The long-awaited first league meeting between Kettering Town and AFC Rushden & Diamonds produced a dramatic finish in front of a packed house at Latimer Park.
But what did we learn?
It ended up being a crucial win for the Poppies and it wasn’t all about the bragging rights.
There was understandable elation all-round for the Poppies and their fans. Indeed, any team that hits a stoppage-time winner against their local rivals is going to celebrate and celebrate hard. Marcus Law’s team showed plenty of character as they battled their way back into the contest after falling behind eight minutes into the second half. And while Rhys Hoenes’ winner will be remembered for being the goal that sunk Diamonds, it also had added value. The bigger picture is that the Poppies are aiming for the Evo-Stik League South Premier Division Central title. That late goal was coupled by a draw for leaders Stourbridge, meaning the gap was closed to two points while Kettering still have those three games in hand. Yes, winning a derby that late is all about the moment. But in the long-term, that goal could prove to be even more vital to the cause.
Diamonds were left devastated and rightly so, they did enough to earn a draw.
While it was delight for the Poppies, it was devastation for Diamonds. Boss Andy Peaks fronted up for his post-match interview and expressed his sheer disappointment for his players after a performance full of pride and passion. He felt they deserved a draw and he had a fair argument. While neither side really took a firm grip on proceedings in the early stages, it was Diamonds who looked the more comfortable and, when the fine goal from Nathan Hicks arrived, it was hard to argue against it. They came under pressure as Kettering took control in the final quarter of the game but, despite conceding the equaliser, it looked like they had done enough to earn a share of the spoils. The late drama was cruel on Diamonds but Peaks and their fans should be proud of the efforts their players put in. They have had a superb debut at Step 3 so far and there’s plenty of life left in the season. They are in the hunt for a play-off place and it’s important they put this one behind them and get back on track as soon as possible.
Individuals on both sides took the opportunity to shine in front of a big crowd.
There were some highly-impressive performances at Latimer Park. For the Poppies, Dan Holman once again proved just how much of a coup it was for them to secure his services as he led the attack with a touch of class while also playing a key role in the winner with a bit of trickery and an inch-perfect cross eventually leading to Rhys Hoenes’ close-range header. He wasn’t the only one in red to catch the eye either. Lindon Meikle capped an energetic display by scoring Kettering’s first goal and Aaron O’Connor proved to be a game-changer as he made a big impact after coming off the bench. Diamonds were well-represented in the individual areas as well. Zack Reynolds stood out at right-back. Strong when defending and quick on the break, he has been a key signing for Diamonds this season and looks to be getting better as it progresses. Nathan Hicks put in a serious amount of work in midfield and scored a superb goal to give his team the lead. And Blaize Punter and Alex Collard once again showed that their central defensive partnership is blossoming as they kept the Kettering attack quiet for long periods.
The atmosphere was the best at Latimer Park since Kettering moved there, for that both sets of fans deserve credit.
I am not really sure what attendance the officials at Latimer Park were expecting but I am not sure many would have predicted the final outcome. It helped that the weather was kind on this New Year’s Day but a turnout of 2,147 was outstanding and both sets of fans were in full voice for it. Kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes to ensure everyone who wanted to get in had the time to do so and even while the fans were waiting for the teams to emerge, the noise created was something to behold. The atmosphere was fantastic. In general, it looks like everyone behaved themselves and all those who turned up were part of a moment of local football history. The fans from both sides can give themselves a pat on the back.
Non-league football in north Northamptonshire was officially reborn on New Year’s Day, 2019.
I don’t know about you, but I have been waiting for a day like this one. Following the exploits of the local clubs hasn’t been the happiest of jobs in recent years with the Poppies having to rebuild from scratch after being so close to going out of business while the fans of Rushden & Diamonds have built up the AFC version from nothing to get themselves up to Step 3. The days of big clashes in the top-flight of non-League football remain, for the time being, a distant memory. Slowly but surely, these two clubs have got themselves on track and it felt like this first league meeting between them was the culmination of the efforts of absolutely everyone involved. You can loathe your rivals all you want, but Marcus Law had a point when he said they “need each other”. There were some who did get excited by the meetings they had in the various cup competitions before now. But this was finally the real deal and the occasion was one to savour. Football in this area has been in need of a rebirth and, with Corby Town doing their thing pretty well in Step 4 at the moment, it really feels like things are back on the right track. Let’s hope that theme continues and I am sure it will be another grand occasion when Diamonds host the Poppies at Hayden Road on Easter Monday.