Non-League Football

Far from flaming, but the Poppies were never at the gates of yawn

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IT MAY have been 0-0, but this was no dull affair, far from it. And although Hitchin are above Kettering in the table, and 10 points better off, it would be no surprise if the Poppies are breathing down their necks very soon.

Nobody has won more away games than Kettering in the Southern League Premier this season. They just need to get their home form right (one win in nine league games) to become credible top five material. On the evidence of this display, there’s not a lot wrong with Kettering’s line-up –as evidenced when they won 7-0 at St. Ives two weeks before travelling to Hitchin.

Of course, this is a Hitchin side that has forgotten how to lose, their last league defeat coming at the end of August at Dunstable, so a 0-0 draw at Top Field is a good result for any visiting team. Nobody has probably come closer to beating the Canaries at their ancient home in the league this season.

As usual, it was Quirkyville Arizona at Hitchin. Led out by a 50-year-old mascot, the earnest Mr Peter Else, club photographer, and on the evidence of his pre-match warm-up in his birthday outfit of yellow shirt and green socks, a frustrated centre-forward. “You should know better,” was the response of the ever-arid Mr Docking on the tannoy as the teams filed onto the pitch.

Hitchin were giving a first outing to a new goalkeeper, 18 year-old Liam Gooch, hastily signed on loan from Luton Town after Michael Johnson was injured in midweek. Whatever happened to Zac Barratt?

But Gooch, resplendent in hipster beard and pink jersey, had a solid debut. “We love your shirt, keeper, so very pretty,” said the Kettering fans behind the goal as he took his place between the posts. He settled down after a nervy start and actually, Hitchin can thank him for preserving their unbeaten home record.

Sometimes you have to wonder how Kettering found themselves in the Southern League given their former status. A town of 68,000 and a history that includes a number of unsuccessful attempts to gain election to the Football League. In 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1971, Kettering applied for election to the League. In 1976, former Wolves centre forward Derek Dougan, then chief executive of Kettering, tried to broker a deal to make the club the first with shirt sponsorship in Britain. You could say that Kettering, at one time, were a very progressive club.

More recently, they have been plagued with misfortune. In 2011, they left their home at Rockingham Road, which had been sold some years earlier to stave of crisis, and spent a few years playing at Rushden and Corby. They now groundshare at Latimer Park, the home of Burton Park Wanderers’ of the United Counties League Division One.

Kettering are in their second season in the Southern Premier after finishing sixth in 2015-16, just missing out on the play-offs by a single point. Hitchin finished third and were beaten in the play-off semi-final. The two sides have already met this season, on August 13 at Kettering and drew 0-0.

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Kettering, who were apparently poor in the first meeting, looked the livelier team at Top Field. Their fans, a few dozen making the trip down from Northants (notably younger than the home contingent), were accompanied by a couple of continental-style hooters and the occasional plea for “order…order…”.

Kettering almost fell a goal behind, however, when Robbie Burns, one of those strikers that can, at times, look fantastic, but not every week – “if he could do it every game, he wouldn’t be playing at this level” –  saw his long range effort tipped over by Dean Snedker.

But an even better chance fell to Kettering’s Spencer Weir-Daley, who scuffed his shot wide of Gooch’s pink shirt after the Hitchin defence opened up. A wasted opportunity.

It was interesting to hear some Kettering fans complain at Hitchin’s long-ball game. Over the past few seasons, the Canaries have been renowned for their relatively “pure” style, but occasionally, with bustling veteran striker Brett Donnelly in the front line, they do resort to a more “essential” approach. “It’s the only way any team beats us, play the long ball,” moaned one visitor.

The longer the game went on, the more it looked as though another 0-0 draw was on the cards. But it was entertaining – although a group of distracted youngsters in the top left hand corner of the ground were intent on re-enacting the Battle of Agincourt, complete with improvised swords.  As Kettering decided to go once more unto the breach, two excellent saves by Gooch, both from journeyman Rene Howe, prevented Kettering from going home with all three points.

The Poppies manager, Marcus Law, said he was pleased with his team’s commitment, but his counterpart Mark Burke was probably quite relieved. If Law gets his home record sorted, Kettering will surely be challenging for promotion – alongside Hitchin, whose impressive run continues.

www.gameofthepeople.com

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