New Year is the time for upsets when pitches start to squelch and top-tier teams sidle into the FA Cup. Football journalists dust off their list of greatest ever giant killings, and Ronnie Radford and Mickey Thomas get a couple of lemonades out of an interview or three.
The League Cup is seen as the poor relation, and its shock results seem to reverberate with less of a buzz. Premier League teams enter early on and their managers, preoccupied with the league table, often tinker their line-ups. Yet in Northampton, the East Midland market town with the looming Lift Tower, there is one result fans are happy to sing about some seven years later: the night when the Cobblers knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup at Anfield.
The story centres on the penalty shoot-out that decided the third round tie in monsoon-like conditions on Merseyside. Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson watched, wet through, as David Ngog, the rangy France Under-21 international, stepped up to take his penalty in front of the Kop. With the game finishing 2-2 after extra time, Steve Guinan had already skied Northampton’s first kick, booed to the rafters by the Liverpool faithful. The arduous tie was now firmly in the hands of the hosts. Ngog, in sodden red, looked confident before side-footing his penalty a good distance past Chris Dunn’s left hand post. The head-in-hands moment summed up Liverpool under Hodgson in that period: though still in the match, the Premier League Goliaths seemed two-feet tall.
Going into the game it was the Cobblers, 17th in League Two, who had every right to feel anxious. The Sixfields club, managed by cult hero and ex-player Ian Sampson, had just been spanked 3-1 at Shrewsbury Town, meaning they headed into the Wednesday night fixture at Anfield on September 22nd with just one league win to their name. Watching Liverpool scouts would have seen little to encourage risking the likes of Fernando Torres or Steven Gerrard. A Dimitar Berbatov hat-trick had condemned Liverpool to a chastening defeat by Manchester United the previous Saturday and, with a winnable Premier League fixture against Sunderland to follow, that remained the priority.
That was Hodgson’s first real mistake. Despite being League Two toilers, Northampton found respite in the League Cup and had dispatched Reading on penalties in the second round. The Cobblers’ captain at Anfield and left-sided stalwart Andy Holt explains how the team enjoyed the freedom of a competition in which Town “were given time on the ball and could think about picking a pass instead where the next foul was coming from”.
Holt, now working in accountancy, was given imposing Greek international Sotirios Kyrgiakos to mark at set-pieces and recalls with relish their tussles for the ball. His defensive partner was 20-year-old Ben Tozer, who was thrown into the starting XI after signing the day before on loan from Newcastle. “When you are on the hop like that, you have no time to be nervous,” says Holt. “You just go out and make the most of a fantastic opportunity. It was the greenest, biggest pitch I’ve ever seen and I can still see it now.”
The excitement of the occasion didn’t seem to spread to a Liverpool team shorn of its biggest stars, even when Milan Jovanović put the Reds in front after just nine minutes. As Jovanović slotted home his first goal for Liverpool, a collective groan could be heard from Northampton’s 5,000 travelling support. Yet the players were eager to keep them there for a late one, setting about the hosts with great endeavour. While the experienced Kyrgiakos and Lucas were failing to rub with youngsters Jay Spearing and Daniel Pacheco, Northampton’s Michael Jacobs and Kevin Thornton began to push the ball into space. Thornton, the diminutive and technically gifted red-head, delivered a one-night only performance, realising all his early promise in one rocket-like effervescence.
At half-time Town’s old-school assistant manager Malcolm Crosby dished out jelly babies to the players, and ten minutes after the restart they found their equaliser. Billy McKay, another player with great potential, stroked home to make it 1-1 in front of the ecstatic Shoe Army.
As the game wore on, Hodgson, known for his past achievements at Malmö and Inter Milan, could not adapt to events in the present. Meanwhile Sampson, his counterpart on the touchline, continued to shape the match and keep the pressure on Liverpool. On came Courtney Herbert, a lightning fast winger who had been turning out for a local Sunday League side a few months earlier, to tear down the wing and terrify the Liverpool rearguard.
With the game in extra-time, Northampton took a deserved lead when Jacobs struck at the far post after Thornton had tested Brad Jones from close range. Local lad Jacobs, with the cockiness of an 18-year-old who knows he can play a bit, cupped his ears to the shell-shocked Kop while Thornton shushed them with his finger. In the away end, the fans released several generations of angst into the night sky. They had waited years to erase the shame of George Best scoring six against them for Manchester United, and they looked to be doing it in the same dual-striped claret-and-white shirts.
But the stadium clock ticked slowly on, with Holt recalling having to “fight a thousand battles on the night”. “Every time we looked like we had the upper hand, something happened and then we had to go again,” he says. With an inevitability that lower league fans know so well, something did happen: Ngog equalised just four minutes from the final whistle to make it 2-2. “Normally you’d think that’s it, but there was never a feeling of luck. We had a job to do and we just carried on with it.”
For the exhausted Northampton players, the next test was to overcome their nerves in front of an intimidating Kop End. Ex-Hereford journeyman Guinan missed, followed by a forlorn Ngog, before Thornton, Liam Davis and Jacobs stepped up for Northampton to sweep home a succession of spot-kicks of staggering confidence. In contrast, Liverpool’s penalties were stuttering and stifled, although Jonjo Shelvey and Daniel Agger scored to keep the hosts in it.
It was then the turn of Nathan Ecclestone, last seen at Békéscsaba 1912 Előre in Hungary, who hit the meat of the crossbar from 12 yards. With his kick drawing nearer, Holt describes the pressure of waiting to take a penalty “as like nothing else you can imagine, completely consuming”.
He had been next in line to take one at Reading in the previous round but midfielder Abdul Osman had finished the job for him. As Holt waited again in the Anfield centre circle, Osman trotted towards the penalty box. Hodgson watched helpless from the sidelines as the Ghanaian calmly stroked his kick into the corner, allowing Holt a sigh of relief and sending the Northampton bench and support into ecstasy.
It was a famous night for the Cobblers, but the beginning of the end for Hodgson at Anfield. Liverpool could only draw with Sunderland, losing at home to Blackpool and away to Everton in the Merseyside derby in the matches that followed. Having watched the Northampton tie from the stands, Kenny Dalglish was brought in as manager, bringing an end to a brief, miserable spell summed up by that sodden midweek Cup exit.