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.