A season not watching football in Kettering

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Kettering Town FC 1872 – ?

Since 1872 the people of Kettering have had six monarchs, 19 different members of parliament, and 25 different prime ministers. They have lived through the growth of the shoe industry and its decline, through recessions and boom times. The town has grown from around 10,000 to over 50,000 people. They have seen the invention of the radio, the television and finally the internet.

Throughout that time, the town has always had its football club. Had my relatives been from the area it would have been my great great great grandfather who would have gone to watch those first games. As Kettering Town arrives in its 140th anniversary year it is worth reflecting on the fact that it is this stability and link with history that gives football clubs meaning.

It is obvious that in that time football has changed, but it has changed so much in just the last 20 years that the experience of going to watch a game in one of the top two leagues can be almost unrecognisable from watching a Kettering match. On Boxing Day I was spared the torment of a trip to Luton, as I went to watch Derby beat Leeds. It was a great day, and it is true that there is nothing like a completely packed ground, a full away end, and everyone singing about how much they hate Leeds. It reminded me that I still do love Derby. And that I still hate Leeds, obviously.

But the constant loud music straight after the full time whistle kills the atmosphere dead, and the music right up to kick off stops it ever building. All seater stadiums turn people from participants to spectators. A good game is still fun, and every bit the emotional rollercoaster, but it reminded me that going to watch non-league football gives you something different.

And I don’t think I am the only one. People like the feeling of connection between the club and the fans, they like seeing the same faces in the same places week in, week out. People find in non-league football the match day experience you can no longer get anywhere else.

All of this should come as a warning to those who want to commercialise non-league football. One of the worst aspects of the current professional management of the game are the three words ‘growing the market’. The constant drive for more supporters, for more merchandise sales, for more money.

It is what drives clubs like Leicester or Derby to need every fan north of Milton Keynes and south of Chesterfield. It’s impossible to be satisfied with being the town’s football club, the drive for bigger and bigger incomes to support higher and higher wages means you have to be the club for the borough, for the county, for the region. Soon, a club with an identity that once represented a town, represents nothing.

Ever since the death of our ground’s old tenants and our relocation, the conspiracy theorists have been prophesising that we will be merged into an East Northants United. With the events of the past few weeks, these concerns have only grown louder.

I have no idea if these rumours are based on anything other than wild speculation, but I would not be surprised if the idea has not at least been mulled over by someone. Indeed, it was the Chairman’s stated hope that we would get the support of fans who used to watch Diamonds, and that if we weren’t getting the gates we needed we might have to consider some changes to make the club more inclusive to attract more.

That anyone would even consider a merger of this sort would be incredible. While the majority of regulars have followed Kettering out of the town, I am sure that they would simply give up when it was clear that it was no longer the same club that was established 140 years ago. Once that link is killed, it will be impossible to get back.

There may be some floating supporters in the area, those who watched Diamonds on the way up, but left them on the way down – this is not a criticism of Diamonds had Kettering ever had the same rise through the league they would have come to watch us, and they would have ditched us just as quickly. But these people need football at a decent level. No one will watch a merged club if it is battling relegation, simply because it is no longer called Kettering.

A successful Kettering Town is just as likely to get the big gates the Chairman wants as an East Northants United. But it needs a team that are winning. And that needs money. Something that we self-evidently do not have.

The club can’t muddle along for much longer. There is a stench of death hanging over us. Something has to give, or else the club will die. 2012 will be the year that decides whether Kettering Town reaches its bicentenary.

Bath City, bailiffs, and failed takeovers – Is there any chance this is all a bad dream?

Once again it has been a long time since my last post. I had written a rough draft of my thoughts after the 1-1 draw with Bath City, but by the time I could get round to typing it up things had moved on.

The Bath game was a tremendous disappointment. I had predicted a great atmosphere and had hoped for another battling performance. As it was, it was the dog that didn’t bark. The crowd were subdued, in comparison with the previous home games, and the football was some of the worst that had been played for months. The two goals that were scored were wasted on that game.

As I said when I first started to write this blog, is my first season as a season ticket holder. I wanted to capture what it was like to be a regular fan following a non-league team during a season. I had no idea that I would be chronicling what feels like the terminal decline of Kettering Town Football Club.

The news this week that the locks at Rockingham Road had been changed came out of the blue, not least to the members of the trust who had stock left inside the social club. In hindsight, of course, it should not be surprising that we had not been paying the rent. We have not been paying what we owe to more immediate concerns, so why would we have been paying for a ground that we no longer play on? Legally binding contracts don’t seem to hold much sway with us this season. Anyway, a club with two grounds did seem like a bit of an extravagance, especially when we didn’t own either of them.

What strikes me most about everything that has happened is the feeling that none of us can do anything about any of this. This is one of the reasons I have been so slow to post anything. One of the constant refrains of message boards, is ‘instead of criticising, why don’t you come up with some solutions?’ But it doesn’t feel like we are in a position to come up with solutions. As a fan, I feel powerless. The club now feels so far out of the hands of fans that we simply have to wait to see the result of a boardroom bun fight.

There is no doubt that fan power was able to prise out Morell Maison earlier in the season, but that was a straight forward task compared to changing the ownership. It seems clear now that the Chairman should leave, and I imagine that he probably agrees with this. But for him to sell, there has to be someone to step in.  

But even if the Chairman leaves, who knows what will come next?

My ‘other team’, the team I inherited from my dad, is Derby County. The current owners are an American sports company who are a front for a group of unknown investors. The group took over from a local businessman and his team a couple of seasons ago. Although they seem to have steadied the ship after years of debt, I am sure they are not seeing the returns on their investment that they envisaged, and many supporters are questioning their lack of investment.

The local businessman they took over from was at one point a hero who bought the club from a group of crooks. A word that it is pretty safe to use seeing as they have subsequently been sent to prison. However, he was quickly under pressure and was not the saviour the fans had hoped for.

The group of businessmen now serving at her majesties pleasure bought the club for a £3 after a local newspaper man was forced to sell up after sinking his own personal fortune into the club and running up huge debts trying to stave off relegation from the Premier League. He was probably the clubs most stable and successful owner in my lifetime. He invested a lot of his own money chasing the dream, and he achieved it, for a while. But it couldn’t last, and poor signings and high wages lead to huge debts. Despite giving so much, the fans forgot and wanted him to leave.

Before him, and before my time, there was that renowned businessman and hero of pensioners everywhere, Robert Maxwell.

 The point is that over the past 30 years, Derby County have had only one owner who everyone was behind, and the fans even turned on him. At each turn there is the feeling that the new lot will be the answer, the people to bring success to the club. Owners who buy to make money, to asset strip, or to satisfy ego, will all fail eventually.Even those who buy out of a sense of civic pride will more than likely not succeed. Just look at Everton, where the desire to remove Bill Kenwright, who much surely be the owner of one of the country’s most stable and successful clubs, grows unexplainably louder each week.

There is a growing feeling that the best way forward for clubs, especially at Kettering’s level is through some sort of fans’ ownership. But even that now seems out of our reach.

Now we are at Nene Park, any owner would surely need to have deep pockets to make the ground work at this level. It is apparent that the attendances that need to be generated, and the sponsors boxes that need to be filled, are only possible with league football, and successful league football at that.

Although there are obviously commercial opportunities to generate income, these are likely to come as a result of the profile of the club being high. Fans ownership simply does not seem realistic at Nene Park.

Who knows where we go now? It feels like things will get a lot worse before they get better.

Even if we avoid a points deduction for administration, and even if we can shake of the embargo, it feels unlikely that we will be able to avoid a real relegation battle. And if Nene Park can’t be supported by a Blue Square Premier team, there is no chance in hell a club in the Blue Square North will be able to keep it running.

All in all, this season feels like a horrible dream. Walking back to the car last week I had the sudden feeling that I would wake up and everything will be all right. It would probably be some kind of Dallas-style season-erasing shower scene. Wickstead Park would never have happened and I would be stood on my slab back at Rockingham Road, hoping that the back wall of Cowper Street would hold up for another season.

Not dead yet – Kettering 0 v Darlington 0

I haven’t managed to post anything on this website for a couple of weeks now. With everything that has happened, I didn’t know what could be said that would be of any value. It felt impossible to be positive, and in dark times it would be wrong to shy away from reality, but with no more information than anyone else I felt like it was pointless to simply add to the feeling of helplessness and doom around the club.

But tonight, finally, there was a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. The light is a distant speck, but it is there nevertheless.

Getting into the car this evening it felt very much like we were making our final trip to see a club that has been in existence for 140 years. When one looks at what has happened to so many towns like Kettering over the past 20 years, it seemed somehow appropriate that we would simply give up with a whimper. We would simply stop sending a team to our matches, the very effort of having a football club too much for our town.

But if tonight was the final time that Kettering Town take to the field we can be proud that we went out fighting, with our heads held high. The atmosphere created by the fans was superb, and the effort from every single player was incredible. Darlington may be in as much trouble as us, but they would have come to Nene Park expecting a win. Although it was an even game for most part, I think it wouldn’t be unfair to say that they can feel fortunate to have left with a point.

For saying that an increasing percentage of our team would not expect any money, even if it was being paid out, the work rate and commitment of everyone who put on the Kettering shirt cannot be questioned.

Kiernan Hughes-Mason ran himself to a standstill. It is clear that recent games playing as the lone striker have taken their toll, but he was still chasing down lost causes, constantly trying to make things happen. John Dawkin made the game look easy, and looked like creating a chance every time he got the ball.

Yet, more than the effort displayed, there was genuine creativity. It is strange that now, as our team is supposedly at its weakest, we are starting to play some of the most penetrating football of the season. For the first time players are running onto the ball, passes are being played into space rather than into the feet of players with their back to goal.

The point that must sit at the back of everyone’s mind is that with the quality of this league appearing so low, if we had just put together a good team, rather than a list of good individuals, we might have done so much more this season. We might not be where we are.

If it was up to the players and the fans, we would have no problem. However, we all know that the fans and the players have little impact on what happens now. But, as we celebrated a point like it was a win, and the players showed their appreciation for our support, it felt like something was just starting, rather than coming to an end.

Reflections on a crazy week

Lots of people suspected that things would be difficult after we got knocked out of the FA Cup, but I don’t think any of us would have guessed just how quickly and dramatically our fortunes would have gone downhill. Thankfully some football has come along to interrupt the soap opera, but it is worth looking back and assessing this torrid five days.

One of the biggest influences on the way that news in now reported has been the rise of social media. In the good old days, events would be reported once a day, maybe even just once a week. Even at the launch of 24 hour news channels, news was still just a one way conversation. We found out about an event when a journalist wanted to tell us about it.

With websites like Twitter this all changed. Now we can all respond to stories as soon as they happen. We can report news or, more regularly, rumour and speculation ourselves. We can become the story. An event that gets a lot of momentum and a big public reaction becomes newsworthy in itself. Journalists can report on the growing reaction or backlash to an event. A story can escalate by the minute, when in fact nothing new has actually happened.

Last week’s FIFA poppy fiasco is a perfect example of this. I am sure that the ‘events’ that would normally move a story forward consisted of just a couple of letters or emails, maybe a few phone calls and probably two or three meetings at the FA and FIFA. The actual time the FA and FIFA collectively spent working on the issue was probably only minimal. But to watch the news, and especially the internet reaction, you would have come away with the impression that there were constant high level summits, with both sides working late into the night to solve the crisis.

This phenomenon of a ratcheting up of tension has also been seen with Kettering Town this week. Before even the Sports Report theme-tune had ended, rumours began flying around about failures to pay wages and bills, by Tuesday reporters were hinting at what they knew but were unable to tell all, and players were venting their frustrations in public. There may have only been one or two actual key events at the club during the week, but constant access to the rumour mill made it feel like things were getting worse by the minute.

Of course, all of the rumours that started coming out at the beginning of the week were pretty much on the money. We do appear to be in a financial black hole. This is nothing new. At this time last year the Chairman gave an interview almost identical word-for-word to the one he gave this week. The last few seasons we have escaped. But in the last few seasons we weren’t paying for Nene Park.

It now sounds like the only way out is for many of our better players to move on. We will have to hope that Mark Stimson has a better knack for signings that the last manager. He can start by not being so easily swayed by agents. This week the Chairman suggested that the club’s summer transfer policy was based on agents ‘working their magic’. Anyone who makes a signing on the basis of what they are told by a man who has a major financial stake in you signing that player has little right to pass the blame on to anyone else.

But even if Stimson has his best scouting goggles on, it is likely that by the end of January we will have more players on non-contract terms or short term loans. The fact that Hughes-Mason,  Swaibu and O’Leary don’t even appear to be received travel expenses shows what a dire state we are in. The team seems to be increasingly made up of players who are essentially volunteering for Kettering Town. Maybe the club is planning on becoming one of the leading lights in the Big Society. It certainly puts an end to the ‘we pay your wages’ moan.

Whoever ends up in the starting XI, we need to give them our full support. The atmosphere under Masson was toxic, and no one wants to go back to that.

In the middle of all of this the fans are left wondering what on earth is happening. Many of us bought tickets on the promises made to us in pre season. In football, no fans can seriously demand or even expect success, but people surely have the right to be just a little miffed that the season was built on such a foundation of sand.

It was just 15 weeks ago that the club was talking of its play-off aspirations. The speed of the turnaround, from a two-year plan to be in the Football League, to ‘these players we’ve signed are all rubbish and need to leave’ has left fans angry. But it is an impotent anger, a feeling that there is nothing they can do to help.

Those who have given many years service to Kettering Town have been systematically sidelined over the past four years. The growing professionalism of lower league football, taking the running of clubs like Kettering away from supporters and supposedly managing them as businesses, has meant that when things go wrong, when clubs most need fans to pull together, they find that the people they could rely on in the past are no longer there.

It is worth remembering that fans of lots of other clubs are going through very similar events. Kettering Town is not unique and we are not alone. It is also worth remembering that we have been here before and survived. But there are only so many times that you can continually lean over the cliff edge and pull yourself back. At some point you will become so weary that you will be unable to stop yourself from falling.

Memories of what could have been – Sutton United 1 v 0 Kettering Town

When I started this blog I said that I wasn’t going to do match reports or tactical analysis. This is something that has often been difficult to avoid at the start of this season, but after a 1-0 loss to Blue Square South, Sutton United I am going to actively ignore it. The end of our FA Cup run and the vital income that it brings speaks for itself. Everyone saw how Saturday played out, and those who didn’t will get a pretty universal view of the game from reading the various match reports.

Sutton away was always going to be a difficult tie. They are a good side, but if we had performed to the level we can, then we should have won. But we didn’t. We didn’t even get close. I have no idea what went wrong, and there is plenty of blame to be dished out. I doesn’t really matter. The upshot was that we had no craft or intelligence. Almost every ball was sent long. At no point did we put Sutton under any sustained pressure. In the end we were lucky to only concede one.

No, what took place on the pitch can be forgotten. At least as far as this post is concerned. If it wasn’t for the 90 minutes of football, or what Kettering tried to pass off as football, then our trip to Sutton was a classic FA Cup away day.

As someone who spends a lot of their life in North London, any trip south of the river is a bit of a holiday. It has always struck me that as you travel on the train past Clapham Junction, South London is less a city and more a series of small towns, connected by endless, grinding suburbs. I imagine that in a council office somewhere, a deranged town planner fantasises about the day when Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough exist as something similar.

Although I only had to travel 16 miles to Gander Green Lane, the fact that it took well over an hour and a half made it feel like a proper trip. A stop-off in the friendly, if slightly horse racing obsessed Robin Hood, for a couple of beers and a sausage sandwich about a foot thick got me overly optimistic. By the time I reached the ground I felt that a draw was a realistic dream.

Stepping into the ground reminded me of what a non-league ground should be like. It didn’t matter that the crowd weren’t segregated, and that we were all able to switch ends at half time. In fact, it was a good lesson for those people who are convinced that football fans will tear each other limb from limb if they get within 50 yards of each other.

It reminded me of what we have given up. Dilapidated stands, a tea shed that looked like it had been there forever and whose luck changed when a football ground was built around it, and advertising hoardings that recall companies that have long since disappeared.

During some of the more depressing moments it was fun to imagine working on the Sutton Comet Sports Desk. Sat in a smoke-filled office, hammering away on an old typewriter, waiting for the Bakelite phone to ring with news of the latest signing. Hoping that your rival at the Sutton Independent didn’t get the scoop on you.

At half time I was paying the price for having had a second pint before the game, so went to find the toilet. In the week when it was announced that voting in the Worst Toilets in Football competition had to be suspended because of voting irregularities, I can only hope that Sutton’s entry form was lost in the post. A single female/disabled toilet – the men’s being padlocked shut – appeared to serve all 1,500 spectators. In the end, the toilets became a scrap of wasteland covered in burnt-out bins behind the terrace. It may not have been glamourous, but it did come with a lovely view over the park.

This may all sound patronising, it isn’t meant to be. Yesterday was a reminder of what going to football should be about. Sutton have shown that you don’t need great facilities, or a Chinese take-away to have a good footballing team.

Sutton’s ground may have not been the best, but it is their ground, with their history. It is probably impossible for us to go back now, and if we did, then that may be the end of us. But there are times when you feel that the end may not be too far away at Nene Park either.

Despair, then hope, then disappointment – Kettering 2 v 3 Southport

Poor Laurie Walker. There is no hiding place for goalkeepers when things don’t go your way. When Southport were leading 2-0, I couldn’t see how we would get back in to the game, but some good battling spirt and the welcome introduction of Moses Ashikodi gave us the realistic hope of not just one, but all three points. So it was no surprise to see Walker looking absolutely sick at full time when the full time whistle went at 3-2.

This isn’t the first time that Laurie has finished a game feeling disappointed. Some appalling defending in the first part of the season often left him with no chance, then the mistake against Southend Manor, and now the goal against Southport, have meant that he has had to keep picking himself up.

But at the same time he has still made some fantastic saves, and has kept us in several games. It is this that has meant the fans have continued to give him fantastic support.

It is worth remembering that not only is Laurie still very young for a goalkeeper, this is also his first real season of first team football. Good goalkeeping is all about decision making. Understanding when to come and when to stay, reading a strikers body position for where he will shoot, deciding when to catch and when to punch. Good decision making in goalkeeping, as with every other area of life, only comes with experience.

Laurie is still learning every game. He has had a testing start to his first team career in football, but it would be great if he develops with Kettering and becomes a good goalkeeper.

The other two points of note in a game that will be forgotten by next week, never mind the end of the season, was a smartly taken goal by Twitter’s Kieran Hughes-Mason and the sight of JP Marna and Moses on the pitch together without knocking seven bells out of each other.

Like Walker, Hughes-Mason is another young player looking to make his way in the game. He obviously has a lot of pace, but he often seems to be let down by his decision making. Again this is hopefully something that would develop with experience. He isn’t ever going to be the first choice forward for Kettering, but despite that he always seems to give his maximum effort. This is all you can really ask of a player.

In a very interesting interview with TwoFootedTackle.com he talks about spending a summer traveling the country having trial after trial and being turned down. Having the drive to continue putting yourself forward and having the belief in your own ability shows just what it takes to make it even at non-league level.

Nevertheless, as he failed to convert his one-on-one chance in the first half, you could sense a lack of confidence in his eyes. For me it was therefore even more impressive when he finished a similar chance so well in the second half.

The task for Stimson and the team is to put this defeat behind them, and get ready for what will be a very tough game at Sutton United. Sutton had another impressive win yesterday and hey will fancy their chances against us. If we apply ourselves well, and most of all, cut out the mistakes that cost us goals this week then we have a good chance to progress.

The road to Wembley – Kettering 3 v 1 Southend Manor

The only emotion it was possible to feel after Saturday’s 3-1 win against Southend Manor was relief. We made it through, but it would have been an almighty shock if we had lost. When the draw was made, the ET’s Jon Dunham pointed out that if Kettering had faced a team from a similar difference in league positions above us it would have been a team with a play off place in the Championship. A tough enough ask but, while this may have been true on pure league places, Kettering’s professional status should have made that gap much easier to close.

If Kettering make it to the third round there is plenty of chance to be annoyed by other fans patronising the non-league, so I don’t want to do that to Southend Manor. They deserved to be approached in the way we would have done any other team and, in the second half, we did just that. Despite some heroic defending and a huge amount of effort, in the end they just didn’t quite have enough.

But it is easy to see how they got this far. They were very well organised and broke well. With a kinder draw they could well have been in the hat for the first round. I am sure they will win their league and should even have a good run in the FA Vase.

In the end it was JP Marna who made the difference, making his triumphant comeback to the ring. It was a match made for him. JP must have been reminded of the Blue Square North days, when he would terrorise defenders for fun.

Whether by luck or by design, Stimson played him in exactly the same way that Cooper used to: wait for the defenders to get a tired and then send on JP to torment them. There was one point when he ghosted past his man to the right of the goal and then flashed the shot just wide of the far post that was magical to watch. I will admit that at one point I did think, ‘it would almost be worth getting relegated, just to see JP be able to do this every week’.

Against JPs trickery and McKenzie’s vision it was always going to be difficult for Manor to keep Kettering out in the second half. But they gave it their best effort. Again, I don’t want to patronise their fans, who gave a great account of themselves, but at almost 1,000 the attendance was 100 times bigger than at their opening home game of the season.

If Kettering were to play in front of a crowd 100 times bigger than our smallest attendance, we would be playing at a packed out Nou Camp. And if we play eight games in the competition we will be in the FA Cup final. We may have been taking the piss, but it really was a big day for them.

But this is what the FA Cup is all about. I drove past Wembley Stadium this today, and although there is no chance that we will get there, the fact is that there is still hope. We are now only two wins from an away game at Old Trafford, or having the chance to test  Arsenal with some set pieces at home. We will never win the cup but I am sure that our memories of a game like that would live longer than the memories of FA Cup finals for fans of either of those two teams.

Next up is Sutton or Leatherhead. Although an away draw is never the first choice, there were plenty of worse draws available. If we apply ourselves correctly we should beat either of them. Having said that, I am sure we are all rooting for Leatherhead on Tuesday.

The best part is that whoever goes through, both sets of fans will know that a win and a helpful draw in the next round is all that stands in their way of a match that could transform their club. It probably won’t happen, but it might. And that’s all that matters. That is what makes the FA Cup the best knock out competition in the world. And anyone who says otherwise has no soul.

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