VERDICT: Hoenes the last-gasp hero as Poppies defeat Diamonds
Rhys Hoenes wrote his name into the Kettering Town folklore as his stoppage-time header settled the first-ever league meeting with AFC Rushden & Diamonds in front of a huge New Year's Day crowd at Latimer Park.
Over 2,000 fans packed into the ground to witness an intriguing tussle in which the Poppies were forced to fight back after Diamonds had taken a deserved lead early in the second half.
Lindon Meikle brought the hosts level with 16 minutes to go and then, after both sides had been reduced to 10 men, Hoenes struck in dramatic fashion to send the majority of those on hand into ecstasy.
It was extremely harsh on Andy Peaks’ side who worked their socks off and, for the first hour at least, had edged the contest with Nathan Hicks’ fine goal giving them the advantage.
Having seen his side come back with two late goals against Biggleswade Town on Saturday, this time Peaks and his players were on the other end of things as they were unable to defend what proved to be the final serious attack of the game as the derby contest looked like it would end in deadlock.
That Hoenes goal meant so much more in the bigger picture for the Poppies, however.
A delayed kick-off due to crowd congestion meant that Kettering would have already known that leaders Stourbridge had been held to a draw and the win now sees Marcus Law’s side closing the gap while having the games in hand to overhaul them.
This long-awaited derby clash took a while to get going but once it did, it didn’t disappoint.
Diamonds edged a cagey first half with Poppies goalkeeper Paul White helping an Alex Collard free-kick over the bar while their best chance of the half fell to Tom Lorraine when Jack Westbrook’s shot fell into his path but the striker could only prod wide as he came under pressure.
In between, the Poppies had shown a couple of signs of life with Declan Towers shooting just over while Hoenes probably should have done better when he blasted over on the angle after a neat one-two with the excellent Dan Holman.
Towers was off target with a header from a Marcus Kelly corner early in the second half but it was Diamonds who drew first blood on 53 minutes.
The Poppies were unable to clear their lines following a free-kick and the ball was eventually fed through to Hicks who produced a superb finish as he drove the ball across White and into the far corner.
That breakthrough seemed to stun the hosts for a five-minute period but they went close to a leveller when Kelly volleyed just wide after Adam Cunnington had nodded the ball down for him.
But the game really changed when Aaron O’Connor was introduced in place of Cunnington.
The experienced striker and Holman began to stretch the Diamonds defence more than they had been all afternoon and the warning signs were there when O’Connor drove the ball across the face of goal after being played in by Meikle.
And it was Meikle who brought the Poppies level on 74 minutes.
The midfielder created a bit of space for himself on the edge of the area and aimed his shot towards the far post. Diamonds goalkeeper Ben Heath probably should have done better but the ball beat him and nestled in the bottom corner.
That made it game on and as the desperation increased, both sides were reduced to 10 men in the space of two minutes.
Westbrook was the first to go and there could be few arguments after he picked up a second bookable offence.
But he was soon followed by Poppies captain Michael Richens as he was given a straight red after lunging in on Alex Collard with studs showing. Again, no arguments.
From there, you wondered whether both sides would just settle for a share of the spoils. But as the game headed for its conclusion, it was the Poppies who looked the more likely.
Gary Stohrer blazed over from a narrow angle but then, with the final minute of stoppage-time being played, Hoenes’ moment arrived.
Holman, who was terrific all afternoon for the Poppies, had one trick left in his bag as he delivered a cross from the right.
Right-back Dion Kelly-Evans, of all people, rose at the far post to head it back across goal and Hoenes was there to nod home and spark crazy scenes of celebration in the home end.
Elation for the Poppies, deflation for Diamonds as their fine seven-match unbeaten record was snapped.
Peaks’ team shouldn’t beat themselves up, however. In their first season at this level, this was the latest example of them going toe-to-toe with one of the title favourites. They must regroup and focus on securing a play-off place, which would be an incredible achievement.
The Poppies will, of course, now keep their eyes on the bigger prize and they will have to ensure a festive period that has delivered 10 points out of 12 is followed up.
Away from the final outcome, this was a day that our little county could be proud of.
There would have been, no doubt, the odd moment here and there but overall two sets of fans seemed to have a safe day and they all turned out in their numbers.
Yes, the Poppies eventually won the day but this was a day on which it felt like non-League football in north Northamptonshire was well and truly reborn.
See you all again on Easter Monday...
Poppies: White; Kelly-Evans, Towers, Stanley, Stohrer; Meikle (sub Solkhon, 85 mins), Richens; Holman, Kelly, Hoenes; Cunnington (sub O’Connor, 65 mins). Subs not used: Toseland, Milnes, Graham.
Diamonds: Heath; Reynolds, Punter, Collard, Brown; Westbrook, Hicks; Diamond (sub Rogers, 90 mins), Farrell, Hopkins; Lorraine (sub Bowen, 90 mins). Subs not used: Curtis, Berry-Hargreaves, Pickworth.
Referee: Robbie Dadley.
Goals: Hicks (53 mins, 0-1), Meikle (74 mins, 1-1), Hoenes (90 mins, 2-1).
Bookings: Westbrook, Brown (both fouls), Heath (time-wasting).
Sendings-off: Westbrook (second bookable offence), Richens (serious foul play).
Northants Telegraph Poppies man-of-the-match: Dan Holman - clearly a class act. Some of his touches and turns throughout the afternoon showed again that he is playing below his natural level but he has the work-rate to match. His magnificent cross set up the winner, not many others on the pitch would have been capable of it.
Northants Telegraph Diamonds man-of-the-match: Zack Reynolds - the Diamonds right-back stood out. He was strong in defence for the most part and offered a threat going forward. Becoming all-the-more impressive as the season progresses.
Attendance: 2,147 (591 Diamonds fans).