By Tony Leighton
Dress rehearsals don't get much better than the one enjoyed last Saturday by Northampton Town's on-loan Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Lee Nicholls.
A week before making his Wembley bow in the npower League 2 Play-Off Final against Bradford City, Nicholls paid his first ever visit to the national stadium to watch from the stands as his Latics colleagues beat Manchester City to collect FA Cup winners medals on the biggest day in the Premier League club's history.
Now the 20-year-old goalkeeper, with Wembley nerves dispersed ahead of the biggest day in his own burgeoning career, is aiming to be a winner with his Cobblers team-mates as they look to clinch promotion up to League 1.
Former England Under-19 keeper Nicholls told football-league.co.uk: "It was a great day out on Saturday and I loved every minute. I sat with the reserve and youth team lads, and to see us win the cup was absolutely fantastic.
"It was great to be there and to see not just how much it meant to the players to lift the trophy, but also to see close up what the day and the achievement meant to the supporters. I've never had that experience before and to sample the atmosphere and excitement will stand me in good stead for the Play-Off Final."
Nicholls is hoping to complete his season-long loan at Sixfields with a Wembley performance to match the best of his many fine displays during the campaign.
The youngster was Northampton's only ever-present in League 2 and, in his 50 appearances including cup ties before the final, he has kept 19 clean sheets.
"I don't like odd numbers so I want to round up that clean sheet figure to 20," quipped Nicholls as he looked ahead to Saturday's meeting with Bradford.
Crucially for confidence as the Cobblers prepare for their big Wembley occasion, three of those clean sheet have come in the last three games - with a Nicholls penalty save in the second leg of their Play-Off semi-final against Cheltenham Town helping complete a 2-0 aggregate victory to take them into the final.
Now they face what could be a tougher task as they take on a Bradford team that have won two and drawn two of the four meetings between the two teams during a season which the Bantams have lit up with their memorable and massively against-the-odds journey to Wembley for the Capital One Cup Final.
Nicholls added: "Bradford are a good side who do what they do really well. What they achieved in the Capital One Cup was fantastic and all credit to them for that.
"But we're a decent side as well and we've hit a run of consistent form at just the right time. We'll be going out aiming for another clean sheet and to win the game, not just for ourselves but for the fans and the town as well, just like the Wigan lads did last week. For me that was inspirational - and we can do the same."
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