the real fa cup

Poppies Plucked

Kettering 0-1  Chalfont St Peter
FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round 2014/15

‘Giant’ may be a relative term in the Lilliputian world of non-league football but Kettering Town have as good a case as many to claim the label.

Sure, by staying in one place, a club can retain a prestige that is lost once promotion to a bigger pond is secured but the Poppies have been unfortunate in that many of their finest achievements – including a 1973 Southern League title under Ron Atkinson – took place while the door inviting election to the Football League was very much clamped shut.

In recent times, Kettering’s solid status among the aristocracy of the non-league game has been dramatically curtailed. This, remember, is a team that has attracted managerial ‘names’ including Derek Dougan, Graham Westley, Kevin Wilson, the aforementioned Big Ron and, from the ridiculous to the sublime, Paul Gascoigne and the great Tommy Lawton.

It’s a club that holds the obscure record of the leading FA Cup goal scorers of all time (a fact once again trumpeted in the match day programme for this second round qualifying clash with Chalfont St. Peter), a litany of heroic moments in the competition including an appearance in the last 16 in 1901 and, as recently as five years ago, a heart stopping 4-2 loss to Premier League Fulham.

Their spiritual home for over a century was Rockingham Road – one of the more distinguished of all Non-league stalking grounds and still a looming hulk on the bus route from Milton Keynes to Peterborough.

But as readers of the excellent Two Hundred Percent will know, the red and black striped men have suffered a slide to rival any in the past decade – a life changing 7-0 defeat against Bashley, the nadir – a game which saw the financially stricken Poppies field a team of just 10 men.

That’s down to some of the most pernicious and misguided financial decision-making that even the English lower leagues have witnessed. Indignity has been heaped upon indignity – debts of £1.2 million, the brief control of uber-baddie George Rolls, a chunk of an autumn when fixtures couldn’t be fulfilled at all and relegation to their current lowly base in the Southern League Division One Central to rub shoulders with the likes of today’s divisional acquaintances.

There has also been a series of stadium switches to make a non-league ground hopper green with envy. First, in the words of Two Hundred Percent, the club’s owners ‘gerrymandered the club away from its Rockingham Road home to jump into the grave of Rushden & Diamonds’ only to experience the severe cost of maintaining that agreement, briefly and humiliatingly getting into bed with Corby Town at their rivals Steel Park, before ending up in the suburbs of their home town and the small community of Burton Latimer.

A pleasant enough satellite settlement, Latimer Park itself is situated in the middle of one of those astonishingly massive clusters of warehouses so beloved of Northants and Bucks with Fortress Morrison and Castle Weetabix rubbing shoulders with the ground – it has to be said, an unimpressive home indeed – especially when compared to the traditional base at Rockingham Road.

Town are sharing with Burton Park Wanderers and the name of each club is emblazoned across each of two royal blue stands while a ‘garden’ party style facility with what looks like a canvas roof is parked alongside them in front of the surprisingly cavernous clubhouse.

Each stand was packed to the gills and an attendance of 690 is impressive testament to the enduring appeal of one of the country’s top 100 football clubs even if the tendency to shout about crowds only comes when there is little to cheer on the pitch.

That said, Kettering came very close to the top division of the Southern League in May – blowing a 2-0 lead against another semi-professional giant Slough Town and they have started this season confidently – defeats at Marlow and Leighton Town the only blemishes as they sit astride the top of the league.

Hence, this internecine encounter with Chalfont, just below mid-table did promise a comfortable victory although the visitors had only lost two League matches themselves before hammering an MK Dons XI in midweek. This spring in the step did spur the Buckinghamshire side on – Alan Hedley stooping to nod in after being left unmarked on the back post.

That big club mentality could be seen to rise as the game wore on – while most visits to non-league grounds will see fans happy to accept the foibles of the players’, there was an edge of aggression and bitterness among the support as the Poppies attempted to claw back the deficit ever more unimpressively.

This culminated when defender Tommy Hull lunged at a Chalfont forward only to be shown the red card – ‘get off – you’re shit anyway’ shouted one fan in red and black while the general disquiet at yet another low for the team was strong indeed. At this point, the feeling that Poppies’ fans regard this as their competition was evident.

In the end the Saints, sporting a yellow, green and black Jamaica-style strip, held on to grab the win and put themselves into the third qualifying round – a stage where they will almost certainly be dwarfed by those around them. Previously semi-finalists in the FA Vase, I failed to discern a single away supporter during the encounter although surely there must have been someone lurking somewhere.

Words and Pictures courtesy and copyright of Rob Langham, writer and editor of Football League website The Two Unfortunates.

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