Few clubs can boast a Cup history as rich as that of Blackburn Rovers. The club has lifted the trophy on six occasions, winning the competition three times on the trot - 1884, 1885 and 1886 - even before Kettering had played their first Cup-tie. Further successes followed in 1890 and 1891, as Blackburn stamped their authority on this period of the Victorian era. Their star waned subsequently, and folk of the Lancashire mill town would have to wait until 1928 to again see their team return triumphant from the capital. Since then, nothing. It appeared that Blackburn’s glory days were behind them. Until, that is, an injection of cash in the early 1990s transformed an average Second Division club into one destined to win football’s rebranded top-flight Premier League. Under manager Kenny Dalglish, Rovers’ transformation was already well underway when the Poppies arrived at Ewood Park for a third-round Cup-tie in January 1992. Although the afternoon would end in defeat, it was without doubt among the Grand Days Out enjoyed by the travelling Kettering fans in the Cup over the years. Occasions enlivened by the noise and colour associated with a thousand-plus Poppies supporters packed into an away end, fully intent on enjoying themselves irrespective of the outcome on the pitch.
Football League opponents during the period: Bristol Rovers, Halifax Town, Charlton Athletic, Northampton Town, Maidstone United, Blackburn Rovers, Gillingham, Plymouth Argyle, Wrexham, Hull City, Bristol City, Cheltenham Town.
Kettering played their very first Cup-tie on 6 October 1888. A century later, the club was embarked upon one of its most defining runs in the competition, a run which would see Kettering’s name drawn out of the hat on no fewer than eight occasions.
After winning through four rounds of qualifying and three of the competition proper, the club, for the first time in its history, was in the fourth round - although the fact needs to be put into context. Today, the fourth round is contested by the last 32 clubs remaining. Back in the 1890s, Kettering reached this stage on three occasions, but it was then only numbered as the first round. And in 1900-01, the club was one of only 16 left standing after reaching the second round.
Kettering and Charlton Athletic had previously crossed swords in the Cup in 1927. On that occasion, the Poppies held the Third Division South club to a 1-1 draw at The Valley before going down at Rockingham Road. Since then, the Addicks had (in 1947) added their name to the list of Cup-winning clubs and risen to domestic football’s highest level. Tenants at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park (a ground Kettering last visited in 1937), Charlton were not one of the First Division’s Big Clubs, but even so . . .
Saturday, 28 January 1989 was wet, a steady drizzle falling from a dull, grey sky. But there was no dampening the spirit of the estimated 8,000 Kettering fans who would ensure this was to be Charlton’s third highest gate of the season thus far: 16,001. Spilling out of trains, coaches, cars, etc., supporters made their way through the streets of South Norwood to take their place on the huge open terrace behind the goal at the Holmesdale Road end of the ground. Well before kick-off, the bank was fairly packed.
Eighty-one places and four leagues separated the two clubs, but Charlton’s manager Lennie Lawrence was not taking the Poppies lightly and his chosen eleven - Bob Bolder, John Humphrey, Steve Gritt, Peter Shirtliff, Colin Pates, Andy Peake, Rob Lee, Paul Williams, Steve MacKenzie, Paul Mortimer and Garth Crooks - was unchanged from that which had returned triumphant from Newcastle a week earlier.
They would now face the same team master tactician Peter Morris had picked to win the third-round tie at Halifax: Harvey Lim, Mark Nightingale, Dougie Keast, Paul Richardson, Russell Lewis, Richard Brown, Andy Wright, Lil Fuccillo, Ernie Moss, Robbie Cooke and Cohen Griffith; with Neil Edwards again set to make a brief substitute appearance. As was their right, the Addicks opted to wear their first-choice red shirts, so Kettering took the field in one-off white tops sporting a badge celebrating what had already been a momentous Cup run.
It was a contest which might have become very one-sided. The Poppies were simply not in the game for a good deal of the first half, during which they were stretched by a confident Charlton side. Two goals in a five-minute spell put the hosts in control before a quarter of the tie had passed. Both were set up by Crooks. The first came from a miskick which fell to Williams, who also failed to strike the ball cleanly but nevertheless got enough boot on it to beat Lim. Crooks’ second assist was sublime. With back to goal at the edge of the area, he flicked a pass into the path of Lee who could hardly fail to find the net. There were other chances, too, but a combination of poor finishing, good goalkeeping and an improving Poppies defence meant the visitors were not out of the game when they headed to the changing room for a much-needed half-time talk.
And what a talk it proved to be! The moment that sparked new life into the tie arrived barely a minute after the restart. Fuccillo hit a free-kick from deep; Moss won the aerial duel and Lewis threw himself into a full-blooded challenge to get a further vital touch, the ball squirmed through to Cooke and the striker pounced to net his eleventh goal in the competition in front of the massed ranks of Poppies fans. Suddenly the terrace was a writhing mass of joyful humanity dotted with giant inflatable bananas, cigarettes, animals, all manner of objects - such was the late-80s craze.
The timing of the goal was perfect, the change of formation from 5-2-3 to 4-3-3 loosened the shackles, and now the roar from their soaked-to-the-skin supporters left no one in any doubt that Kettering were off the ropes and starting to punch.
The Addicks continued to pose a potent threat and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise, but the mud-spattered white-shirted visitors had renewed belief in their own abilities and the second half was a far more even contest. The spirit of the team was exemplified by Ernie Moss being led from the field with blood flowing from a nasty cut above his left eye, only for the 39-year-old to return moments later with the wound stitched.
With Charlton unable to restore their two-goal cushion, the nerves of both sets of supporters were on edge. Entering the final minutes, the tension was almost unbearable. Then Griffith’s neat lay-off found Moss, and the crowd held its collective breath as his first-time shot flew towards the Charlton goal . . . only to flash inches wide of the post. Another of those what if moments that have passed into Poppies folklore; a tale in which the distance between ball and upright diminishes with every telling.