Clifton leads the way as Poppies fight back for vital win

Poppies manager Dean Thomas
Poppies manager Dean Thomas
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Kettering Town produced a superb second-half fightback to keep their bid for the Calor League Division One Central play-offs right on track with a 3-1 success over AFC Hayes at Latimer Park.

For so long it looked like being a night of frustration for the Poppies as they trailed 1-0 after a lacklustre first-half display.

But it was a different story after the break as the goals came from an unlikely source with full-back James Clifton scoring twice before Andy Gooding finished things off at the death.

In the end, it was a fully deserved and crucial victory as Kettering moved to within a point of fifth-placed Barton Rovers who were denied a victory late on at Egham Town.

Injuries to Tommy Hull and Dan Crowie, as well as Jonathon Thorpe’s unavailability forced Poppies boss Dean Thomas into changes.

There was a return to the club for Jon Bukasa, who started at left-back with skipper Steve Kinniburgh moving along the back four into the centre alongside Henry Eze.

Louis Hamilton was also restored to the starting line-up in a straight swap for Thorpe on the right side of a five-man midfield.

It was a fairly lacklustre start from the Poppies and they were lucky not to fall behind after 13 minutes as an attack-minded Hayes side caused them early problems.

Andrew Harewood found himself with just Alastair Worby to beat in the penalty area but the Poppies goalkeeper did brilliantly to save his effort while Kinniburgh was on hand to clear the danger after a couple of efforts were sent towards goal in the melee that followed.

Kettering finally forced visiting stopper Balvinder Khiara into a save when he got down well to deny Eze at the far post after Kinniburgh had flicked on Gooding’s free-kick.

Despite enjoying plenty of possession, the Poppies continued to struggle to carve out any clear opportunities.

And only a bit of brilliance from Clifton woke them up just past the half-hour and he cut in from the right and smashed one with his left foot. However, Khiara made a flying save to tip it over the bar.

Another big chance quickly followed as Josh Moreman got to the by-line and sent in a low cross. It eventually fell for Gooding but he could only blast over from a good position.

And the Poppies were made to pay as Hayes stunned the home crowd by taking the lead a minute before half-time.

The Kettering defence left it to each other to clear the ball. No-one did and Harewood was given the space to fire off his shot, which found its way in despite Worby getting a hand on it.

The hosts’ half was summed in stoppage-time when the unmarked Dubi Ogbonna headed over from six yards and Thomas made a change at the break with Ash Fuller replacing James Jepson.

That also resulted in a switch to a 4-4-2 with Moreman joining Ogbonna in attack but again it was the visitors who started the second period the better with the pacy Rhys Rabess forcing Worby into a straightforward save early on.

The Poppies responded and Eze was out of luck as his header from a Fuller free-kick struck the top of the crossbar and also bounced off it again before being cleared.

The frustration continued to grow around Latimer Park and Khiara was the main reason for that as he produced another excellent save to deny Clifton with a far-post header.

The Kettering full-back headed wide soon after but Clifton wasn’t to be denied as he grabbed the much-needed equaliser on 69 minutes.

The ball fell nicely for him 20 yards from goal and while the strike wasn’t clean, it was good enough to beat Khiara and find its way in off the post.

Thomas threw on Elliot Sandy as he went with three up front and the chances and corners flowed for the following minutes.

Ogbonna was guilty of the miss of the season when he somehow scooped the ball over an open goal after good work from Fuller.

And Sandy was denied when his shot was deflected wide of the mark.

But one of the flurry of corners the Poppies won finally paid off with eight minutes to go. Gooding floated it in and Clifton got in front of his marker to power home his header.

And any nerves in the crowd were soon settled as Kettering finished things off late on.

Sandy managed to wriggle clear from a defender, Khiara half-saved his shot but Gooding was there to finish it from close range.

A collective sigh of relief was released by the vast majority of those inside Latimer Park and there was soon another reason to be cheerful as news of Egham’s late equaliser against Barton filtered through.

The Poppies head to Egham on Thursday themselves and now their fate is firmly in their own hands...

Poppies: Worby; Clifton, Eze, Kinniburgh, Bukasa; Hamilton (sub Sandy, 70 mins), Gooding, Jepson (sub Fuller, h-t), Logan, Moreman (sub Bradshaw, 90 mins); Ogbonna. Subs not used: Osei-Siribour, Muzvimbiri.

AFC Hayes: Khiara; Paul, Walters, Hart (sub Reuben, 73 mins), Crane; Jordan (sub Thomas, 73 mins), Underwood, Cass, McManus (sub Vincent, 75 mins); Harewood, Rabess. Subs not used: McKee, Lafeville.

Referee: Abbas Khan.

Goals: Harewood (44 mins, 0-1), Clifton (69 mins, 1-1), Clifton (82 mins, 2-1), Gooding (89 mins, 3-1).

Bookings: Khiara, Bukasa (both fouls).

Attendance: 648.