VERDICT: Cox's Poppies beaten as squad strength is exposed
Paul Cox tasted defeat for the first time as manager of Kettering Town as their Buildbase FA Trophy hopes were ended by a 2-1 first-round loss at FC United of Manchester.
There could be no arguments at the final result, the Poppies were second best for the vast majority of the contest.
But one thing that was all-too painfully clear was the way the threadbare nature of Paul Cox’s squad was once again exposed.
With Brett Solkhon missing because of personal reasons and, perhaps more tellingly, striker Aaron O’Connor ruled out through injury, the options were wafer thin for Cox who was once again only able to name four substitutes.
Dan Nti was chosen to lead the line but a lack of punch in attack was all-too clear for the Poppies in an opening half.
FC United, on the other hand, looked a real threat when they were attacking and, after Regan Linney had seen an effort deflected over, it was the hosts who opened the scoring on 23 minutes.
And it was all a bit too easy as Aaron Morris weaved his way into the penalty area on the right-hand side and skipped a couple of challenges before his low cross was finished off from close-range by Tunde Owolabi.
The lack of options in Kettering’s attack was emphasised when a lovely touch from Joel Carta released Lindon Meikle down the right but, with no-one to aim at in the middle, he had to take on a shot from a narrow angle which was helped on its way by goalkeeper Cameron Belford.
The Poppies’ best chance of the half came when Marcus Kelly’s free-kick from the right dropped for Luke Graham but his shot was well off target.
But it was the hosts who finished the half the better and only an excellent full-length save from Paul White prevented them from doubling their lead when Paul Ennis’ free-kick looked destined for the top corner.
Cox changed it up at the break with Tre Mitford, his only attacking option on the bench, replacing Carta.
But, despite Gary Stohrer sending a long-range effort over the bar, the Poppies still struggled to mount any notable attacks.
At the other end, White was called into action again as he saved Linney’s shot with his legs after only half-clearing a corner with a punch.
Mitford showed a good touch after he beat a defender before only being able to lob the ball over both Belford and the crossbar and that was the spark for Kettering’s best period of the game.
They peppered the home penalty area with long throw-ins and set-pieces, all to no avail, while Belford was finally forced into a save when he batted away Connor Kennedy’s 25-yard effort.
But, as the Poppies pushed, there was always a danger they could be undone on the counter-attack and so it proved with seven minutes to go.
Linney was the provider as he threaded the ball through for Owolabi and he made no mistake with a crisp, low finish past White.
That appeared to be that but Kettering continued to battle and a grandstand finish was set up when Luke Graham headed home as the clock ticked over into stoppage-time.
The Poppies piled forward, White even heading up for a late corner, but the home side held firm under relentless pressure to seal their place in the next round.
There could be few complaints from a Poppies perspective but the time has surely now come for Cox to be allowed to strengthen things up.
FC United: Belford; Morris, Doyle, Jones, Dodd; Potts, Donohue (sub Young, 77 mins); Ennis (sub Buckley, 72 mins), Curran (sub Lenehan, 77 mins), Linney; Owolabi. Subs not used: Lenehan, Kerr, Walker.
Poppies: White; Stohrer, Graham, McGrath, Taylor; Kennedy, Richens (sub Milnes, 75 mins); Meikle, Carta (sub Mitford, h-t), Kelly; Nti. Subs not used: Sebbeh, J O’Connor.
Referee: David McNamara.
Goals: Owolabi (23 mins, 1-0), Owolabi (83 mins, 2-0), Graham (90 mins, 2-1).
Bookings: Richens, Potts, Kennedy, Nti, Donohue (all fouls), Graham (deliberate handball).