Goalkeeping hero Lee Nicholls admitted it wasn’t until referee Andrew Madley blew the final whistle that he and his Cobblers team-mates knew they had got the job done and beaten battling Cheltenham Town in the npower League Two play-off semi-final on Sunday night.
The Cobblers went into the second leg leading 1-0, and doubled that advantage on the night through Luke Guttridge’s first-half wonder goal.
Nicholls had played a huge part in the team having that 2-0 lead thanks to his superb penalty save from Marlon Pack when the score was 0-0 on the night.
But despite the Cobblers holding what was a comfortable advantage going into the closing stages, Nicholls insisted none of the players were able to relax.
Cheltenham were pressing to get back into the game until the very end, and Nicholls and the Cobblers were unable to take their foot off the gas at any point.
“I never thought we had the game won at any time,” said Nicholls.
“We knew we had to keep going until the end, we knew we couldn’t slip up, because Cheltenham are a good side and they would have capitalised on us doing that.
“We had to keep our guard up at all times, and make sure we were 100 per cent concentrated, which we did.”
And he added: “We knew this was going to be a tough ask.
“Cheltenham are a good side, but we dug in, especially at the end, and I think we got what we deserved.
“In the first half, and for the first hour, we did well at keeping them away from our goal.
“Apart from a couple of saves in the first half, I didn’t have much to do, but we knew they would come at us later in the game and we did well.”
One of those ‘couple of saves’ Nicholls refers to of course was his penalty stop, diving full length to his left to palm away Pack’s well-struck shot.
It was a key moment in the game, because if Pack had scored then Cheltenham would have been level in the tie, their tails would have been up, and the story of the night could have been a completely different one.
Nicholls revealed afterwards that he had done his homework for such a situation, but that a lot of it was also down to instinct.
“Before every game we try and see where the opposition penalty takers put them, but we didn’t have that much on Cheltenham,” said the man on loan from Wigan Athletic.
“So it was just a matter of trying to read his run up, trying to read his body language, and just going.
“I had to fully commit myself completely to go to one side and then hoping he put it that way, and he did.”
That save was made directly in front of the 1,600 travelling supporters inside Whaddon Road, and Nicholls admitted they were an inspiration.
“The fans were tremendous on Sunday,” he said.
“I went out for the warm up an hour before kick off and there was already people out there singing, they were great and we can’t thank them enough.”
Nicholls can now look forward to making his first appearance at the national stadium on May 18, but he is also hoping to be there next Saturday to see his parent club in action in the FA Cup Final against Manchester City.
“I hope now that Wigan and the Cobblers can both win at Wembley,” said the 20-year-old
“It means so much to me, this is my first full season and it just goes to show how well the lads have done this year.”