem. ‘Northampton nil’ has been the soundtrack of the season.
Of course this feeds back into the identity of the club. Sixfields can be a negative place and timid tactics don’t help get the stands rocking. Chairman Kelvin Thomas, more progressive than most should surely have seized on Wilder’s sexy football and insisted that any incoming manager follow the Wilder way. Having an established playing style which filters all the way down the youth ranks is something common on the continent with Belgium bearing fruit with a coherent playing philosophy at youth and senior level alike.
Any yet, here we see Northampton’s problem with identity, always thinking on a temporary level rather than in twenty year cycles. Most of the fans will still be around then, chairmen likely won’t.
Lower league fans all dream of the Premier League but let’s face it, top level football is almost impossible without significant investment. Those level of funds look beyond even Chinese investors in the shape of 5USPORTS who have now lost their controlling interest in the club.
In this light it seems that a period of introspection and proper club building, most likely in League 2 looks the order of the day. Sustainability should be the watchword. This might come after the Cardoza debacle but with many fans relieved to have a team to support chairman Kelvin Thomas has been left largely to get on with keeping the club ticking over. Thomas has talked about a possible master plan for land around Sixfields. Let’ see one for the whole club.
Of course, for Thomas, getting the East Stand finished has been a major task and let’s face it a struggle but questions remain on whether even if it is finished will the stadium be adequate to meet the needs of the club and help build an identity of being truly the town’s team?
Sixfields lacks character and despite being a lifeline for the club after the financial crisis of the early 90’s lacks the feel at the heart of the town like the much loved yet ramshackle County Ground. Has Sixfields served it’s purpose and should the club be looking for a new build around the town centre is a question that fans looking for the identity of the club will have to wrestle with?
Barring that, with the expanse of land around Sixfields why are their not larger plans to work with Northampton Saints to produce a sporting complex that the town can be proud of on the site? Is time major local companies such as Carlsberg should step up to the plate?
Cobblers have struggled with infrastructure for generations and now find themselves lagging behind clubs in League 2 and even non-league in stadium and training facilities owned by the club.
In Kelvin Thomas’ time at the club, with the club struggling to get the East Stand completed, Stevenage FC have secured a whole stand and Norwich City a new £5 million youth academy via fan funding company Tifosy so it is not as if major private benefactors are the only way to improve infrastructure.
Accrington chairman Andy Holt one of the more progressive private owners is a big believer in building club identity via the community infrastructure and is currently busy signing off a training ground for the small Lancashire club likely to leapfrog Cobblers into League 1.
Stanley have an excellent relationship with their fans, at odds with the fractious one at present at the Cobblers. The NTFC Trust lost their place on the club board under the Bower/Thomas takeover and that looks an obvious place for the club to start in trying to grind together some sort of identity.
Cobblers are now so far removed from the days of the dearly departed Trust pioneer Brian Lomax as to be almost unrecognisable and this doesn’t help the soul of the club. Back then, no one entity owned more than 20% of the club meaning decisions were a result of compromise and debate.
Now fans are by and large locked out of the decision making processes at the club and the potential of the fan-base to build the club and its identity goes to waste.
Instead of looking to China (or India) for saviours, or people more interested in the land around the club than the club itself it might be that local solutions that galvanise the supporter base as well as the business community is the best for the club moving forwards. Big City lights don’t bother us let’s not forget.
That can be mirrored on the pitch with a quota for homegrown players in every match day squad should become club policy.
Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore hailed the 25% stake of Swansea City fans in the club as a good model and this is achievable at Northampton Town. Surely it is not beyond local interests to take up the slack and build a club that can hold its own in the Football League?
Kelvin Thomas and David Bower handing over the Cobblers to such a set-up with clear vision on how to build the infrastructure and identity of the club would be a positive legacy for them. Likewise too, for the Griggs family, Northants forgotten sporting patriarchs if they could finish the job at Northampton Town that went awry over at Rushden.
Then we might see that stubborn fighting Northampton spirit brought to life in a clear identity for our beloved Cobblers, one that came to life in the stands at Shrewsbury and Anfield and on the pitch under Bowen, Carr, Atkins and Wilder.