Kettering Town booked themselves a promotion shoot-out with Slough Town on Bank Holiday Monday after a tense evening ended with a heroic 1-0 victory over Northamptonshire rivals Daventry Town.
Over 1,400 fans packed into Latimer Park to see Henry Eze head home the only goal after just two minutes as the Poppies made the perfect start to the Calor League Division One Central play-off semi-final.
But from there, it became a case of hanging on. Kettering were not at their best by any stretch but they defended like lions and when their defences were breached, man-of-the-match Alastair Worby was there to deny the visitors.
Daventry, for their part, will feel hard done by. Once again they came to Latimer Park and they performed well. This, for whatever reason, just wasn’t their season.
Dean Thomas made two changes from the team that started the final game of the regular season at North Greenford on Saturday with Tommy Hull and Josh Moreman coming into the team at the expense of Jon Bukasa and Andrew Osei-Siribour.
And, having missed that game at the weekend, top scorer Dubi Ogbonna also returned to the squad but had to settle for a place on the bench.
For Daventry, former Corby Town striker Tom Berwick came back into the side along with top scorer Ashley Robinson.
But the visitors were stunned as Kettering made a flying start and opened the scoring inside two minutes.
They forced the first corner of the game, Andy Gooding whipped it in and Eze was there to outjump his marker and power home the header.
The vast majority of Latimer Park went crazy but it wasn’t the signal for total dominance for the hosts as the game soon settled into the nervy contest most had expected.
But it was the Poppies who should have doubled their advantage on 21 minutes when a golden chance fell to Elliot Sandy.
James Jepson swung in a free-kick from the right, Chris Logan challenged for it and it eventually fell for Sandy who could only blast over with the goal at his mercy.
Daventry gradually grew into the first half and a good period of pressure ended with Ross Oulton’s corner being sliced to the far post by James Clifton. And only an excellent stop from Worby prevented Berwick from heading the visitors level.
Almost immediately, Daventry goalkeeper Richard Morris was forced to tip Gooding’s header over the bar after Sandy had flicked on Clifton’s long throw while Sandy was off target again soon after following another Poppies corner.
Daventry pretty carried on from where they ended the first half as they continued to cause problems for the hosts.
Oulton found Ryan Howell, whose shot was parried by Worby with Berwick snuffed out as he looked to pick up the pieces. And Clifton was forced to make a crucial clearing header as Luke Keen closed in on a decent ball in from the lively Berwick.
Kettering did create an opening when Jonathon Thorpe got in behind the visiting defence but he had to stretch for his final shot and Morris got down well to push it away.
But it was Daventry who continued to probe and, as the tension grew in the home crowd, more mistakes and careless passes saw the hosts put themselves under pressure.
The visitors threw on Scott Cross, who played one game for Kettering during the regular season, and he fired wide with two minutes to go after another Oulton free-kick had caused problems.
But, despite some tense moments towards the end including Morris coming up for a long throw, Kettering headed and hacked everything clear.
The final whistle was greeted by scenes of jubilation and a full scale pitch invasion.
The job, however, is not done. And the Kettering players will know it. One game, one chance for promotion.
See you all on Monday!
Poppies: Worby; Clifton, Hull, Eze, Kinniburgh; Thorpe, Gooding, Jepson, Logan, Moreman (sub Ogbonna, 77 mins); Sandy (sub Bukasa, 89 mins). Subs not used: Hamilton, Fuller, Osei-Siribour.
Daventry: Morris; Wilkinson, Simpson, Dolman, Blake; Husband (sub Beckley, 75 mins), Howell; Berwick (sub O’Grady, 66 mins), Oulton, Keen (sub Cross, 85 mins); Robinson. Subs not used: Deeney, James.
Referee: Nigel Smith.
Goal: Eze (2 mins, 1-0).
Bookings: Blake, Berwick (both fouls).