Kettering Town’s Emirates FA Cup hopes came crashing down around them as Nantwich Town became the first team to win at Latimer Park this season.
A season-high attendance of 903 were on hand to see if the Poppies could book themselves a date with Stevenage in the first round proper but, in the end, it proved to be a tale of utter frustration for them.
Harry Clayton’s goal on 19 minutes proved decisive as Nantwich went on to produce a defensive masterclass in the remainder of the fourth qualifying round replay.
And when their defences were breached, they had a real FA Cup hero in the form of goalkeeper Will Jaaskelainen who produced numerous fine stops, culminating in a last-gasp penalty save from Aaron O’Connor, to keep the Poppies out.
Could Marcus Law’s team have done more? Probably not. They were, at times, a bit too hurried in their approach, particularly after they had fallen behind.
But they did create chances, plenty of them but Nantwich stuck to their task. Bodies were put on the line and, in the end, their wild celebrations as the final whistle blew were well earned.
However, even they will possibly wonder how Kettering didn’t find a way through in a first-half that could easily be described as ‘one-way traffic’.
The Poppies came out of the blocks quickly and Jaaskelainen saved well from Lindon Meikle, with Rene Howe unable to bundle home the loose ball, before the visiting stopper made an even better save to deny Mathew Stevens’ whose shot was destined for the top corner after a neat turn in the box.
Little was seen of Nantwich as an attacking force for most of the night but when their only real chance came, they seized it.
And Kettering created their own downfall. Michael Richens, who was otherwise highly impressive once again, tried to dribble the ball away from the edge of the area.
He had his pocket picked and Sean Cooke delivered a perfect cross with the outside of his right boot, which was headed home by Clayton at the far post.
To their credit, Kettering worked their way back into it and Ben Milnes forced Jaaskelainen into a decent save from a free-kick before left-back Ben Toseland almost brought the house down.
The left-back was fully 30 yards from goal as he unleashed a superb strike. This time Jaaskelainen didn’t move and could only watch as the ball cannoned off the post. At that point, you could have been forgiven for thinking this wouldn’t be Kettering’s night.
But the Poppies really didn’t get going early in the second half and Nantwich were all-too comfortable as the hosts’ approach became a little predictable.
Richens had a header scrambled clear but it wasn’t until Milnes forced Jaaskelainen into another stop with a snap-shot 12 minutes from the end that the pressure began to grow.
O’Connor, carrying a knock from the first game at the weekend, was thrown on from the bench but corners came and went without causing Nantwich any real alarm.
And then the biggest chance of all arrived. Meikle went down under a challenge, the referee pointed to the spot and Kettering were presented with an opportunity to force extra-time.
But Jaaskelainen read O’Connor’s penalty to perfection, throwing himself to his right to push it away to safety.
That was that, there was no way back into it from there as the Poppies were dealt their first real hammer blow of this season.
It has been a fantastic start and, on this occasion, it wasn’t to be. There will be regrets but, as is always the case, there’s no time to dwell.
While the FA Cup hopes were being ended, Kettering were also being knocked off the top of the Evo-Stik South League Premier with King’s Lynn Town and Slough Town picking up wins to move above them.
This weekend, Slough are the visitors to Latimer Park. This weekend a response is needed.
This weekend, we really find out what this crop of Kettering players are made of...
Poppies: Wright; Berry, Mulligan, Solkhon, Toseland (sub Brighton, 64 mins); Hoenes (sub Stohrer, 82 mins), Richens, Milnes, Meikle; Stevens (sub O’Connor, 73 mins), Howe. Subs not used: Baker, Maagbe, White, Sundire.
Nantwich: Jaaskelainen; Bourne, Mullarkey, Stair, Wildin; Hall, Hughes; Davies (sub McDonald, 86 mins), Cooke, Bell; Clayton. Subs not used: Morgan, Quinn, Forbes, Brooke, Cotterell, Griggs.
Referee: James Oldham.
Goal: Clayton (19 mins, 0-1).
Bookings: Howe, Solkhon (both fouls), Mulligan (deliberate handball).