Northampton cruise at empty Wembley

Northampton cruise at empty Wembley

People wearing face masks walk outside Wembley. (Reuters)
People wearing face masks walk outside Wembley. (Reuters)

In this extraordinary football season another piece of history was made on Monday when the 90,000-seat Wembley stadium hosted its first-ever competitive game played behind closed doors.

The League Two (fourth tier) play-off final between Northampton and Exeter, which saw the Cobblers enjoy a comfortable 4-0 victory over the Grecians, was witnessed in the stadium by just a few hundred cardboard cut-outs of fans, including NBA great Shaquille O'Neal, a genuine Northampton supporter would you believe.

To try and give the event at least a sense of occasion, a recorded version of the national anthem was played before the kick-off, with the assembled press corps duly standing to attention and some even singing.

During the game, the biggest noise in the vast stadium came from the benches as the shouts from the coaches echoed around the empty spaces.

Northampton manager Keith Curle wasn't too bothered though.

It was his first-ever promotion since becoming a manager back in 2002 and he saw his club join Swindon, Crewe and Plymouth in moving up to League One.

"I needed a promotion and everybody knew that," Curle admitted after the game.

Curle, who in his playing days was a decent centre-half for Manchester City and England, conceded it was a "surreal atmosphere" at the deserted Wembley stadium.

At the final whistle, there was no customary walk up the Wembley steps to receive medals from some dignitary.

Instead the jubilant Northampton players picked up their medals from a table and celebrated in the centre circle with a sing-song and champagne.

The only people watching them in the ground were their forlorn Exeter opponents.

The players then went off to take selfies with their cardboard fans, with Shaq, not surprisingly, being the favourite.

For Exeter, it was their third play-off final loss in four years.

The only consolation for the Devon club was that no fans had wasted their time travelling up from the West Country.

There was reportedly one London-based Northampton supporter standing outside Wembley, listening to the game on the radio.

It was quite an achievement for Curle as Northampton had finished in seventh place in the league and things did not look good when they lost their first semi-final play-off leg 2-0 at home to Cheltenham.

However, a 3-0 win in the return leg was enough to give Northampton their date at Wembley.

Nicknamed the Cobblers owing to the old shoe-making industry which once dominated the town, Northampton are a small, unfashionable club and rarely in the news, having spent most of their time in the lower divisions.

Only a couple of seasons ago they just escaped relegation.

However, they did experience one extraordinary period when in the space of just nine years, they soared from the bottom division in 1961 to the top flight in 1966, but equally abruptly plunged down the divisions and were back at the bottom by 1969.

Just imagine the emotions of their fans.

(This was matched a decade later when Swansea went from the bottom division (1978) to Division One (top flight) where they actually topped the league for several weeks, only to end up back in the bottom division (1986) and almost bankrupt.)

Since that roller-coaster time, the Cobblers have struggled in the lower two divisions and in 1994 they were extremely lucky not to be relegated after finishing bottom of the league.

They were saved from the Conference because that the team which was supposed to replace them, Kidderminster Harriers, had a stadium that did not match new safety measures and so Northampton were reprieved.

Wembley will be back in action again -- still minus spectators -- on July 13 with the League One play-off final, followed by the two FA Cup semi-finals on July 18-19, with Chelsea taking on Manchester United and Arsenal facing Manchester City.

It will certainly seem odd watching Wembley semi-finals without any fans present. And it will be even stranger for the final on Aug 1.

It certainly hasn't been a good time for the Wembley stadium's finances.

Seven Euro 2020 games scheduled to be played have been postponed until next year, as have two NFL games and a number of normally lucrative pop concerts.

"We've already lost that money and there's no way we can recover it," said a gloomy FA chief Greg Clarke. Like any other stadium around the world, Wembley is desperate for the spectators to return.

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