Fifty years ago this summer, the county town of Northampton was preparing for something very big indeed. At the end of the previous season, the local football team had crowned an astonishing four seasons with a third promotion during that time behind Newcastle United for a place in the First Division of the Football League on goal difference, the first time since its formation in 1897 that Northampton Town had graced the top flight of English football. It wasn’t a lengthy stay. The Cobblers lasted just one season in Division One before being relegated back from whence they came. Indeed, by the end of the decade, a club that had started the 1960s in the Fourth Division of the Football League found itself back in the basement division.
It’s difficult to imagine a more incongruous home for a First Division football club than The County Ground, the home of the club until 1994. Shared with Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, The County Ground was built on three sides only, with the fourth only marked by the cursory of boundaries with the cricket pitch. As time went on, however, the increasingly dilapidated condition of the ground came to mirror the frequently precarious position of the club itself. Its main stand was demolished after being condemned by new regulations introduced in the wake of the 1985 Bradford fire and was replaced with a temporary structure. As if mirroring the plight of the ground, the club struggled to hold onto its Football League place throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, being saved in 1994 after finishing at the bottom of the entire Football League only by a failure on the part of Football Conference champions Kidderminster Harriers failing to have their ground up to scratch in line with Football League requirements by the time of the League’s deadline.
The club’s financial difficulties had reached its nadir at the start of 1992. Debts of £1.6m and with a wage bill that had gone unpaid for the previous two months, the Northampton Town Supporters Trust – the very first supporters trust – was formed at a public meeting attended by more than 600 supporters in January of that year and, after wrestling the club into administration through persuading a local business owned by a supporter that was a creditor of the club to take further action to recover a small amount that he was owed, managed to get control of it. With The County Ground – by this time in such a state of disrepair that it failed to reach safety standards required for the Southern Football League – not viable for redevelopment because of its use by the county cricket club, the council agreed to build a new stadium, and so it was that Northampton Town came to move to Sixfields in October 1994. Brian Lomax, who founded that first supporters trust, went on to do valuable work with other trusts at Lincoln City, York City, Swansea City and AFC Wimbledon, amongst others, would end up as the Chair of Supporters Direct from 2005 until 2009.
With the move to Sixfields, it might have been expected that the days of Northampton Town having to play at a three-sided ground would be gone forever. A little over two decades after moving into its new home, however, the club is facing the start of a second successive season playing on a three-sided ground, but this time around the circumstances surrounding this state of affairs couldn’t be much more different. This particular story begins in July 2012, with an announcement confirming that an agreement had been reached between the club, the local council and the Homes & Communities Association to redevelop land around Sixfields, which sits on a former landfill site just to the west of Northampton town centre. With a capacity of 7,653, the ground was considered to be a little on the small side for a club with ambitions somewhat higher than recent finishes in the middle to lower half of League Two might have indicated, and with it being surrounded by land suitable for redevelopment, such a potential for welcome extra revenue streams could hardly be overlooked.
It was in April of the following year that chairman David Cardoza finally went public with details of what this redevelopment might look like. Cardoza stated that Sixfields’ East Stand would house the club offices and a full range of new facilities for corporate hospitality and conferencing as part of an enabling deal with the ground works being paid for by the revenue from the hotel, a supermarket, shops and 225 homes, with the ground capacity being increased to somewhere around the 10,000 mark, and that more detailed plans were “only weeks away.” These plans were finally submitted for planning approval in October of that year and were approved just over a month later. Sixfields would have its capacity increased to 10,000, the new stand would include new corporate boxes and a conference centre, whilst the new seating would be installed in the North and South Stands and the West Stand would be renovated. Significantly – as we will find out – the deal was to be funded by a £12m loan from the council to the football club. All seemed to be going more or less according to plan.
Work started on the redevelopment in March of last year, being carried out by a company called County Developments (Northampton) Ltd., who listed as their directors Anthony and David Cardoza, Simon Patnick (a former Conservative councillor in Hertsmere, just to the north of London, and nephew of the former Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam Sir Irvine Patnick, who had died in December 2012, three months after being revealed as one of the sources of The Sun’s infamous coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989), and Marcus Grossman. Simon Patnick was quoted at the time as stating that, “It’s clear that the coming together of these three groups has led to a bright and prosperous future for Sixfields and its local area, not only providing future jobs, wealth and value to the area, but also giving Northampton Town Football Club the ability to be self financing and having the opportunity to generate increased levels of income to help the club move up the football ladder.”
By this time, however, there were already rumours starting to circulate amongst Northampton supporters that the plans may have to be scaled back, and these were proved to be correct just a month later, when Cardoza admitted that the final capacity of the ground would most likely only end up as somewhere between eight and eight and a half thousand. Suddenly, that £12m loan was starting to look rather expensive, but at least, Cardoza reassured supporters, work was on schedule to be completed for the start of the 2014/15 season. Work started on the East Stand in June 2014, but stopped again not long afterwards. New artist impressions of the redeveloped East and West stands released were by the club, showing that, when complete the ground would have a new hotel, conference centre, club shop, changing rooms, offices, floodlights and media facilities.
When pre-season friendlies started in July, however, the stand was still nowhere near completion, although Cardoza remained bullish about the project’s potential, by this time criticism of Cardoza’s management of the project had reached such a level – with many supporters now starting to openly wonder about what, exactly, the club was getting for its money, with the newest revised capacity for the redeveloped ground being just 8,000, less than 500 more than it held before work began – that he was compelled to respond to a Q&A from the local newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle & Echo on the subject , stating that, “We have £7.5 million for the stadium works (including a significant cost towards relocating the athletics club) and Conference Centre and £4.5 million for the hotel. The new East Stand will cost around £5 million, the Conference Centre up to around £1.5 million and around £1 million on seats, floodlights, offices, sound system and West Stand works.” As the 2014/15 season began, however, work on the redevelopment seemed to have almost ground to a halt again, and if Northampton supporters were starting get an inkling that something seemed to be going very wrong with the redevelopment of Sixfields, the coming months would open a can of worms that few would have expected when work began, and which are far from resolved even now. The story of the redevelopment of Sixfields was about to get very, very messy indeed.
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