David Buchanan’s eyes sparkle as he remembers where he was on 26 May 1999. “I was at my friend’s house, and when Solskjaer scored that winning goal his dad just grabbed us both and we were bouncing round the room – it was incredible,” says the Northampton Town left-back. “We went out on the street celebrating. It was a great feeling.”
There is no hiding the Rochdale-born Buchanan’s lifelong love for Manchester United and on Wednesday night he will embrace an occasion that, on a personal level, is just as big as the Champions League final he watched as an enthralled 13-year-old. Unless the club captain Marc Richards is deemed fit to start, Buchanan will lead the League One side out at a packed Sixfields for their EFL Cup third-round tie with United. It caps a 13-month period of giddying twists and turns, and it is a case of second time lucky, too.
“I was at Preston when they drew United in the Cup a couple of seasons ago [in February 2015], but I didn’t play and they beat us 3-1,” Buchanan says. “This is a massive, massive part of my career. I’m 30, and it’s the first time I’m going to step out on the pitch against the team I support. It’s something that may only come along once, and it means everything.”
Buchanan joined Northampton six months after that disappointment at Deepdale and subsequent events would fit a movie script just as suitably as high-profile tales further up the divisions. Sixfields sits 500 metres from the 127m tall National Lift Tower but the Cobblers have shattered all resistance like Charlie’s great glass elevator. A 31-match unbeaten league run was finally ended at Chesterfield on Saturday; it had taken in the bulk of a title-winning campaign in League Two, a competition they won by 13 points, and seen the club emerge from a period of financial crisis that took it to the brink of liquidation.
The situation, rescued by Kelvin Thomas’s takeover last November, has been well documented but Buchanan gives his own perspective on a season that, from near-despair, became the best of his career.
“People who don’t know what the football club was like when I first came here can’t really understand,” he says. “We were literally going out of business and we literally weren’t getting paid – members of the club’s staff went three months without. These are kitmen, stewards, people who work in the offices, and they’re still coming in every single day and giving this club everything they’ve got.
“I think that galvanised the players, first and foremost, and made us want to give them something back. We did that with our performances on the pitch – and once we kept winning the fans were behind us and everyone at the club, from the tea ladies to the boot boys, were pulling in the same direction. The club was only going one way; it was like a train that couldn’t be stopped.”
Buchanan played every minute of that unbeaten run and it was a far cry from the spell in the shadows at Preston that denied him that first crack at United. “When you see the stats and look back at it now, you think it’s ridiculous really, an unbelievable achievement to be part of,” he says, and it is easy to see how the belief inside a dressing room can grow to the extent that any opponent seems like fair game.
That confidence persisted in what, by all accounts, was an intensely competitive training session on Monday despite the unfamiliar backdrop of defeat. Nobody who watched United’s reverse at Watford would feel too cowed by their imminent arrival and the prospect of a fourth consecutive defeat for José Mourinho’s team has given the cup tie an added edge.
“The game’s now a lot bigger than it was,” Buchanan says. “I think it was a big tie anyway, because everyone loves an underdog, but what’s happened at United over the past week or so has just pumped it up a little but more. It’d be four on the trot for José Mourinho and he doesn’t like losing football matches, does he?”
The buzzword around Northampton’s camp this week has been “pressure”. United are already under it; Northampton feel they have players who can add to it and their performance in the second round, when they beat a strong West Bromwich Albion side on penalties at Sixfields, justifies the optimism. Last season’s squad has been remodelled: 11 players arrived during the summer, including the former Portsmouth and West Ham midfielder Matty Taylor, and Robert Page replaced the Sheffield United-bound Chris Wilder in the dugout, but 11th place has been a decent start to life back in the third tier and Northampton look well placed to push on.
Their rise has been such that victory on Wednesday might seem a natural next step, and Buchanan will have friends in the away end hoping, with the best will in the world, that things do not go that far. “Deep down a few of my friends do want Manchester United to win,” he says. “They haven’t said anything but I just know the way they are. They would be happy for me but I think a few weeks down the line, if we were out having a few beers, it would come out.”
It is a pub discussion that Buchanan, for all the residual joy of 1999, would be delighted to enter into.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010