VERDICT: Poppies hit back with five-star show
Kettering Town delivered the perfect response as they got things back on track with a 5-0 demolition of Hitchin Town at Latimer Park.
Something was needed after a 4-1 defeat at Banbury United seven days earlier had thrown the Poppies off course in their challenge at the top of the Evo-Stik League South Premier Division Central.
Manager Marcus Law utilised his managerial licence after a heavy defeat to ring the changes and those who came into the side had a major impact on proceedings.
Luke Graham and Brett Solkhon were as solid as you like at the heart of the defence, Gary Stohrer was highly-impressive, as he always is, at left-back and Rhys Hoenes marked his return to the starting line-up with a man-of-the-match display as his pace caused Hitchin’s backline problems all afternoon.
Throw that all together with impressive performances from back-to-front from the rest and it all added up to create plenty of Christmas cheer around Latimer Park.
The story at the summit is intriguing as Stourbridge maintained their superb form to remain four points clear of the Poppies, who have three games in hand.
The top two, for the time being, remain well clear of the rest. This race looks like it could be a fascinating one.
But this game was all about Kettering having to get back to winning ways and, although the scoreline paints a pretty picture, they had to work extremely hard for it against a Hitchin side who arrived on the back of four successive wins.
Indeed, the final outcome was harsh on the Canaries who gave the Poppies plenty to think about at times.
It wasn’t easy for either side with the surface cutting up quickly after the heavy overnight rain.
But it all came down to two moments of quality from Lindon Meikle and Michael Richens to give Kettering the edge they needed in the first half.
Stohrer fired into the side-netting with their best early opening and Graham saw a header from a corner held by visiting goalkeeper Michael Johnson.
But there was nothing he could do on 28 minutes. Poppies stopped Paul White clipped a free-kick towards the Hitchin area, Adam Cunnington nodded it down and Meikle picked it up, skipped past a challenge and then fire an inch-perfect 25-yard strike into the top corner.
Hoenes was denied by Johnson and then flicked a Dan Holman cross just over before the Poppies got some breathing space on the stroke of half-time.
And, in a case of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’, captain Michael Richens gave Meikle’s strike a real run for its money as he hammered a long-range strike beyond the despairing Johnson and into the same top corner.
Hitchin, as they had to, came out of the blocks quickly after the break and a big moment arrived on 63 minutes when Kettering were carved open and Isaac Galliford found himself with just White to beat. But the Poppies goalkeeper stood strong to make an excellent save.
Two minutes later, it was 3-0. And while the first two had been down to individual strikes, this was all about the team as a flowing move ended with Cunnington playing in Holman who made no mistake with a first-time finish.
That allowed Law to ring the changes ahead of a hectic schedule but, aside from White parrying away a low cross from substitute Scott Belgrave, the Poppies remained in control.
And they popped a couple of cherries on top of their Christmas cake late on.
Hoenes was scythed down in full flight by Jay Dowie in the area with Solkhon resuming penalty spot duties and sending Johnson the wrong way.
Just three minutes later, it was five and this time Hitchin were hard done by as Hoenes and Dan Webb wrestled each other to the ground with the referee deciding the visiting defender had committed a foul in the process.
Solkhon showed no mercy, as you would expect, as his second spot-kick found its way in despite Johnson getting plenty on it.
The final scoreline was, perhaps, slightly flattering but no-one could argue with the Poppies coming out on top. They were impressive and worthy winners.
Now the key is to build on it at struggling Bedworth United on Boxing Day before two huge tests - one at King’s Lynn Town a week today and the other against AFC Rushden & Diamonds on New Year’s Day - follow on.
For now though the standard has been set, again...
Poppies: White; Kelly-Evans, Graham, Solkhon, Stohrer; Richens, Meikle, Kelly (sub Toseland, 73 mins); Holman (sub Milnes, 73 mins), Cunnington (sub O’Connor, 77 mins), Hoenes. Sub not used: Rowe-Turner.
Hitchin: Johnson; Green, Webb, Perrell, Chesmain; Dowie, Bickerstaff; Cain, Galliford, Cue (sub Nulian, 63 mins); Forde (sub Belgrave, 73 mins). Subs not used: DeSilva, Packham, Bursa.
Referee: Samuel Kane.
Goals: Meikle (28 mins, 1-0), Richens (45 mins, 2-0), Holman (65 mins, 3-0), Solkhon pen (83 mins, 4-0), Solkhon pen (86 mins, 5-0).
Booking: Cunnington (foul).
Northants Telegraph man-of-the-match: Rhys Hoenes - there’s no doubt about it, Rhys Hoenes certainly gives the Poppies an extra edge when he’s in the team. Despite the heavy surface, it didn’t stop the flying frontman from utilising his pace and causing all sorts of problems for the Hitchin defence. His work-rate was second-to-none, he didn’t get the goal his performance merited but he did win both penalties to add the gloss late on. But for Hoenes to be successful, you have to play to his strengths and the Poppies certainly did that. Indeed, on a day like this, it was tough to single out one individual. Kettering were impressive from back-to-front with every single one of those coming into the side justifying their selection.