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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 9 July, 2020

Unlikely comeback sets up three-in-a-row bid for Wembley-bound Irish midfielder

Northampton Town’s veteran Dubliner Alan McCormack is no stranger to challenging for promotion.

northampton-town-v-cheltenham-town-sky-bet-league-two-play-off-semi-final-first-leg-pts-academy-stadium Northampton Town midfielder Alan McCormack. Source: Mike Egerton

AFTER SUMMONING HIS players to a meeting room at the club’s training ground last Saturday morning, Northampton Town manager Keith Curle directed their attention to a TV screen.

Thirty-six hours removed from a result which looked likely to ruin their season, there was no time to wallow in self-pity over the 2-0 home defeat to Cheltenham Town in the first leg of the League Two play-off semi-final.

When Curle, the former Manchester City captain and England international, played the video, the message was clear – even if most of the players weren’t quite as familiar with its content as Irish midfielder Alan McCormack. 

“The gaffer just said: ‘Lads, for anyone who doesn’t believe we can do it, let’s have a look at this’,” McCormack explains.

In an attempt to inspire his players to keep their promotion hopes alive by overturning the deficit, Curle brought them back to May 1989, when Arsenal famously swiped the First Division title from Liverpool at Anfield on the final day of the season. 

“I was probably the only player in the room who was alive then!” McCormack laughs. “Some people take inspiration from stuff like that. For others it comes from family, money or success. Everybody has their own sources of inspiration.

“The gaffer showed us that game and a few other inspirational clips, just to help us believe that it was possible. If it gives you an extra 1%, that 1% might be enough to get you on the end of a cross or a last-ditch tackle.”

michael-thomas-1989 An injury-time goal from Michael Thomas against Liverpool won the title for Arsenal in 1989. Source: INPHO

One week on from that history lesson, Northampton Town are finalising their preparations for Wembley. 

Early in the second half of last Monday’s second leg in Cheltenham, the tie was level. Callum Morton’s second goal with 13 minutes remaining then completed a remarkable reversal that took everyone but Northampton Town by surprise.

“We were actually extremely calm going into the game,” McCormack says. “There was a real confidence about what we could do and everything clicked for us. Having said that, for the boys to produce a performance like that under that kind of pressure was exceptional.”

Home advantage was offset for both teams by the absence of spectators for the two-legged contest. Northampton could have done with some local backing at Sixfields, but the circumstances worked in their favour in the return leg. Only eight minutes had been played when Vadaine Oliver reduced the deficit. Thereafter, doubts festered in Cheltenham minds.

McCormack says: “I think if they had their fans they would have grown into the game a bit more and it would have suited them. They were all looking to each other for help and they couldn’t get it.

“We had a real belief. When we looked at them during the warm-up, they were smiling. They were taking photos with the cardboard cut-out fans before the game. It seemed like they felt it was already won. We took note of stuff like that and it all drove us on.”

cheltenham-town-v-northampton-town-sky-bet-league-two-play-off-semi-final-second-leg-the-jonny-rocks-stadium Northampton Town players celebrate after Callum Morton scored their decisive third goal in Cheltenham. Source: Mike Egerton

From deep in Northampton’s midfield, McCormack drew upon his considerable experience to provide leadership when it was needed most. The Dubliner produced a display that was sustained by an energy and tenacity that belied his 36 years. 

The brand of performance he brings is more Kevin Richardson than Michael Thomas, but as George Graham would attest, the contribution is no less vital.

“I cannot think of a better player for the younger players to look up to and learn from,” Curle said when signing McCormack last summer. “We will need leaders throughout our dressing room and Alan will certainly be one of those.”

McCormack joined Northampton from Luton Town, where he was a key player in a team that achieved back-to-back promotions to leap from League Two to the Championship. Against Exeter City on Monday, he’ll aim to end a campaign with promotion for the third year in a row. In total, it would be the fifth of his career.

The outcome of the play-off final won’t determine what becomes of McCormack next season. If he’s wanted, there’ll be no hesitation in committing to an 18th season as a professional footballer. If not, clocking out won’t faze him.

This is a man who, at the age of 27, was planning to leave football behind to explore career opportunities elsewhere until Paolo Di Canio coaxed him to Swindon Town.

APRaGjyS Former Manchester City skipper Keith Curle brought McCormack to Northampton Town last summer. Source: Dave Munden/EMPICS Sport/Mike Egerton/PA

In 2012 he became a League Two winner with Swindon. Two years later there was promotion again, this time with Brentford, where he was named Player of the Year after helping the West London club to reach the Championship.

McCormack, who had just begun an apprenticeship as an electrician when Preston North End signed him from Stella Maris at 18, is now approaching his 500th professional appearance.

“I’m delighted with my career, from the bit of luck I had in getting over to England to where I am now,” says the father of two. “For a man of my limited abilities, it’s been a great career because I’ve worked extremely hard. Whenever the end comes, I’ll accept it.

“Clubs need to produce young players that they can sell on to keep their finances in good shape. I understand and respect that. If nobody wants me next season, so be it. Should Monday happen to be my last game, that’ll be fine with me. I’ll look back on it all with a sense of pride.

“My kids have seen me involved in some great times, which have hopefully given them memories for life. It’s just sad that we won’t be able to bring them on Monday because playing at Wembley is the pinnacle of a footballer’s career. But that’s outside my control.

“Whatever happens, I’ll still be willing to play on. I’m a firm believer that age is only a number and that I’m capable of keeping up with lads in their 20s. I feel a lot younger than 36, that’s for sure. Last Monday it was the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

soccer-sky-bet-league-one-brentford-v-preston-north-end-griffin-park McCormack is held aloft by Brentford fans after their promotion from League One in 2014. Source: Dominic Lipinski

Monday’s trip to Wembley (7.30pm) – to face an Exeter side that will include 25-year-old Dubliner Pierce Sweeney – will be McCormack’s first since he captained Swindon Town at the venue in a defeat to Chesterfield in the 2012 Football League Trophy final.

“Getting promoted is a really hard thing to achieve,” he says. “People only remember the day that you get a medal put around your neck, but what they don’t see is the work that has been put in during the year on the cold training days when the body is aching. They don’t see the long hours spent away from families while you’re travelling up and down the country.

“Playing at Wembley and experiencing promotion, they’re great occasions, but they don’t happen without the many days of hard work that come before.

“That performance in the second leg against Cheltenham is the standard we’ve got to rise to again. If we can do that, we’ll give ourselves a great chance against a very good Exeter team.” 

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Paul Dollery

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