Northampton Town's Sixfields at 25: Can a new stadium ever feel like home?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Northampton Town moved to their purpose built Sixfields stadium in October 1994

When Northampton Town Football Club moved to their new stadium in 1994 it was meant to "kick off the start of a new era".

One journalist even said the town had a stadium to rival Rome's Stadio Olimpico.

Since it opened it has seen promotions, relegations, one of the most remarkable seasons in the club's history and became mired in controversy over its planned redevelopment.

But 25 years on, do the supporters call it home?

Image copyright NTFC
Image caption Sixfields was named by local resident following a competition after the original name of Upper Nene Park was changed to not clash with Nene Park in Irthlingborough

Since its inception in 1897, the club shared a ground with Northamptonshire County Cricket Club - the three-sided County Ground - which witnessed Northampton's only season in the top flight in 1965-66.

Other highs and lows include George Best scoring six goals there for Manchester United in 1970 and the club winning the old Fourth Division in 1987 under Graham "father of Alan" Carr.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption George Best scored six goals in Manchester United's 8-2 win at the County Ground in the FA Cup fifth round in 1970

Neil Townsend, 69, who played for Northampton between 1968 and 1973 said it was "unique".

"There was always a great atmosphere, but you would think the fans were going to fall off the wooden trellises, especially if you scored," he said.

Image caption Former Northampton Town player Neil Townsend said the Hotel End was the grandstand with the best atmosphere at the County Ground
Image caption The temporary seating at the County Ground was nicknamed the "Meccano Stand" after the children's construction toys

As the 1990s approached, it was clear the County Ground was not up to standard - "Shambles!" said a headline in the Northampton Chronicle & Echo.

That led Northampton Borough Council and the club to eventually develop Sixfields.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sixfields is now known at the PTS Academy Stadium

Sixfields factfile

  • 15 October 1994: Sixfields opens with a 1-1 draw against Barnet in Division Three (now League Two)
  • 7,461 fans watched that game, almost 2,500 more than saw the last home game at the County Ground
  • Promotion from League Two via the play-offs in 1997 and automatic places in 2000 and 2006
  • Won League Two in 2015-16 with 99 points under manager Chris Wilder
  • It was also the home of Coventry City when they lodged there for the 2013-14 season
  • March 2014: Work began on a new East Stand, paid for by a £10.25m loan from Northampton Borough Council
  • October 2014: Work stopped on the East Stand
  • November 2016: Kelvin Thomas takes over the club, rescuing it from administration over unpaid bills and loan repayments
  • March 2016: Seats return to the East Stand
  • A capacity crowd of 7,798 saw the EFL Cup match against Manchester United on 21 September 2016, a record for Sixfields

Ahead of the new stadium's opening in 1994, the club's manager John Barnwell said it would "kick off a new era".

"It's a dream come true for everyone involved with the club," he said.

The then vice-chairman Barry Stonhilll said they would "no longer have to apologise for the state of the County Ground".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption John Barnwell was manager of Northampton Town when they moved to Sixfields, but left the club halfway through the 1994-95 season

Matthew Engel, journalist and fan, described it as "the Stadio Olimpico of the South East Midlands".

"Today is the first day of the rest of Northampton Town's life," he wrote in the matchday magazine.

Located on the outskirts of the town he said it was "state-of-the-art".

Image copyright Northampton Town Football Club
Image caption The new ground opened on 15 October 1994 with a game against Barnet in what was then Division Three

The Football Supporters' Federation, which represents fans in England and Wales, said newer stadiums bring better facilities like improved parking.

"But older stadiums carry a lot of history and tradition, which is important to fans," it said.

Because of that Neil Townsend said for some Sixfields will never "completely" be Northampton Town's home.

"I think the fans will always remember the County Ground and it will be special for the fans that are old enough," he said.

Image copyright Keeley Townsend
Image caption Keeley Townsend (right) and her daughter Imogen (left) are season ticket holders at Sixfields to support the likes of Sam Hoskins (centre)

Keeley Townsend, 42, Neil's daughter and a season ticket holder, agrees.

She said: "You've seen with Arsenal and West Ham moving grounds - the new stadiums do not have that history."

But she said the 2015-16 League Two-winning season had "shifted" fans' perspective.

"That season was bliss, I'll never forget it - and that was at Sixfields," she said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Northampton Town won League Two in 2016 with 99 points
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Northampton Town's East Stand has been embroiled in controversy and almost brought about the downfall of the club

But the long-running saga over the redevelopment of the East Stand is something that is constantly mentioned in the same breath as Sixfields.

Last week the club said there has been a "good meeting" with the council over the development of the East Stand, and there had been "progress" over the plans.

Even fans who have only known Sixfields feel the East Stand is a major issue.

William Oelrich, 16, who runs a Cobblers vlog on YouTube, said the ground "felt like home until the East Stand saga".

"Having an unfinished stand makes our ground look like a building site," he said.

Image copyright YouTube/Will Oelrich
Image caption William Oelrich runs a Northampton Town vlog on YouTube

Despite the setbacks there is optimism.

William said that he "always feels that same buzz of excitement and joy" about going to Sixfields.

He said: "I feel passion for my club and I don't know what I would do without Northampton Town."

Keeley Townsend has now introduced a third generation of her family to the club.

"My 10-year-old daughter Imogen has her first season ticket this year and said she loves it and it's like her second home.

"So what makes it home is not the place you are, but the people you are with."

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