VERDICT: Four-goal O'Connor fires Poppies into the play-offs
Aaron O'Connor emphasised his importance to Kettering Town's push for promotion with a superb four-goal show as they saw off Hitchin Town 4-1 at Latimer Park.
Just two days on from the disappointing 2-1 loss at fellow promotion contenders King’s Lynn Town, the Poppies responded in perfect fashion with their hitman leading the charge.
O’Connor’s four-goal haul, all done and dusted inside 55 minutes to allow him a standing ovation as boss Marcus Law brought him off for some well-earned rest, took him to 36 in all competitions this season.
It really has been an outstanding campaign for O’Connor who certainly has it in his armoury to fire Kettering to promotion.
And they will get that opportunity in the post-season as this win confirmed their place in the Evo-Stik South League Premier play-offs.
It has been a huge step forward for the Poppies after missing the top five in the previous two campaigns and, while the season will no doubt be judged on whether they go up or not, the fact they have got there with five games to play is a testament to the management and the squad.
In a bid to keep his squad as fresh as possible, Law made five changes to his starting line-up and the returning Lindon Meikle showed his own importance to the cause by setting up O’Connor’s first two goals, which were the only highlights of an otherwise quiet first half.
The Poppies got an early foothold in the game when, after eight minutes, Meikle’s cross from the right was allowed to bounce and O’Connor fired his shot back across goal into the far corner.
Rene Howe, another to come back into the starting line-up, was denied a goal when he beat Hitchin goalkeeper Michael Johnson to a long ball over the top but his header was cleared up by Toby Syme as it rolled towards the net.
But the second did arrive on 37 minutes when Meikle’s first-time pass found O’Connor and he took on a defender before producing an emphatic left-footed finish.
The game was up for the visitors three minutes into the second half when the move of the game saw the impressive Gary Mulligan turn well in midfield and loft a ball over the top.
Howe latched onto it and, instead of shooting, he crossed for O’Connor to apply the finishing touch for his hat-trick.
But there was still a cherry to be put on top of the frontman’s cake as he showed all of his predatory instincts to hammer home from a tight angle after Michael Richens’ shot was deflected into his path.
That allowed Law to ring the changes again and the game slowly petered out with Ben Milnes seeing a shot tipped wide by Johnson while Wilson Carvalho got caught between shooting and passing when he was sent in on goal and eventually sent an effort off target.
There was one blot on the copybook as Milnes brought down Jonny McNamara in the area and Josh Bickerstaff sent Paul White the wrong way from the penalty spot.
Overall though, a job well done.
With the top five now confirmed and Hereford on the brink of claiming the title, the battle for second and third place begins.
Home supremacy in the play-off semi-finals could make all the difference and the Poppies have it in their hands to ensure they play at Latimer Park.
A huge final two weeks of the regular season lies ahead. Game on...
Poppies: White; Pendley, Mulligan, Marshall (sub Milnes, 57 mins); Stohrer. Richens, Carvalho, Meikle, Toseland; Howe (sub Hoenes, 68 mins), O’Connor (sub Stevens, 62 mins). Subs not used: Bateman, Solkhon.
Hitchin: Johnson; Syme, Webb, Rolfe, Bickerstaff; McNamara, Spring, Burns, Smith (sub Olaniran, 65 mins), Green (sub Byrne, 76 mins); Vincent (sub Dasilva, 68 mins). Sub not used: Logan.
Referee: Edward Pidduck.
Goals: O’Connor (8 mins, 1-0), O’Connor (37 mins, 2-0), O’Connor (48 mins, 3-0), O’Connor (55 mins, 4-0), Bickerstaff pen (82 mins, 4-1).
Bookings: Hoenes (diving), Webb (foul).