They say there is nowhere more painful to lose than Wembley and for Northampton Town, that old adage was excruciatingly in evidence during our horrific 3-0 play-off final defeat to Bradford City. As the Bantams charged past us and over the final furlong to promotion to League One, every Cobblers fan stood aghast as our whole season unravelled in the first 30 minutes at the national stadium.
Despite the Wembley woe, the Cobblers must get back in the saddle and try to complete the race next time around. This season was one of progression and overachievement for Aidy Boothroyd’s men and as I look back at where we were 18 months ago, I am immensely proud of where we are now in comparison to our position when Boothroyd took over in November 2011.
Our home form this season was the highlight of the campaign with a record of 17 wins from 23 matches and it was the Sixfields factor which enabled us to take a play-off place at all. Some of the top teams in the division (Rotherham, Port Vale and Burton Albion) were all beaten on our home patch and we were only beaten at Sixfields once in the last six months of the campaign.
Yet as superb as our home record was, our away form was just as bad and was the defining factor in us not grabbing an automatic promotion spot. We only tasted success four times on the road in League Two, a record which was the joint-worst in the division, and three of those wins came at sides in the lower reaches of the league (Accrington, Dagenham and Aldershot).
Boothroyd has turned the football club right around in superb fashion but the away conundrum was one that he could never seem to solve. His defensive tactics away from home often left us overrun and exposed whilst key players like Chris Hackett, Clarke Carlisle and Adebayo Akinfenwa seemed to underperform on their travels without any understandable explanation.
Some improved performances away from Sixfields towards the end of the season, including a draw at promoted Port Vale and a win in the play-off semi-final at Cheltenham, has given us all renewed optimism for our away campaign next time around. The ability is there in the squad to take points from any ground in League Two but that must been translated into victories next season.
Injuries to important players like striker Alex Nicholls, who had scored eight goals before his horrendous leg break in October, and captain Kelvin Langmead, who was ever-present but missed the last few matches of the season, definitely did not help our cause. There is a certain feeling amongst our supporters that had those two been fit all season, then our chances of gaining promotion to the third tier would have been enhanced dramatically.
So, it was left to 90 minutes of football at Wembley against a side whom we had not beaten in four attempts this season. Our chances of success seemed slim but no-one could have seen the opening half-hour coming. The Cobblers temporarily forgot how to defend and Bradford cashed in by smashing the ball past a stricken Lee Nicholls three times without reply.
In front of over 47,000 people, Town seemed completed overawed by the occasion and struggled to string two passes together against a Bantams side who had gained Wembley experience from their Capital One Cup final defeat to Swansea. All we could do in the East Stand was watch on in horror as 48 matches went down the drain under the grey skies in North London.
Looking ahead to next season, the expectations for Boothroyd and his side will be much higher than the 2012/13 campaign and the Cobblers will be expected to reach the play-offs at the very least. It will be up to the manager and his staff to manage the weight of those expectations and ensure that the pressure does not get to the players, as it appeared to in this year’s final assignment.
The loss of top-scorer Akinfenwa, who has been released by the club, may prove to be a big loss (in every sense!) but if he can be replaced by another quality centre-forward then the goals should again flow at Sixfields. If Boothroyd struggles to find a suitable replacement for ‘Bayo’ then fans might begin to question his judgement of the key players in the squad.
Our Wembley experience must be used to good effect next season and Boothroyd has to ensure that he turns that negative day in May into something more positive in the 2013/14 campaign. This time, there will be no sense of over achievement but only an expectation to move the club on and back into League One.
Written by Ashley Lambell, We Are Going Up’s Northampton Town Blogger
Ashley tweets at @ashlambell