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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 January, 2004, 14:47 GMT
Cobblers stroll down memory lane
By John May

George Best in his prime
Last time Northampton met Manchester United in the FA Cup, the Cobblers shared the County Ground with Northamptonshire cricket club.

As they square up against the Premiership champions this time, Northampton's task appears to be one of preventing a repeat of the 8-2 cricket score rattled up in 1970.

But Sunday's job is completely different from that facing Northampton 34 years ago.

The gap between the two teams is greater than it was back then, but you may not get too many takers for United bettering that score.

Sir Alex Ferguson's team is a formidable outfit, their pace, power and threat coming from every angle.

But unlike the Cobblers' class of '70, Northampton do not face the imponderable puzzle of how to cope with sheer genius.

On that crisp February afternoon, Northampton were back in the old fourth division following a ride that resembled a lift operator's lunch.

Under wily boss Dave Bowen, they rose from the fourth division to the first in five seasons, only to plunge painfully back down to the basement inside four seasons after one term in the top flight.

Manchester United were themselves going through a transitional stage.

Just two years past their peak of lifting the European Cup, many of their players were also on the down slope after cresting the hump.

Former Cobblers' hero Frank Large
Former Cobblers' hero Frank Large

Relegation for United was only four years away, but they were still a formidable team, with the likes of Pat Crerand, David Sadler, Alex Stepney, Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton from that European Cup winning side.

Unknown to Northampton, they were also about to be hit by the destructive force of Hurricane George.

George Best's name was not even printed on the matchday programme. The mercurial Irishman had served a six-week suspension and his place in the United line-up was in doubt right up to the morning of the game.

After his long lay-off Best was cruising for a bruising and it was Northampton who took the lumps as he took out his frustration with an FA Cup equalling record six-goal salvo.

Quite simply, Northampton were unable to cope with Best's genius that day.

Ray Fairfax was the luckless man detailed to mark Best, a task akin to picking up spilled mercury in boxing gloves.

Fairfax admits: "The closest I got to him was when we shook hands at the end of the game."

All the skill, impudence and arrogance of Best was summed up with his last goal.

He skipped through the Northampton defence, rounded keeper Kim Book, and stood on the ball on the the goal line, saluting the United fans before knocking the ball into an empty net.

There was a genius playing that day
Ex-Cobblers striker Dixie McNeil
It was almost as if Best was on a personal mission to punish Book, whose brother Tony was the Manchester City captain who had lifted the FA Cup the previous May.

If Northampton's exit in 1970 was down to a failure to put the cuffs on one man, surely they face an even tougher one in coralling United's potent strike force.

Ruud van Nistelrooy is no easier to contain than Best, and the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane will surely contribute more than Charlton, Crerand and Willie Morgan did.

Not according to Dixie McNeil, whose name on the scoresheet that day is all but forgotten.

McNeil, who went on to become a legend at Wrexham, does not think United will repeat their declaration-style scoreline, for one reason.

"There was a genius playing that day," he says.

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