Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson

Kettering Town manager from May 1996 to October 1997.

Gary JohnsonAs Graham Carr departed Rockingham Road, chairman Peter Mallinger was already hastily unveiling Carr’s replacement, former Watford midfielder and ex-Cambridge Utd manager Gary Johnson. Johnson’s approach seemed much like a breath of fresh air to Kettering supporters and if the 1995-96 preseason friendlies were to be any indication then the new manager’s team would at least be entertaining.

Johnson’s new signings Kofi Nyamah, Steve Stott, Neil Pope, Tarkan Mustafa, Junior Hunter, Ian Scott, Jamie March and goalkeeper Alan Judge certainly rang the changes from his predecessor and the new-look Poppies offered much in terms of promise with the new manager’s emphasis on coaching.

Kettering started the new season with a solid 3-1 away victory at Altrincham, with striker Carl Alford scoring twice and three days later drew 2-2 against Bromsgrove Rovers in their first home league match of the season with a healthy 2,006 supporters in attendance, Alford again getting on the scoresheet.

The following Saturday saw Kettering thump Runcorn 4-0 at Rockingham Road as new signing Steve Stott (transferred from Bromsgrove Rovers for £12,500) found the net, alongside Ian Stringfellow’s brace and Alford’s 4th goal in three matches. After the initial good start, Kettering struggled to score goals, three 1-1 draws and a 1-0 defeat (away to Kidderminster Harriers) signaled a goalless period for Alford.

Back-to-back 3-0 home wins against Woking and Bath City appeared to put Johnson’s team back on track and Alford added another 3 goals to his season’s tally, but a 5-1 hammering by Stevenage Borough at Broadhall Way and a narrow 3-2 defeat at Stalybridge Celtic showed both sides of Kettering’s Jekyll and Hyde nature.

Carl AlfordKettering’s unbalanced form was hardly helped by the constant speculation surrounding the future of striker Carl Alford, highlighted by the FA Trophy replay at St Albans City, after the two sides had fought to a 1-1 draw at Rockingham Road. Kettering won the replay 3-2 with Alford netting in front of an emotionally charged traveling support, many of whom believed it to be the prolific striker’s final game for the Poppies. Alford himself was perhaps just as unsure, throwing his shirt into the crowd at the final whistle, only for it to be demanded back shortly afterwards by a club official.

Victories away at Telford Utd (4-3) and home to Slough Town (2-0), preceded a 2-0 away defeat at Halifax Town and a 3-1 reverse at home to Welling Utd further underlined Kettering’s inconsistency. The FA Cup provided no glory for the Poppies and after two draws (1-1 home and 2-2 away) against Bromsgrove Rovers, Kettering went down 2-1 at home and out of the competition at the 4th Qualifying Round stage.

Poppies supporters knew they were already on borrowed time as far as top scorer Carl Alford was concerned and the heavy loss to the side that his expected departure would bring was made all the more apparent with his hat-trick against Altrincham in Kettering’s 4-2 win at the end of November.

The festive period brought just one victory and four defeats, the last of which was a humiliating 6-1 hammering away to Southport and the gloss had well and truly been knocked off the appointment of manager Gary Johnson as the former Cambridge boss struggled to get to grips with the discipline side of managing the club. (This was later bourne out at the end of the season when Kettering posted the worst disciplinary record in their history, having amassed a damming 15 red-cards).

A 3-0 drubbing by Stevenage Borough in the FA Trophy was further compounded by crowd trouble at Broadhall Way that was more reminiscent of the bad old days and Kettering’s form in the Conference continued to be erratic despite the arrival of ex-Coventry stalwart Mickey Gynn, Craig Norman and the gritty Darren Harmon to boost a weakened midfield area.

The departure of Steve Stott to bitter rivals Rushden & Diamonds for £30,000 was allegedly part of a bigger deal that included Carl Alford for a total £100,000, but Alford remained at Kettering, at least for a while longer, although the inevitable happened as March came round and Alford was sold to the Nene Park outfit for 85,000. The fact his transfer fee broke the record between non-league clubs was of little comfort to the Poppies faithful and the fact he was brought by their bitter rivals just up the road was an even more bitter pill to swallow.

With the departure of Alford, young striker Ian Scott struggled to cope with the goalscoring burden and his famous acrobatic goal celebrations became much less frequent as the season entered the final quarter. Ironically, one of Scotty’s better (late-season) displays came in the 2-1 home win over Dagenham & Redbridge, when he donned the goalkeeping jersey after Alan Judge had been sent-off.

Not so ironically, that ten-man 2-1 victory was to be Kettering’s last Conference match of the season when they gained any points. Eight defeats followed, with the last two matches particularly harrowing, a 6-2 thumping away at Northwich Victoria followed by an even worse drubbing, humiliated 6-1 at Rockingham Road by Stalybridge Celtic.

Amazingly Kettering had still finished in a relatively safe 16th position, however it was their worst league placing in over a decade and the 84 goals against was only ‘beaten’ by relegated Runcorn (joining bottom club by Dagenham and Redbridge).

What had started seemingly as a new dawn for the Poppies with the arrival of manager Gary Johnson had become something of a nightmare for the supporters, not only losing their terrace hero and star striker to their bitter rivals, but in the process the club had taken a big step backwards after surviving the very real prospect of extinction just a few seasons earlier.

Johnson had two obvious priority target areas to strengthen before the 1996-97 season kicked off, defence and attack, the latter suffering the departures of first Ian Arnold and then Carl Alford. Johnson’s majority signings concentrated not surprisingly on boosting the leaky defence, bringing in Rob Marshall, Richard Nugent, Russell Stock and Craig Gaunt, the latter a £6,000 transfer from Bromsgrove Rovers. Steve Berry was brought in from the previous season’s champions Stevenage Borough, to operate in midfield and Johnson splashed out £20,000 for Reckey Carter, who had previously been the bane of Kettering’s defence whilst amassing his prolific goalscoring record at Kidderminster Harriers and Bromsgrove Rovers.

Despite the defensive strengthening, Kettering’s new campaign didn’t get off to a good start. A 2-0 defeat away to Macclesfield Town followed by a 3-2 defeat at Rockingham Road at the hands of Welling Utd hardly had the supporters jumping for joy. A trip to Bath provided Johnson’s men with their first points of the season, Neil Pope and Tarkan Mustapha providing the goals. The away win sparked an unbeaten run of six matches with 3 wins, including a 4-1 hammering of Halifax Town and a 2-1 away win over old foes Bromsgrove Rovers.

The good fortune was short-lived however and following a 1-0 defeat by Telford Utd, manager Johnson, deciding the team needed more goals (note Reckey Carter had failed to score even once in the nine matches so far), signed striker Leroy May from Kidderminster Harriers for £10,000, another proven goalscorer who had netted often against the Poppies in the past.

However, despite the combined strike-force of Reckey Carter and Leroy May, Kettering continued to suffer a goal drought and by the time November came around they had gone 9 league matches without a win, a situation that had dire consequences for manager Gary Johnson. October saw the departure of Reckey Carter to Solihull Borough for £17,500, after making just 11 appearances in total and scoring twice, both goals coming in the 6-1 demolition of Atherstone Utd in the FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round Replay (ironically Leroy May also opened his account with two goals in the same match).

Johnson’s struggling side suffered another heavy setback when they lost 1-0 to Bedworth in the 3rd Qualifying Round of the FA Cup and all in front of the club’s home supporters. Worse was to come as the lowest crowd for a league match at Rockingham Road in over a decade, 776 hardy souls, watched Kettering easily defeated 2-0 by fellow strugglers Hednesford Town.

It was the trip to Morecambe however, that had the biggest impact on the season for Johnson, as Kettering were duly hammered by a 5-2 scoreline that could have been much worse. At half-time the shell-shocked players trooped off to the dressing room, while manager Johnson sat disconsolate on the visitor’s bench at the halfway-line, head in hands and a look of despair etched across his face. It was at that moment that the supporters knew Johnson’s tenure as manager of Kettering Town would very shortly come to an end.

Many Poppies supporters had thought Johnson’s appointment somewhat hasty when he had been swiftly ushered in the door by chairman Peter Mallinger and looking back on Johnson’s 18 months in charge, the statistics would seem to support their argument. However, my own personal view is that Johnson had arrived at Kettering before he was ready and despite his obvious coaching ability, Johnson’s player-management skills still lacked the necessary experience and toughness, something that his predecessor Graham Carr could hardly have been accused of lacking.

Arguably, this view has since been given more substance by Johnson’s success in charge of old rivals Yeovil Town, after gaining further invaluable managerial experience coaching various teams, including the Latvian National side.