Short of small trophy cabinets, not many things link Newcastle United and Northampton Town. While the latter plod along in their umpteenth season in the lowest tier, the Toon Army is resurgent under Alan Pardew, to the point where anything less than fifth in the Premier League would be a disappointment. But when the Newcastle United board decided to make stability a priority, the first person to get a long contract was chief scout, Graham Carr. And for Cobblers fans, that brought back memories of a golden period in the club’s history and a time when Carr was known for more than being the father of Alan and poster boy for moneyball-style transfer wizardry. For some, it also brings back memories of Eddie McGoldrick…
In the mid-1980s, Northampton Town’s County Ground had to be seen to be believed. The main stand consisted of a temporary corrugated steel structure that looked as if it had been knocked up with a Meccano set during a lunch break, while the terracing behind the goal was simply glorified rubble. Opposite the main stand there was nothing except a rope, which ran the length of the pitch, signifying that the football pitch was merely on loan from the cricket club and would be restored to its status as a car park during the summer months. In short, the County Ground put the ‘shack’ in ‘ramshackle’.
The club itself was in even worse condition. These were the days before automatic promotion/relegation between the football league and the non-league pyramid and come the end of the season, the Cobblers invariably found themselves in among the usual suspects of the lower reaches, grateful for the old pals act known as ‘applying for re-election’ to save their sorry behinds for another nine months of pointless lower league mediocrity.
But in the summer of 1985, that all changed with the arrival of Graham Carr, a former full-back from the club’s only season in the top flight in 1965, renowned for tackling his opponents so hard that they usually stayed tackled for the rest of the season, and more importantly, a veteran of the midlands non-league scene who quickly snapped up a handful of gems from the semi-pro game and set about creating a team that would soon be challenging the somewhat more illustrious rugby and cricket outfits for sporting kudos in the town.
Carr’s first move was to raid his former club Nuneaton Borough and sign trusted lieutenants Eddie McGoldrick, Richard Hill and Trevor Morley, along with Graham Reed and Russell Wilcox from Frickley Athletic and David Gilbert from Boston United. These bargain buys formed the core of the team and were ably supported by a battering ram of a striker in Ian Benjamin and Keith McPherson and Warren Donald, two bright prospects who’d been shown the door at West Ham but were to prove themselves as solid first-teamers under Carr’s canny guidance.
The effect was immediate. The Cobblers finished 23rd in the 1984-85 season, before Carr led the side to a decent 8th place in his first season in 1985-86, and then really took the league by storm the following season. Based on a direct style that was often lumped in with the Wimbledon, Watford and Sheffield Wednesday style of hoofball, Carr dictated that his team got the ball up quickly to Benjamin by bypassing the midfield and utilising the reliable crossing and trickery of McGoldrick to create opportunities for striker Trevor Morley and midfielder Richard Hill, a master of ghosting into the box to snap up half-chances. With aggressive tackling and strong running in midfield in the shape of Warren Donald and Dave Gilbert allied to no-nonsense defending from a central defensive partnership of Wilcox and McPherson, the Cobblers managed to rack up impressive stats of 103 goals scored, 53 conceded, 30 victories and a club record 99 points.
But if Graham Carr was the fiendish managerial genius plotting world domination from a shabby little office overlooking the Hotel End, the real star on the pitch was Eddie McGoldrick, a twinkle-toed outside right who was deadly from set-pieces and could produce unerringly accurate crosses for his more physically imposing strike partners to dispatch.
Yes, that’s right. Your eyes haven’t deceived you…you have just read a flattering paragraph about Eddie McGoldrick, the very same Eddie McGoldrick who haunted a generation of Arsenal fans for three long years from 1993 to 1996 and whose name is now invoked by older fans rebuking youngsters who dare to complain about the barren years they’re ‘enduring’ under Wenger. The Arsenal incarnation of McGoldrick was a steady if timid professional who kept the team’s shape and provided the odd cross for Ian Wright. Most of these crosses though were not just odd, but downright weird interpretations of the possibilities offered by wing-play on a football pitch. But to see McGoldrick in his pomp at Northampton was to watch an artist at work, a graceful beauty of a footballer with a surprising turn of pace and enough steel to put in a shift at full-back when needs dictated.
My personal memory of him has nothing to do with crossing, heading or tackling, but it sums up McGoldrick’s style back in the day. En route to a school match, I was minding my own business on Abington Avenue outside the ground, when the great man himself stepped out in front of me, dressed in what appeared to be a pinstripe wedding suit. He feinted to go left; so did I. He feinted to go right; so did I. Finally, with a good-natured grin, he grabbed me by the shoulders and instructed me to stand still, while he moved along on his merry way to the players’ entrance, basking in the glow of adoration from Cobblers fans who hadn’t seen his type of dazzling skills at close hand since George Best helped himself to a double hat-trick in an 8-2 FA Cup defeat against Manchester United in 1972.
Two things stuck with me after this brief encounter: firstly, I couldn’t get over how stylish McGoldrick looked on a matchday. A crisp white shirt, waistcoat, pinstripe jacket and open collar. Perhaps, I thought, this was the key to on-field success and I soon traded in my jeans and t-shirt for a pair of Farah slacks, a Pringle sweater over the shoulders and my own version of said shirt. Sadly I looked like a teenager dressed as Jimmy Tarbuck rather than some budding style icon. Secondly, I was troubled by the fact that McGoldrick couldn’t outwit me enough to get past me on the street, without a ball in sight. That surely wouldn’t happen with a Theo Walcott, would it?
What became of this great team? Within a season or two, the key players were catapulted up the league ladder. While McGoldrick made it to Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Manchester City, as well as the international arena with the Republic of Ireland, Richard Hill managed a few seasons in the first and second division before he carved out a decent coaching career in the Football League. The other noteworthy name is Trevor Morley, who went on to bang in goals for Reading, Manchester City and West Ham, before becoming embroiled in a domestic incident that is still dragged up on the dark side of the internet. Unfortunately, this rumour has proved to be somewhat more memorable than his exploits on the pitch.
And Graham Carr? Those same instincts that had him raiding non-league clubs are serving him pretty well these days and it’s great to see the credit that’s going his way. Perhaps Aidy Boothroyd should take a leaf out of the great man’s book and see what jewels can be unearthed in the semi-pro game and long-suffering Cobblers fans could finally relive the glory days of 25 years ago.