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Gripped by the Cobblers: Why the Supporter’s Trust is right to hold out for a sporting legacy with punch at Sixfields

Tom Reed of the What A Load of Cobblers podcast reflects on the past and future of making a stand at Northampton Town FC

The late, great, Brian Lomax is revered at AFC Wimbledon, the club born out of the ashes of Wimbledon FC, now back at home Plough Lane in a purpose-built stadium, part funded by the fans.

He paid for postage stamps so that the nascent club could send letters to do all the paperwork to get back on their feet and the Wimbledon fans have never forgotten it. Nor down at Exeter where Lomax helped rouse the Grecians out of catastrophe.

Of course, Lomax has set up the first ever supporters’ trust in 1992 at the Cobblers, helping with the finishing touches to the Sixfields Community Stadium on the ex-Council tip.

There were and are no separate staircases at Sixfields for the board of directors of the football club, each game win, lose or draw, they have to troop, with the regular fans to their seats in the West Stand. 

This was a deliberate design feature; no-one is better than the everyday fan.

And yet, as Lomax was ailing from lung cancer in 2015/16, his life work was torn up by a club under the Cardoza family. The hard fought and pioneering trust supporters’ rep places on the club board were removed by hook or by crook, the award-winning disabled facilities in the compact East Stand (designed for simple expansion) ruined. The athletics track, part of a simple, yet at the same time wider vision for sporting use for the people of Northampton, well on the way to looking as it does now, as a scene from the TV show Chernobyl.

Those communal staircases gone in Cardoza’s East Stand carbuncle, a monument to football’s economic dysfunction, with private boards of directors able to squirrel away in closed quarters, away from the fans that tread the cobble stones of the market square.

Cardoza’s design for the East Stand was derided, changing on an almost weekly basis from a decent vision with significantly increased capacity, sleek executive boxes and a conference centre, then to a limited-view insult with seats blocked by walls and finally, after much rigmarole and financial and emotional turmoil, to its current version with that roof at the awkward angle so as not to block out the rain and incoming glass boxes where fans shield their eyes from the sun.

To their credit, the club’s owners, David Bower and Kelvin Thomas have done their best to “tart it up” in the local vernacular, making the best of a bad lot. Yet, as the documents around the upcoming meeting to verify a land deal to pay for the East Stand’s completion have shown, is likely to only increase the capacity of Sixfields by around 300 seats at best, with the £10.25 million missing loans and £3 million additional build cost making the project come in at around £46,666 per seat. That’s without the policing bill and the total the council have spent on trying to find their dough.

You can stick new tyres on a jalopy, install a new stereo and repaint it but it’s still going to creak.

Plenty of the key detail on the proposed land deal is not in the public domain. What precisely is going to be built on the huge acreage of land which extends beyond the East Stand and over that athletics track? What percentage of the club’s hefty debt to its owners, revealed by football finance expert Kieran Maguire to be around £5.5 million in 2020, before the pandemic hit, will be wiped out by any green-lit land deal between Northampton Town and West Northants council? What real turnover benefit is the East Stand going to bring in competition with the huge stadium projects planned at the similarly sized Peterborough, Coventry, Luton and Oxford?

For a club with the Cobblers’ financial history, this lack of public detail before the big Council meeting on Monday 21 February, is unideal but just part of the landscape from which supporters and the townsfolk have to try and piece together informed decisions.

Any yet, that much mocked Cardoza-instituted East Stand now seems palatable now there is the potential to draw a line under the whole damned thing. 

Leading experts in stadium projects and land deals such as ex-manager Chris Wilder and the owner of the In Town Automotive garage have been assembled in a PR piece by the club to lay down why it’s such a good deal for the club.

The supporters’ trust, 30 years-old this year has fought on, somewhat tone deaf at times, organising an Asset Of Community (ACV) value status on the athletics track, way before Thomas and Bower were on the scene.

The club’s owners, somewhat strangely argue against the athletics track as having community value, despite the arduous Council process literally deciding that it was.

Andy Roberts, the Trust Chair, on the WALOC podcast, calmly laid out the Trust’s insistence that the ACV land should be kept in full for football club and community benefit, befitting the original stadium plans paid for by the sale of the municipal bus company.

It is hard not to agree with the trust line, with the reputed four-acre athletics track site, remediated, unlike much of the land beyond on the old rubbish dump, being a blank canvas for various schemes to create a true sporting and community legacy out of the sorry Sixfields mess.

The town’s fantastic Team Shoe Box boxing gym, home to the talented Kieron Conway and Eithan James, are absolutely crying out for training and show space. The gym showed its support for the now stalled New Hotel End project recently, seeing the project’s stage within a stand as perfect for live weigh-ins.

There is the chance to use the whole athletics track area to build a multi-use indoor arena for Cobblers’ training plus boxing practice and shows on the site, a once in a lifetime opportunity that will be gone when a logistics warehouse or whatever else is built over the athletics track.

A sporting complex with punch, that brings together the community benefit and sporting prestige of the two great sports of boxing and football, a simple enabling development and the requisite grants would pay for it. It wouldn’t be hard to attract a hotel to such a sporting park, accommodating visiting fighters, football fans and business people, such is the proximity to the M1 and providing an income to the boxing and football operations.

Given that the football club’s owners have recently shown leeway by offering the freehold of part of the athletics track to the club as part of the deal, what is stopping them from going the whole hog and organising that last-half of the much-debated land for direct community and club use?

This would offset the unideal East Stand design, provide a fitting sporting legacy to the proud town of Northampton and, like a cutman in the ring, stem the bleed from the Cardoza induced wound which has clouded the view for too long.

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