Nestled in middle England, Northampton is not a well known footballing town. A county cricket team which has won its fair share of trophies, and a rugby union side which has tasted plenty of European and domestic glory in its recent history claim most of the towns’ sporting success, whilst the football team is often overlooked.
There are plenty of Sunderland connections to grace the hallowed turf for the Cobblers. Former Sunderland manager Malcolm Crosby was assistant manager, and Ian Sampson became a club legend at Northampton after signing from Sunderland in the 1990s.
Jason Steele also spent a year on-loan at Sixfields and, going further back, both Marco Gabbiadini and Martin Smith also turned out for Northampton. The list goes on, and includes SAFC academy product Blair Adams.
Northampton’s victory in the League Two playoff final earlier this week is well deserved for a side blending youth with experience, and a top manager in Keith Curle. It also means that, for the first time in over 30 years, they will be standing toe-to-toe with our club.
For me, this produces mixed feelings.
Growing up in Northampton, a true Mackem in exile, I spent four years as a season ticket holder at the PTS Academy Stadium, or Sixfields Stadium as it was known then, and I dare say still will be for many die hard Cobblers fans. I travelled as far south as Exeter and up to the metropolis of Fleetwood watching the team, enjoying little success.
During this whole period, which included watching Bradford City thump the Cobblers 3-0 at Wembley in the 2013 Playoff Final, Sunderland were always in the top flight. There has always been at least one division between Sunderland and my adopted second team, but not anymore.
The meeting of these two teams is a sobering reminder of how far Sunderland have fallen in the last three years, whilst at the same time showing Northampton to be a very decent team on the up. The Cobblers will play with energy and tenacity next season, and could be a match for most teams in League One. I never thought Sunderland and Northampton would meet in the league but, at the same time, I think I secretly wanted it to happen.
Sitting in the away end of the PTS Academy Stadium, if the match is scheduled for after fans are allowed back through the turnstiles, will be a sobering experience. One positive will be knowing where all the best pre-match watering holes are located because, at the time of this being published, there is just the one within reasonable walking distance.
The away trip to Northamptonshire will be a bit of a personal homecoming. I have a lot of good friends in the town, and if Sunderland can come away with three points, it will make for a top weekend.
Watching Northampton for all those years, it was hard to envisage Sunderland visiting Sixfields for a league match. However, now that I have watched us play at clubs that are arguably smaller than Northampton, it seems far less surprising.
The Cobblers have completed the quartet of newly promoted teams Sunderland will be facing next season. If all four play with the energy which Northampton showed at Wembley this week then they will not be easy to face. Whatever the result, it will be the easiest away day I’ve had to navigate in a long time.