James Clifton believes Kettering Town would now be the champions of the Calor League Division One Central is they had started the season with the current squad.
The Poppies head to Egham Town tonight (Thursday) for their crucial game in hand on fifth-placed Barton Rovers, knowing that a draw or better will put them back into the play-off places with three games to play.
Dean Thomas’ men are on the back of five successive home victories, the latest of which saw right-back Clifton score twice as they fought back from a goal down to beat AFC Hayes 3-1 on Tuesday night.
Having lost six out of their first 10 league games, Thomas made wholesale changes to his squad and it has resulted in a run that has seen just two defeats in 28 league matches.
And Clifton, one of the influential figures in that stunning turnaround, is in no doubt that the current crop would have already won the title by this point had they been together from the start.
Instead, they are battling for a play-off place and he knows tonight’s trip will be tough after Egham held Barton to a 1-1 draw on Tuesday – a result which ultimately put the Poppies’ fate back in their own hands.
“In my opinion, if we had started with this team we would have won this league a long time ago,” Clifton said.
“But we are where we are and we knew all along that as long as we looked after ourselves then other teams would always drop points.
“It won’t be easy down there (at Egham) and they are going to have a big say in who finishes where.
“We have just got to go again and make sure we do things right. I am sure we are capable of getting another three points.
“The lads are going to have to look after themselves and I am sure there will be changes again to make sure everyone is fresh.”
Thomas will be forced into one change with Jamie McAlindon expected to play in goal with Alastair Worby serving a one-match ban tonight.
Jonathon Thorpe is still unavailable while Tommy Hull is expected to miss out again due to a hip problem.
Dan Crowie’s hamstring injury will be assessed ahead of kick-off but Thomas has faith in the rest of his squad, although he believes they were taught a “valuable lesson” after they trailed Hayes at half-time on Tuesday before fighting back to win after the break.
The Poppies boss said: “We are winning games and I can’t ask for anything more than they are giving me at the moment.
“But we learned a valuable lesson on Tuesday that you can’t underestimate anybody and I thought we did that in the first half.
“We have had to deal with a few injuries and I thought Jon Bukasa came back in and did very well on Tuesday and Steve Kinniburgh was great at centre-half as well.
“The lads have shown they can adapt when they need to.”
Kettering’s trip to Egham is followed by another away-day at Aylesbury United on Saturday before they take on county rivals and current leaders Daventry Town at Latimer Park on Easter Monday.