Matt and Marcus beat crowd ban to savour Cobblers’ Wembley win
While thousands of Northampton Town fans couldn’t be at Wembley to watch the club’s promotion play off final win, a University of Northampton student and a graduate had passes for the game.
The Covid-19 pandemic meant that the Cobblers’ League Two promotion decider against Exeter City, on Monday 29 June, had to be played behind closed doors.
But Multimedia Sports Journalism student, Marcus Ally, and Multimedia Journalism graduate, Matt Derrig, were inside Wembley to witness Town seal promotion to League One, as they walloped the Grecians 4-0.
Marcus was there to collate stats for football data company Opta, while Matt was in the press box as a member of the Cobblers’ media team.
Marcus, who has been combining his studies with working for Opta at Cobblers games all season, said: “Wembley was very surreal, I got there early and was hanging around, it was like a ghost town.
“I walked down Wembley Way after the game on the way to get on a tube and it was soulless and empty, stark contrast to how full of life and passion it is in normal times.
“Having no fans was odd, it was an astonishing result and performance, but I can’t help feel for the supporters who weren’t able to witness it with their friends, family and fellow supporters.”
Marcus, who is a lifelong Charlton fan, added: “It would have been the best day of some of their lives – it might sound sad, but seeing Charlton win at Wembley in the League One playoff final last season was right up there for me if not the best, and that was a 2-1 nail biter, this was a 4-0 masterclass and the fans couldn’t be there for it.
“I think the players still celebrated and acted like it was a normal game. There was no lack of determination or joy at the end under the circumstances. It was quite eerie and hollow, but the performance from the team just took the attention away from all of that.”
Meanwhile Matt, who joined the Cobblers press team as an intern in 2014 before taking up the role full time two years later, says the final was a match he’ll never forget.
“It was a magical evening,” he said. “There wasn’t too much time to soak it all up prior to kick-off because we couldn’t enter the stadium until two hours beforehand, and some of that time was spent queuing for temperature checks and media passes. So by the time we were seated, team-news time was quickly approaching.
“I’ve been fortunate to go to Wembley before, as a fan, but it was a completely different feeling representing your hometown team and knowing that you were one of the people responsible for keeping the supporters at home updated.
“We’d played so well in the game beforehand that I felt confident we had a similar performance in our locker, and thankfully we did just that. An early goal helped settle any nerves and watching the team dominate such a big game in-front of a huge online and TV following was a great feeling. Even at 2-0 you’re not entirely sure because anything can happen in football, but after the Exeter red card it felt as though we could go on and complete the job, then when the third and fourth goals went in we could really start enjoying the moment.
“I think pressing send on the ‘THE TOWN ARE GOING UP!’ post on social media at full-time is when it really sunk in, and the team and management staff deserve huge credit for the way they’ve gone about their work this season. The scenes at full-time will stay with me for a long time, and it showed a team that care about their club and as a result we now we have Sky Bet League One football to look forward to, which is really exciting for us and our supporters.”
While promotion marked the end of a successful season on the pitch, Matt was struck by the club’s commitment to staff and supporters during lockdown.
He said: “The atmosphere during the lockdown was good, the club were in constant contact with employees and keeping us informed with all of the latest information and updates regarding the pandemic, either via email or regular Zoom calls with the chairman.
“It was also great to see the club engage so much with the community during the lockdown, which helped further to raise morale throughout the club and with the supporters.
“First-team manager, Keith Curle, was in regular contact over the phone with some of the more vulnerable fans so that they didn’t feel alone during such difficult times, whilst the club were also recognising our local key workers with similar calls from Keith, the Chairman and a selection of players. “
Matt also felt his role was of even greater importance when the league was ended prematurely in March, with fans physically disconnected from the club.
He said: “From a media point of view, it was important for us to keep our website and social media channels up to date with interesting and engaging content to keep our supporters entertained. This saw us introduce plenty of new features which seemed to go down well, and it was nice to play a role in keeping people entertained whilst they were stuck indoors.
“Football has a massive impact on people’s lives and although there were no games for us to attend or cover, we still wanted to make sure we were a source of entertainment for people and to help take their mind off the problems we were all facing. We received some feedback saying that our content was really helping people to keep engaged and entertained so it was nice to hear that.”
Matt added: “I must also mention the work that the Northampton Town Community Trust undertook during the lockdown, and still continue to do, as they helped play a massive role in keeping spirits up within the local community.
“They opened up a befriending service for the older and more vulnerable people in the community to keep in touch with us, as well as weekly group activities via Zoom, a free mental health first aid hotline for teachers, keep fit videos and offering to supply coaches and support staff to schools amongst many other initiatives.”
Going back to on-the-field matters, Matt attended all three play off matches, including the two-legged semi finals against Cheltenham Town, which were a surreal experience for him.
He said: “The first-leg semi at home was a very surreal experience because the build up for such a big game is usually huge, and it the stadium would’ve certainly sold out for such a big occasion.
“Although we replicated as much of a normal home matchday as we could, such as playing the pre-match music and having the matchday announcer reading the teams out, it was still quite a surreal experience.
“For all three games we had our temperature taken ahead of entering the stadium, had to wear masks at all times as well as adhere to certain rules and protocols set by the EFL and the clubs themselves. The Sky Sports cameras were also at every game, and seeing the work that goes in to setting them up along with things such as the goal-line technology being installed and the Cobbler in the Crowd cut-out initiative, you could still tell they were massive games and I still had that butterfly feeling in my stomach even without the supporters in the stadium.”
Matt added: “The squad size was also increased from 18 to 20, so there were more players involved which helped create some sort of atmosphere from the sidelines along with certain, cleared staff members that were able to attend.
“So even though there were no fans in attendance, there was still the normal shouts and sounds of a football match rather than complete silence. When the third goal went in away at Cheltenham, it sounded and felt as though we had a full away end cheering from the noise that was created! So the players certainly still knew the importance of the game to themselves, the club and the supporters.
“A lot of work went in to making sure that the lack of atmosphere didn’t take away from the preparation or concentration as a promotion to League One was at stake.”