FEATURE: ‘The whole place was buzzing’ on the day Poppies pushed Fulham all the way

Just over 11 years may have passed but it’s an afternoon those who were there will still be able to remember like it was yesterday.

By Jon Dunham
Friday, 17th April 2020, 8:15 am
The Kettering Town and Fulham players exchanging handshakes ahead of their FA Cup fourth round tie at Rockingham Road in 2009
The Kettering Town and Fulham players exchanging handshakes ahead of their FA Cup fourth round tie at Rockingham Road in 2009

Kettering Town’s FA Cup run during the 2008-09 season, which came 20 years on from the similar effort which ended up in a glorious defeat at Charlton Athletic, is still spoken of to this day.

The Poppies, under the control of controversial chairman Imraan Ladak, were back in non-League football’s top-flight having won the Conference North title during Mark Cooper’s first season in charge.

And while Kettering more than held their own in the league, it would be the FA Cup that once again catapulted them into the national spotlight.

Mark Cooper was in charge of the Poppies during their famous FA Cup run in the 2008-09 season. Picture by Mike Capps/www.kappasport.co.uk

Eventual Conference champions Burton Albion were brushed aside 3-0 in the fourth qualifying round before memorable victories over Football League clubs Lincoln City and Notts County, both after replays, sent them into the third round proper.

There, instead of pulling out a big gun, they were handed a home tie with another non-League side Eastwood Town managed by current Poppies boss Paul Cox.

A 2-1 success put them into the last 32 and this time the reward was big as they were given a home tie with Premier League Fulham.

And if then Cottagers manager Roy Hodgson or any of his players thought it would be a simple task, they were sorely mistaken.

The picture captured by Mike Capps (www.kappsport.co.uk) of Brett Solkhon wheeling away after scoring the Poppies' goal in their second-round tie at Notts County remains one of the defining images of their FA Cup run in 2008-09

The match was somehow ignored by the live television cameras but there was something quite fitting about the game being played out on a glorious Saturday afternoon in late January.

Rockingham Road was at its majestic best, packed to the rafters with 5,406 in attendance and they were treated to an absolute classic.

Simon Davies’ magnificent volley put Fulham in front but Craig Westcarr brought the house down when he levelled things up with a deflected free-kick.

The Poppies were superb in the second half with chances going begging before Danny Murphy who, along with Bobby Zamora, had been brought off the bench to try to halt Kettering’s charge, regained the lead for the Premier League outfit.

But Kettering came back again, Westcarr making it 2-2 from the penalty spot after being pulled back in front of goal by Brede Hangeland (more on that shortly).

However, the hearts were broken late on when Andy Johnson and then Zamora secured a 4-2 victory for Fulham to spare their blushes.

Cooper is, without question, one of the most successful Poppies managers of the modern era.

And, as we spoke about that famous cup tie, you could sense there was part of him that was still frustrated even now.

It was a game he and his players believed they could win and he still feels they would have done if referee Mike Riley had sent Hangeland off for that foul on Westcarr.

“To be drawn at home against a Premier League team was a big thing,” Cooper reflected.

“The whole place was buzzing because we were going well in the league, we had some good players and a really good team spirit, everyone was together.

“It was such a good cup run and I am sure every Kettering fan would love to go back to those days now. They were good days, I really enjoyed them.

“It was a Saturday afternoon, the stadium was full and there were decent crowds every week back then because the fans knew those players would have a real go for them.

“And, do you know what? There was a real belief that we could win that game with Fulham and, looking back, we should have done.

“There was a massive decision from Mike Riley because Hangeland brings down Westy and it is a stonewall red card in any rulebook but he didn’t send him off.

“We scored but they should have been down to 10 men for the last 10 minutes and if they had been, I think we would have beaten them.

“I guess it’s easy to say that and I am sure those who were playing for Fulham would say they had plenty in reserve.

“But I was standing next to Roy on the touchline and they were panicking. They had to put Danny Murphy and Bobby Zamora on – two internationals, away at Kettering to get the job done. And that is just testament to the lads who were playing for Kettering that day.

“They were scrambling but when that penalty incident happened, if they had gone down to 10 men I think we would have beaten them.

“The boys were gutted after the game. I can remember them being devastated especially with the referee and there was a genuine feeling that had it been the other way round, we would have been getting red-carded.”

Since leaving Kettering for Peterborough United later in 2009, Cooper has established himself as a Football League manager, most notably with Swindon Town and currently with Forest Green Rovers in League Two.

His opposite number that day, of course, went on to hold the top job in English football and remains in the upper echelons of the game with Crystal Palace to this day.

And Cooper has fond memories of the time Hodgson afforded him in the aftermath of the cup tie.

“Roy was good as gold after the game, he was brilliant,” Cooper recalled.

“He was very complimentary. Obviously he had to say what he had to say for his side of things but he was very complimentary about our players and how we played.

“And when I went to Peterborough he helped me with players and little bits of knowledge.

“He gave me his number that day and said if I ever needed any help I should call him.

“He is a real gentleman but he knew he had been in a game that day.”

On the pitch on that after, as he still is to this day, was Brett Solkhon.

Solkhon had stolen the headlines in the two games with Notts County in the second round, opening the scoring in the 1-1 draw at Meadow Lane before heading home the equaliser in the 2-1 replay victory at Rockingham Road.

The game with Fulham was, perhaps, the most memorable of his 598 appearances in a Kettering shirt as he partnered Andre Boucaud in the Poppies’ midfield.

But he revealed he nearly missed out on the opportunity altogether.

“The time leading up to the game was something completely different for all of us,” Solkhon said.

“You tried to take it all in but it’s a bit of a blur because there were cameras in our faces and interviews happening all the time.

“The week before we had a home game and we won 1-0 (against Salisbury City) but I tweaked my hamstring after 10 minutes and I had to come off.

“I was devastated because I thought the chance of playing in the big game with Fulham might never happen.

“I didn’t train all week and I was in the treatment room and Coops (Cooper) kept asking me how it was and I ended up giving it a go when we did some team shape on the Friday and it was okay.

“I remember the gaffer telling us that we would play with two banks of four and then another player dropping off the main striker and bring Fulham onto the halfway line.

“We did that for the first 10 minutes and sat off them and it was the worst thing we could do because they played it round us and then they got the early goal.

“But Coops changed it and he told us that every time it went out to their centre-halves then we would squeeze them.

“We were a very fit team, we were full-time and we went toe-to-toe with them.

“It still brings goosebumps back when I think about the moment Westy’s (Westcarr) first goal went in.”

Looking back again on that key moment when Hangeland avoided a red card for his last-man challenge on Westcarr, Solkhon admitted the Kettering players were probably partly responsible for allowing him to get away with it.

“The strange thing about that was that we got the penalty and, looking back, not many of us got round the referee,” Solkhon explained.

“I think we were caught up in the moment knowing we had the chance to get back into it and that was certainly my first thought.

“The emotions took over. If we were playing anyone else on a Saturday now then the first thing we’d be doing is to get round the referee and asking why he hadn’t sent him off.

“I don’t think anyone went up to him and in hindsight, if we’d put a bit more pressure on that referee he could have sent Hangeland off.

“I look back at the second half of that game and we had some great chances but, in the end, they showed their class and I just remember feeling deflated because we got so close.

“But everyone there from the players to the fans could hold their heads high because Fulham were a very good Premier League team at the time and we pushed them all the way.”

And Solkhon, of course, ensured he got a decent souvenir from the encounter.

He added: “After the fourth goal went in and the game was over, I walked past Danny Murphy and I just asked him if I could have his shirt afterwards and he was waiting in the tunnel to give it to me.

“But their players were great afterwards, they were nothing but complimentary. And Roy Hodgson came into the dressing-room and told us to hold our heads high and said we were the better team in the second half.

“There were no prima donnas in that Fulham team, they showed us so much respect afterwards.”

That respect had been well earned.

As a certain reporter who was there wrote in his match report, that particular group of Kettering players “put in the performance of their lives” and it resulted in them forever having a place in the club’s folklore.

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