Forgotten Grounds: The County Ground, Northampton

Over the years a handful of Football League grounds have been associated with the playing of professional cricket, writes Malcolm Johnson.

In some cases, the cricket pitch has been external to the football ground as at Darlington’s Feethams ground and Park Avenue in Bradford where a double-sided stand was used for spectators of both sports. There were however, two grounds where a single playing area was used for both sports, one of these being Bramall Lane, Sheffield, since rebuilt, and the other the County Ground at Northampton, now used only for cricket.

Founded as the town’s first professional football club in March 1897 by a group of local school teachers and a solicitor at an inn on Wellingborough Road as Northampton FC, the name was objected to by the town’s rugby club, so it was changed to Northampton Town.

Soon nicknamed ‘The Cobblers’ after the local shoemaking industry, the club joined the Northants League, later to become the United Counties League, playing at the County Ground on Wantage Road some distance from the town centre. Formerly an area of farmland, this had been a cricket field used since 1885 by Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, not then a member of the County Championship.

Renting the ground from the cricket club, and initially using the facilities of the cricket pavilion, Northampton Town won the Northants League championship in their second season before progressing to the Midland League. After a further two seasons they joined the Southern League in 1901, and it was in 1907 that a small stand was constructed with terracing on either side.

The Southern League championship was won in 1909, and as members of the First Division of the Southern League Northampton Town automatically became founder members of the new Football League Division Three in 1920.

The Northern section of the Third Division was formed a year later, and it was as members of this that Lincoln City paid their first visit to the County Ground on 1st December 1923 in the Fifth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup. This was the equivalent of the First Round today and a City side struggling near the foot of their division suffered what was to be the Imps’ heaviest defeat on the ground, going down 5-1 to their third-placed hosts. Scorer of the first Lincoln City goal on the ground was veteran inside-forward James Bauchop with his seventh goal in ten games.

To fit in with their Football League status £5,000 was raised by the club to build a new 2,000-seater main stand, opened in 1924. This was situated alongside Abington Avenue and was a covered stand with seating to the rear and terracing to the front. At the same time improved terracing was also installed at the Hotel End. Spectators at the other end were accommodated on quite a high Spion Kop but which extended for barely two thirds of the width of the pitch.

The main stand had the cricket pitch opposite, with the pavilion in the distance, but was not used for cricketing spectators due to being too far from the action. The consequence was that with the cricket boundary running almost down the centre of the football pitch it was used during cricket season as a spectator area and car park. With this kind of activity on it, not surprisingly the ground gained the reputation as having the worst playing surface in the Football League.

 

Northampton remained in Division Three (South) for nearly forty years until becoming founder members of Division Four in 1958. In the meantime, ground improvements saw the covering of the Hotel End terracing in 1951 and the installation of floodlights in October 1960.

The next meeting with Lincoln City, and the first between the two clubs in the Football League came at the beginning of September 1961. Northampton were fresh from winning their first ever promotion, having finished third in Division Four the previous season, while City were on their way down having finished well adrift at the bottom of Division Two (now the Championship). Neither side had made a good start to the season, with City having won only one game so far in 21st place one above the relegation zone. Northampton, also with only one win, were three places above them on goal average. However, no doubt still enthused by their recent promotion a crowd of 11,850 turned out, the highest ever for a match between the two clubs at the County Ground. The game ended 2-2, with City’s scorers being Ron Harbertson and diminutive left-winger Ken Barrett. The point gained was enough to lift City out of the relegation zone but they were back in it long before the end of the season as the two clubs began to go in opposite directions.

Rising quickly through the divisions under the management of Dave Bowen, four years later Northampton were competing in the First Division, during which the ground attendance record was set with 24,523 in the ground to see the relegation battle with Fulham on 23 April 1966. The London side came out on top with a 4-2 win and only two points from their remaining two games meant Northampton started on a slide back to the Third Division in successive seasons, and two years after that they were in Division Four and welcoming Lincoln back to the County Ground at the end of August in 1969.

After a failure to sustain a promotion challenge the previous season hopes were high for the Imps at the start of the 1969/70 season, but a poor start of three home draws and an away defeat saw them well into the lower half of the league table going to the match at the County Ground. Northampton had made an even worse start and were next to bottom with only one point from three games. The Imps took the lead midway through the second half with a fourth goal of the season from eventual top scorer Rod Fletcher but the Cobblers equalised close to the end through later England full back Phil Neal. The point was not enough to prevent Northampton from sinking to the bottom of the league but an improved second half of the season saw them pull away to finish in mid-table while City could do no better than eighth for the second season in a row.

Following the failure to mount a serious promotion challenge Imps manager Ron Gray had been replaced by former trainer Bert Loxley by the time of the Imps’ next visit in January 1971. City were producing some inconsistent results at the time in a season badly hit by injuries, exemplified in this match by midfield powerhouse Trevor Meath, still returning to fitness following a serious injury having to play up front. The Imps had not won away from home in the league since the end of September and that run continued with defeat to a third-placed Northampton side looking a good bet for promotion. Two goals down at the break the Imps were unable to add to Bobby Svarc’s eighth goal in ten games as the 2-1 defeat kept them in 16th place. Things were to get worse for both clubs over the remainder of the season as despite another change of manager with former Manchester United star David Herd replacing Loxley, they finished in the re-election zone, while Northampton’s run of only three wins in their last eighteen games saw them finish seventh.

Just over a year later it was the Imps who were looking a good bet for promotion under David Herd after a run of five wins and two draws had put them in fourth place, while it was the Cobblers who were in mid-table. This was my first visit to the Count Ground, and it was certainly a unique sight with its two-thirds of a Kop and the open cricket field side which by that time still had some of the wooden steps of terracing which, about four deep, had been used to help cater for the increased number of spectators in Northampton’s successful years.

 

 

The Imps, with three former Northampton players in their side, Dixie McNeil, Terry Branston and John Kurila, recorded their first win at the County Ground, and it was to be the only time they scored three goals there, two coming from winger John Worsdale making him the first and last City player ever to score two goals on the ground. McNeil scored against his old club while Worsdale’s second goal was a last-minute winner to move City up to third place.

The season ended with a reverse of the two clubs’ fortunes in the previous one, with Northampton having to apply for re-election while City missed out on promotion in fifth place. The failure to mount another promotion challenge the following season led to another change of manager for City and by the time of the next meeting at the County Ground at the beginning of February 1973 the 28-year-old Graham Taylor had taken the reigns the previous December. He was still after seven games looking for his first win, and the Imps were currently in 16th place with Northampton again struggling in the bottom four.

I made the journey to Northampton again, this time standing on the grass on ‘cricket side’ of the ground as the extent of wooden ‘terracing’ was now only minimal. Separated only from the pitch by a rope it certainly meant viewing the game at close quarters! As with two years before, City were going through a spell of being hit by injuries. Young winger David Walls came in for his first game of the season, striker John Ward turned in a hard-working performance in midfield and City were only able to name reserve goalkeeper Alan Aubrey on the bench. Graham Taylor himself had been forced to play despite not being fully fit, and with Northampton’s boss, the former Ipswich Town defender Bill Baxter in the home side there was the uncommon sight of two player-managers on the pitch. With the depleted side, a 0-0 draw in the circumstances was not a bad outcome, but it was the first in a series of results which saw the venue become something of a ‘hoodoo’ ground for the Imps, especially when it came to scoring goals.

City had an encouraging end to the 1972/73 season to finish in tenth place, but the Cobblers had to endure another re-election application. However, after a good start to the new season they were in mid-table by the time of City’s next visit at the beginning of December 1973. The Imps themselves had risen to a season-high of fourth place on the back of a 4-2 win over Crewe and their side included several names who were to feature in Graham Taylor’s successful side of two years later such as Sam Ellis, Peter Graham and Alan Harding. Despite the presence of such players the 1-0 defeat inflicted by a Northampton side including, as well as Phil Neal, another future England player in John Gregory and on-loan future Imps winger Dick Krzywicki, saw City drop out of the promotion places.

 

 

City’s promotion challenge petered out, possibly affected by not being suited to having to play games on Sundays due to the national emergency situation that winter and they fell away to mid-table. Northampton, however, rose to finish in fifth place although several points short of a promotion place.

I missed the following year’s game at the County Ground due to it being on Boxing Day. The Imps, after a tremendous run of results from the end of September were in third place, although only three points ahead of Northampton in ninth. A second successive 1-0 losing score-line on the ground however, was Lincoln’s first defeat in 17 games but while it kept the Cobblers in ninth place a poor second half of the season saw them finish below half way while the Imps missed out on promotion by the narrowest of margins.

 

I was back at the County Ground in the October of the following season to see one of only four defeats City suffered in the league all season as Graham Taylor’s side broke all sorts of club and national records. In second place at the time behind Tranmere Rovers on goal average, Northampton were fifth. Yet another 1-0 defeat for the Imps in a below-par performance saw the Cobblers draw level with them on points, but quirkily a 4-2 defeat for Tranmere saw Lincoln go to the top of the table on goal average.