Things weren’t looking great for Northampton after the first leg of their League Two playoff semi-final.
The 2-0 defeat at home to Cheltenham put them in an extremely tricky position for the return, but Keith Curle’s side took the lead after just nine minutes, and by the 77th Callum Morton’s second goal capped the 3-0 win that takes them into a potentially very surreal final at an empty Wembley against Exeter.
Presumably Curle and his colleagues thoroughly enjoyed the win and celebrated their comeback with due gusto?
Well, for a bit.
“I think enjoying the drive home after the game,” Curle told the Totally Football League Show. “And then the next two days have been focusing with me staff on Exeter. We enjoyed the couple of hours after the game and Cheltenham, and then the focus is that we need to find weaknesses in Exeter and areas that we can exploit. It’s a very much a team effort now off the pitch, regarding the staff, giving them detailed information of what I want and then me impacting that onto the players.
“A lot of people we’re trying to fill me with with stats regarding how good Cheltenham were and how good their home record has been and their style of play – I think somebody said they play football the right way. I’ve never won a game in the wrong way.
“What we decided internally was we need to focus on ourselves, what we’re about, what our identity is, individually make sure we’re on top of our roles and responsibilities and make sure we have that unity, make sure we had that cohesion with how we play.”
The task was potentially even more intimidating given that Cheltenham, who finished three spots above Northampton in the curtailed table but had by some distance the best defensive record in League Two (they let in 27: the next best number was 37).
“No, not intimidating. I don’t think you can get intimidated on a football pitch or certainly within a footballing arena. It’s not a word. I like to band about. I think we were very respectful, and we did a lot of work on their back unit and how we had to dismantle that and where we could where we could cause them problems.”
Curle was confident before the game when many others might not have been, and he puts that down to one of the oldest truisms in football: that 2-0 is a dangerous lead to have.
“I think five times this season we’ve had two goal leads in games: four of them we’ve drawn and one of them we’ve got beat. We know all about a two-nil lead, and goals change games. That was the mindset that we set into the players.
“I’ve played a lot of games, I’ve coached and managed in a lot of games, and 2-0 is a difficult lead to defend depending on when you the goal. When I was at QPR, the year we got promoted that we were 2-0 down at Derby after 93 minutes and we drew 2-2. Strange things can happen in football.”
To Exeter, then, who had to mount their own comeback – admittedly from only 1-0 down and with the second leg at home – against Colchester to progress. What is Curle’s assessment
“I think they can score goals. I think they’re organised. I think they’ve adopted a shape that gives them a platform for their match winners to go out and perform – Nicky Law and Randell Williams are two players that on their day that are matchwinners. Likewise, we’ve got matchwinners in our team.
“We will watch the games that we played against them, we’ll watch their games against Colchester. What we try to do is the for staff watch the games individually and they give me their notes, I collate those and then we come up with a plan because two people can watch us watch a game and pick up different things.”
The final will be behind closed doors at Wembley, which is an entirely different matter at a 90,000 capacity stadium, to an empty 8,000-seater Sixfields. But Curle thinks it might turn out to be a positive for his players.
“I think we embrace it. We enjoy it. Being honest, I think it will take away a lot of distractions for the players because I think with a Wembley appearance and you spend a couple of days sorting tickets, finding out where the seats are – when players get there, all they want to do is see their loved ones and their family and friends in the stands, and that can suddenly be a slight distraction.
“I think now you go in there and it’s a game of football – in a fantastic stadium, the home of English football. But very quickly, it will become a changing room, a walk to the pitch side, and then as soon as you cross the white line as one of those “game on chaps, now we’re going to work.”
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