Perhaps the most brutal thing for Exeter City’s players, even more than the battering to which they had just been subjected, was that they could hear the victors’ every whoop and yelp. Northampton would have loved to celebrate their return to League One in front of their supporters, rather than 1,500 cardboard imitations, but their joy at the end was unconfined; the songs of triumph rang out into the night and it is unlikely a losing team has ever left the Wembley pitch with comparable haste.
The most telling injury had already been inflicted. “We started as men but quickly turned into boys,” the Exeter manager, Matt Taylor, admitted, and a summary could perfectly well end there. This was, from the moment Ryan Watson put Northampton ahead in the 11th minute, simply no contest. Name an attribute required to win a football match, and Keith Curle’s side offered more of it: anyone could point to their physical power and the relentlessness with which they peppered their opponents’ box, but they outdid their opponents for speed, clarity of thought, invention and sheer workrate too. It all made for a record margin of victory in a fourth-tier play-off final, and one that had only been achieved once previously across the divisions.