Telford trip in 1992 left the Poppies close to going bust

Kettering Poppies stories:'05/01/12
Kettering Poppies stories:'05/01/12

The recent financial problems at Kettering Town have been a stark reminder of how dangerous the ugly business of football can be.

But any long-standing Poppies fan will be quick to tell you that there have been times harder than this – not much harder but tougher nonetheless.

Let’s go back just under 20 years.

The date was Tuesday, September 15, 1992 and Kettering were in disarray during the doomed era of Mark English.

Ironically, the venue that night was the old Telford United.

The irony, of course, is that the current crop head to AFC Telford United today with the future still uncertain but perhaps not quite as much following the shock reappearance of Mark Cooper as caretaker-manager and his belief that new investors are on the way.

By the time 4.45pm comes around this afternoon and the game at Telford is done, the Poppies will still be in existence.

But that evening back in 1992, the club went all-too-close to going out of business.

The game proved to be the last under the chairmanship of English – a now notorious figure in the club’s history.

Debts of over £250,000 were discovered by the Poppies Supporters Trust and this game happened before the administrators came in following English’s departure from the club in the days leading up to a weekend clash at Northwich Victoria.

The upshot of it was that the insurance cover hadn’t been paid and at least seven of the players involved were there on a non- contract basis.

Those who were contracted hadn’t been paid for two weeks and were also owed bonuses.

It all led to a debate on the Bucks Head pitch about whether Kettering should play the game or not. A decision was finally reached with minutes to spare.

Not playing the match would have been catastrophic.

One of the fans travelling to Shropshire that night was Paul Cooke.

Now, if you are talking diehard fans then he is your man.

A lifelong supporter, former programme editor and an excellent historian full of statistics you couldn’t even dream up – that’s what he is best known for.

And, as he recalls, he genuinely feared that visit to Telford would be the last time he would see his beloved club.

“It was what turned out to be Mark English’s last game as chairman as he was arrested for fraud in the Rockingham Road car park,” he said.

“I remember the game well and back then I used to travel to matches on the Travel Club bus and news filtered through to us while we were on our way up there that there was going to be a players’ strike because the insurance cover hadn’t been paid.

“And it seemed they wouldn’t be willing to play without that insurance.

“The administrators weren’t in at that time and the club was being fleeced by Mark English. The Trust had found out about those debts.

“The rules were stricter back then and if the fixture hadn’t been fulfilled, I am certain the club would have gone out of existence that night.

“It was really the end of Dave Cusack’s reign as manager and it was the first time Graham Carr appeared and he went on to lead the club through the rest of that season and through some better times later on.

“I remember being in the pub on the corner of the ground, which I think was called the Bucks Head, and the club secretary Gerry Knowles came in and was asking fans if they had any kit and whether they would be willing to play if they were needed.

“In the end, they weren’t needed and that was mainly down to the senior pros like Paul Nicol, who was the captain at the time, and the legendary Phil Brown who did all the talking.

“I remember just watching them talk to the other players on the pitch and thankfully the decision was reached that they would play the game. I think Richard Hill was the only one who refused to.

“I can’t recall the exact timings but I seem to remember us being 13 or 14 minutes away from seeing our club die.”

That one night proved to be a turning point.

The administrators did indeed come in, English disappeared and Carr was appointed as manager on a permanent basis.

It wasn’t, of course, plain sailing and it was fan power that kept the club alive until the late Peter Mallinger came in to ensure its long-term future.

The Supporters Trust, which was one of the first of its kind, raised money throughout the campaign to help pay the bills and wages.

And, despite using a vast number of players, Carr weaved his magic to guide them to safety.

“The Trust was a fighting unit,” Cooke, who helped produce the matchday programme during that period, said.

“It helped get rid of Mark English and provided financial backing for the team.

“We were second from bottom in the Conference at the time when Graham came in and he led us to 15th, which was very respectable.

“One of his first games was against the eventual champions Wycombe Wanderers who won 4-0 at Rockingham Road.

“On March 6 later in the season we won 2-1 at Adams Park to end their long unbeaten home record and that was a sign of what had been accomplished.

“And then, on April 14, we beat Boston United 1-0 to secure our status and that was a result that sent them down. Fittingly, it was Phil Brown who got the goal.

“The work that Graham and Clive Walker did without ever really getting paid was incredible but it was an overall effort that got us through.”

It isn’t quite the same situation for the group of Kettering players that head to Telford today, although the future is uncertain without doubt.

And with Cooper back at the helm and potentially new investment heading to Nene Park, Cooke is hoping these dark days will also soon be over.

“It won’t be as desperate when we go to Telford today,” he added.

“But the similarities are the same. The team that night in 1992 wasn’t a bad one, just like our current side. There are some good players in there.

“In 1992 the motivation for the players was nil and I guess there may be some who feel like that today.

“But we have the most successful manager in the club’s recent history back with us.

“It’s nothing against Mark Stimson but I just feel that Mark Cooper knows the club better than anyone, he may be able to get that extra bit out of it.

“And hopefully, if he gets the right backing soon, we can look forward to some much better times.”

Just for the record, the Poppies were beaten 3-1 at Telford on that infamous night nearly 20 years ago.

Kettering fans would take that again if it means their club and its rich 139 years of history survives for a long time to come.