Kettering Town produced the grittiest of displays to confirm themselves as title contenders in the Evo-Stik South League Premier as they edged out King’s Lynn Town 1-0 at Latimer Park to move into top spot.
As far as the result is concerned, it’s everything the Poppies would have hoped for. Beating one of their rivals at the top and keeping a clean sheet in the process.
But that doesn’t even begin to tell the full story of what proved to be a pulsating New Year’s Day clash between two of the league’s heavyweights.
There’s no other way of dressing it up. If you are a King’s Lynn manager, player or fan, you will still be wondering how your team have lost this one.
For large periods, they were the superior team. They played some good football, they camped in Kettering’s half and they created chances.
Ultimately, those chances weren’t converted with Michael Clunan being the biggest culprit as he missed from the penalty spot just five minutes before Kettering found the only goal.
But Kettering showed something on this chilly afternoon. On a bog of a pitch, they weren’t at their best - far from it.
However, they showed all the character in the world and an incredible work-rate to keep the visitors at bay, especially after Michael Richens had been sent-off for an off-the-ball incident with 12 minutes to play.
And when the key moment arrived, that combination of Rene Howe and Aaron O’Connor produced another priceless winning goal.
It really was the perfect day, especially if your name is Brett Solkhon.
Rightly given a guard of honour by both teams as he walked out to captain the Poppies on his 500th appearance, the legendary figure went on to produce a colossal display alongside the monstrous Tom Marshall at the heart of the Kettering defence.
And even when they were breached, which they were at times, they had the brilliance of Paul White behind them as the goalkeeper made key saves at key times in a man-of-the-match display.
Kettering started brightly enough and top scorer O’Connor volleyed straight at Alexander Street early on.
But King’s Lynn soon settled into a rhythm and they were presented with a golden opportunity to break the deadlock when White hauled down Leon Mettam in the area.
The goalkeeper escaped with a booking and there was more relief to follow when Clunan went for the chip down the middle, only to hit the bar with the ball going out for a goal-kick.
It was a strange choice, given the importance of that kick. And the Poppies made the visitors pay when they grabbed what proved to be the winner on 20 minutes.
Howe was the provider as he won the ball on the right of the area, and burst away before driving the ball across goal where the predatory O’Connor was there to tidy up from close-range.
But the visitors stormed back. White denied Clunan and then recovered to block the follow up from Michael Gash before Mettam was out of luck as his shot across goal clipped the far post with the Poppies stopper beaten.
Into the second half and the same theme continued. The Poppies were careless in possession, inviting pressure onto themselves and White produced the best save of the lot when he parried away a close-range header from Gash who looked certain to score from Cameron Norman’s pinpoint centre.
Kettering hung in there but their task was made harder on 78 minutes. The Poppies won a corner but before Ben Toseland could take it, referee Paul Forrester spotted an incident involving Richens and Norman, who went to ground.
The man in the middle was in no doubt as he brought out the red card and there were few complaints from Richens or any other Kettering player as he was given his marching orders.
From there, it was always a question of whether the Poppies would hold on. And, to their absolute credit, they did it pretty well.
A volley from substitute Craig Park was as close as the visitors came as he fired over.
Ten minutes of stoppage-time were seen out and the sound of the final whistle was greeted by an explosion of delight and relief from the majority of the 1,000-plus crowd.
After losing to Hereford before Christmas, the question mark of whether Kettering could win a ‘big one’ needed answering and, on this New Year’s Day, Marcus Law’s players delivered.
It is, of course, one thing getting to the top and a completely different thing staying there.
But any doubts that the Poppies are now contenders for the crown are now gone.
The race for the title truly begins now. Game on...
Poppies: White; Bateman, Solkhon, Marshall, Toseland; Stohrer, Milnes (sub Stevens, 67 mins), Richens, Meikle (sub Thomas, 90 mins); Howe, O’Connor (sub Hoenes, 90 mins). Subs not used: Akindi, Snow.
King’s Lynn: Street; Norman, Fryatt, Ward, Gaughtan, Blake-Tracy; Jarvis, Clunan, Lappin (sub Hawkins, 67 mins); Mettam (sub Parker, 67 mins), Gash. Subs not used: Siddons, McDavid, Fraay.
Referee: Paul Forrester.
Goal: O’Connor (20 mins, 1-0).
Bookings: White, Toseland, Mettam (all fouls), Howe (unsporting behaviour).
Sending-off: Richens (violent conduct).