Kettering Town announced their return to the Vanarama National League North in typically dramatic fashion as they claimed a fine 2-1 victory over AFC Telford United at Latimer Park.
Late goals and drama became commonplace for the Poppies as they stormed to the Southern League Premier Division Central title last season.
And those who turned up for the opening day of the new campaign were treated to more as Nicky Eaden’s team produced a performance full of guts and endeavour to give them a winning start.
There were some huge individual displays, not least from goalkeeper Paul White, summer signing Joe Skarz at the heart of the defence and another newcomer Dan Nti who ended up being the late hero.
Telford, who missed out on the play-offs in this division on goal difference last season, started confidently and there were a couple of nervous moments in the home penalty area with Darryl Knights having two early efforts blocked before White was forced into some serious action to deny Aaron Williams.
But, after that early pressure, Kettering gradually worked their way into things and while they never really troubled Corey Addai in the Telford goal, there was some neat play with Connor Kennedy seeing a shot blocked after being teed up by Aaron O’Connor.
However, they were hit with a sucker-punch two minutes before the break.
Kennedy brought down Williams 30 yards from goal and was booked for his troubles.
But worse was to follow as former Kettering man Steph Morley stepped up and curled a fine free-kick in off the post with White helpless on this occasion.
The Poppies goalkeeper made another decent stop from Williams early in the second half but the hosts deservedly drew level on 52 minutes.
A quick throw-in caught Telford out and another summer addition Joel Carta produced a neat turn before beating Addai with a low finish into the far corner.
At that stage, Kettering were in the ascendancy. But, as happens so often in football, things can change in an instant.
With 65 minutes on the clock, Marcus Dinanga broke the offside trap and raced into the Kettering penalty area.
Sam Cartwright, on loan from Peterborough United, made a desperate attempt to catch him but barged the frontman over. It looked a clear penalty and, with no attempt to play the ball, Cartwright was then shown the red card by referee Richard Holmes.
But then enter White. Williams stepped up from 12 yards but the Poppies goalkeeper flung himself to his left to brilliantly tip the spot-kick onto the crossbar before the ball was cleared.
Kennedy dropped into the back four as Kettering regrouped, no doubt looking to hold on for a point due to the numerical disadvantage.
However, they ended up winning it with just two minutes of normal time remaining.
Lindon Meikle led a blistering counter-attack, charging from his own half to the Telford penalty area. He laid the ball into the path of Nti and his shot bobbled its way past Addai and into the net to send the home fans into raptures.
The five additional minutes were seen out with White making a couple of excellent catches as Telford launched the ball into the Poppies area in a desperate attempt to find a way back.
But Eaden’s men held firm and, if truth be told, they were decent value for all three points.
The perfect start in front of their own fans. The Poppies are up and running, now to do it again on the road...
Poppies: White; Vidal, Skarz, Cartwright, Brighton; Richens, Kennedy; Nti, Carta (sub Stohrer, 70 mins), Meikle; O’Connor (sub Kelly, 70 mins). Subs not used: Graham, Solkhon, Hodge.
AFC Telford: Addai; White, Streete, Sutton, Morley; Walker, Deeney (sub McQuilkin, 75 mins), Lait, Knights (sub Cowans, 85 mins); Williams, Dinanga (sub Brown, 75 mins). Subs not used: Tharme, Royle.
Referee: Richard Holmes.
Goals: Morley (44 mins, 0-1), Carta (52 mins, 1-1), Nti (88 mins, 2-1).
Bookings: Deeney, Kennedy, Brighton (all fouls).
Sending-off: Cartwright (denying goalscoring opportunity).
Northants Telegraph man-of-the-match: Paul White - There were plenty of contenders with Joe Skarz outstanding at the back and Dan Nti a willing worker at the other end before becoming the late hero. But Poppies goalkeeper White was at his brilliant best. He made some decent saves along the way, ones he and those who have watched him for a while would expect him to make. But when the key moment arrived, the Irishman produced as good a penalty save as you will see to deny Aaron Williams and ensure Kettering remained level despite being down to 10 men. It was a crucial intervention. But, even towards the end when the hosts had snatched the lead, White came from his line to collected long passes being punted into the area as Telford desperately tried to find a way back. It was a big performance from the stopper. And it won’t be the last this season either.