Rockingham Road Memories: 2003-04 to 2018-19

Kettering badge v Leeds United

Rockingham Road’s last great hurrah was the visit of high-flying League One club Leeds United on Sunday, 29 November 2009, and the match details woven into the Poppies’ red shirts on the day commemorate a special occasion which saw Kettering take the lead against their illustrious opponents before having to settle for a 1-1 draw. Indeed, it would take extra-time at Elland Road to finally separate the sides. Today, the Poppies’ Cup odyssey continues at Latimer Park, which has already hosted more of the club’s games in the national knockout competition than Eldred’s Field, North Park or Nene Park.

Football League/Premier League opponents during the period: Oldham Athletic, Lincoln City, Notts County, Fulham, Hartlepool United, Leeds United.

Classic Cup-ties: Kettering v Fulham, 2008-09

IT’S FULHAM! screamed the Evening Telegraph’s front and back page headlines the day after players and fans had gathered in the Tin Hat social club to watch the televised draw pair the Poppies with the Cottagers at Rockingham Road. For only the second time since entering the Cup, the club had been handed home advantage against top-flight opposition. On the last occasion, exactly a century earlier, the venue was switched to Bury; so Fulham now became not only the first Premier League side Kettering had met since football rebranded itself in 1992, but the first from the game’s elite level to play a Cup-tie in the town.

The two clubs had met competitively before. Indeed, once upon a time Fulham had been the lower-placed side before they were promoted in 1903 to the Southern League First Division, of which Kettering were already members. Each beat the other on their own ground during the 1903-04 league campaign, but the Londoners thereafter assumed the higher position in football’s hierarchy. Over the years, Fulham was not a club to have filled the cabinet with a glittering array of trophies, and the current season found them no better placed than mid-table, but no one at Kettering was too concerned about all that. This was going to be a great occasion on and off the pitch.

Manager Mark Cooper summed up the mood in an Evening Telegraph interview: It is one for the romantics. It’s non-League against Premier League and it’s what the FA Cup is all about.

A temporary stand was erected at the back of the Cowper Street terrace, tickets were printed and sold, commemorative beers were brewed and drunk, the pitch was prepared and the local press elevated excitement levels beyond fever pitch by covering the build-up from every conceivable angle. The trophy itself appeared at the ground two days prior to the match. Representatives from the national media in all its forms descended on the town to interview players, staff and practically anyone else bedecked in a red scarf. Kettering was well and truly on the sporting map.

Despite the suspension of skipper Guy Branston, Cooper had a good squad of professionals to pick from, and the chosen team, in a 4-4-2 line-up, comprised: Lee Harper, Dale Bennett, John Dempster, Exodus Geohaghon, Tommy Jaszczun, Nicky Eaden, Brett Solkhon, Andre Boucaud, Richard Graham, Craig Westcarr and Gareth Seddon. Substitutes Alfie Potter, Chris Beardsley and Jean-Paul Marna would also play a part in the match.

The task facing Kettering became apparent when Fulham’s manager Roy Hodgson unveiled his eleven, all of whom had played at senior level for their respective countries: Mark Schwarzer, Fredrik Stoor, Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes, Paul Konchesky, Simon Davies, Leon Andreasen, Dickson Etuhu, Zoltan Gera, Andrew Johnson and Clint Dempsey. Off the bench would come club captain Danny Murphy and Bobby Zamora.

As befitted the occasion, the teams took the field wearing their traditional colours, the Poppies in an all-red strip and the Cottagers in white shirts and black shorts, both receiving a rapturous ovation from the 5,406 spectators who had the good fortune to be in attendance under a cloudless pale-blue winter sky.

Apart from an early chance spurned by Westcarr, it was the visitors who had the best of the opening quarter as they knocked the ball about with relative ease. With barely a dozen minutes on the clock Fulham were ahead, Davies thumping a perfectly timed volley past Harper. Kettering were on the back foot, and the game might have become a very one-sided affair if heads had been allowed to drop. But Cooper’s Poppies were made of sterner stuff.

By the half-hour mark play had become more evenly contested, with the non-Leaguers, Boucaud especially, raising their game to match the talents of the international stars arrayed before them. Shortly before the break, Kettering won a free-kick a yard outside the box. Westcarr stepped forward with only one thing on his mind: he shot, the ball struck a defender in the wall leaving Schwarzer wrong-footed, the net rippled and up went an almighty roar. Fulham were rattled. Come the break, there was nothing in the scoreline to differentiate between the sides.

The second half was not for the faint of heart, for this was now a rip-roaring Cup-tie. The Poppies so nearly took the lead when a glorious opportunity fell to Dempster some six yards out, but the defender was left head-in-hands after heading over the bar. The Cottagers, too, had their chances. Fingernails were chewed. The outcome hung in the balance as the sun dipped below the trees at the Rockingham Road end of the ground.

Hodgson was forced to roll the dice, bringing on reinforcements in the shape of Murphy and Zamora, and the pair nearly made an instant impact when the former’s cross was nodded wide by the latter. Then, with 13 minutes remaining, it looked as though Murphy had won the tie for the visitors when his shot deflected off Geohaghon and found the net. But Fulham’s relief did not last long.

The most controversial moment of the afternoon arrived when Westcarr, bearing down on goal, was clumsily bundled over by Hangeland. Penalty! With the offender being the last line of defence, the punishment might - arguably should - have been twofold; but no, there was to be no red card for the Norwegian. (Never one to shirk a spat with officialdom, the Kettering chairman later found himself in hot water with the FA for forthrightly expressing the opinion that the referee, Mr Riley, should have dismissed Hangeland.) Westcarr picked himself up and struck a sweet spot-kick. The keeper guessed correctly and dived to his left but was unable to stop the ball finding the net. For the second time that afternoon there was elation on three sides of the old ground. Rockingham Road was rocking like never before.

A replay by the banks of the Thames beckoned. But . . . with time almost up, when the impossible looked to be within reach, the Poppies defence switched off. Harper failed to deal with a cross and Johnson restored the visitors’ lead. To rub salt in the wound, Zamora added a fourth goal a minute later. And that was that. A cruel - or clinical, depending on one’s point of view - finish to a truly memorable occasion. Fulham knew how close Kettering had come to causing an upset, and Hodgson was gracious enough to go to the home dressing room after the match to congratulate the players on their performance.

Would the result have been different had the visitors been reduced to ten men as the game reached its climax? Perhaps.

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