Ron Atkinson

Ron Atkinson

Kettering Town manager from December 1971 – December 1974.

The resignation of Poppies manager Steve Gammon at the start of December 1971 was the end of an era for Kettering Town and two weeks later, on December 14th 1971, began a new era that was undeniably one of the club’s most famous chapters, with the arrival at Rockingham Road of new manager, Ron Atkinson.

Ron AtkinsonA much younger Atkinson had first set foot in Rockingham Road 12 years earlier, a 20 year-old playing right-half for Headington Utd in 1959, and at the end of the 1959-60 season, the club changed their name to Oxford Utd and were elected into the Football League in 1962-63. Atkinson, nicknamed ‘the Tank’, was one of the youngest captains in professional football and made 560 first team appearances for the U’s, before leaving Oxford to take over the reigns at Kettering Town, aged 32.

When Atkinson arrived at the club, Kettering were languishing in 7th place in the Southern League Division One North, trailing local rivals, league leaders Corby Town and 4th placed Wellingborough. His first match in charge at Rockingham Road saw the Poppies run out convincing 4-0 winners over Dunstable, however it took a several more matches before Kettering eventually settled into ‘championship form’. Their unbeaten 12 match run saw them score 22 goals and only 1 conceded with 11 wins and a single draw putting them firmly in the driving seat at the top of the table.

They were finally beaten by Banbury in late April 1972, but nearest rivals, Burton Albion suffered the same fate that afternoon and Kettering Town had clinched the Division One North Championship. The Championship trophy was presented before the start of Kettering’s Anglia Floodlit Trophy Final match against Bedford Town at Rockingham Road and by the end of the match was joined by the AF Trophy as Kettering ran out 7-2 aggregate winners.

The Poppies had clinched promotion and in the process attendances at Rockingham Road had more than doubled, but Atkinson was not about to rest on his laurels and during the summer months he brought in several new faces, including former Cobblers notable, Joe Kiernan.

The new season didn’t start too well for newly promoted Kettering, with Atkinson’s decision to release the previous season’s top striker, Tony Jacques, not appearing to be a popular move. However in November of 1972, with Kettering sitting in third place in the table, Atkinson signed a player who was to become a Poppies legend and an answer to the club’s goalscoring problems, Roy Clayton.

Clayton was signed from Second Division Oxford Utd for just under £8,000 (part of an £11,000 transfer deal), a Southern League record fee at the time, and the 22 year-old striker made his debut at Rockingham Road against Nuneaton Borough on 6th November 1972. Clayton scored twice in the Poppies 3-3 draw at Walsall in the 1st Round proper of the FA Cup, but despite a bumper crowd of 9,147 for the replay at Rockingham Road, Kettering narrowly went out 2-1 to the league side.

Kettering’s title challenge faltered going into early 1973 and again Atkinson dipped into the transfer market to revive the club’s fortunes, this time it was George Cleary (signed from Bedford) who was to boost the team’s momentum and Kettering got back on track with a vital home victory over title rivals Yeovil.

The Yeovil match was also somewhat notable for a ill-conceived incident, with the backdrop of an already very tense atmosphere on the terraces, that sparked off almost inevitable crowd trouble not usually seen at Rockingham Road. Prior to the kick-off, the Yeovil players came out onto the pitch wearing their tracksuit tops, each with a single letter sewn on it, and when they lined up in front of the main stand the message read, ‘ELECT YEOVIL’, what a cheek!

Kettering’s rivalry with Yeovil continued into the final weeks of the season, as both clubs not only pursued the Southern League Premier Division Championship but also sought that elusive election winning route into the Football League. Atkinson’s men had the edge over the Somerset outfit but neither side showed much consistency during the run-in. Kettering’s season looked to be faltering and seemed to have taken a turn for the worse during their match against Dartford in late April. when goalkeeper Dick Dighton hotly debated a penalty awarded against him and was promptly dismissed, defender Mick Goodall pulled on the goalkeepers jersey and managed to save the spot kick and possibly Kettering’s title challenge in the process.

1972-73 championship winnersThe morale-boosting draw salvaged by Kettering’s ten men gave the club the upper-hand going into the final three matches and ten days later on Tuesday 24th April 1973, they secured the Southern League Championship by virtue of a solid 2-0 home win over Barnet. Notably it was Atkinson’s recent key signing, George Cleary and club stalwart Roger Ashby who scored the championship-clinching goals in front of a 5,000-plus crowd.

champs 1973Kettering played that night in their once-familiar Red and Black striped shirts and chairman John Nash was on hand with cigars and champagne (later to become almost a trademark for the flamboyant Atkinson) to celebrate the club’s first Southern League Premier title since the Tommy Lawton era in 1957. Atkinson himself didn’t play on the night, but ex-Cobblers favourite Joe Kiernan, alongside the stoically solid Trevor Peck, guided the rest of the team, namely Dick Dighton, Roger Ashby, Mick Goodall, Vince O’Kane, Colin Harrington, Roy Clayton, George Cleary, Bryan Myton, Ray Webster and (substitute) youngster Andy Jones to victory.

Despite winning the championship (just one point clear of second-placed Yeovil), Kettering failed miserably in the election voting at the Football’s League’s AGM with just 12 votes (although, a vast improvement from their zero votes two-years earlier), Yeovil obtained 14 votes but were well behind the lowest club re-elected, Darlington with 26 votes.

The following season was inevitably an anti-climax for Ron Atkinson and Kettering Town. Always a little off the championship pace behind eventual champions (future Poppies manager) Graham Carr’s Dartford, and early defeats by Grantham (in the FA Cup) and Morecambe (in the FA Trophy) saw Kettering eventually finish 4th. Perhaps the most notable high point of the 1973-74 season for Kettering was the annual campaign for election into the Football League.

However, despite high hopes from the supporters and gaining the most votes of all the non-league teams applying for election with 16 votes, (2 more than rivals Yeovil), it was not still not enough as Workington were re-elected with 21 votes. Ironically, it was arguably the closest Kettering has ever come to their dream of joining the Football League, at least by virtue of an election anyway.

Main StandThe club’s ambitions for League Football were underlined by the building of a new mainstand and on Monday 4th May 1974, First Division Arsenal came to Rockingham Road to help Mr Shipman (then president of The Football League) officially open the imposing new structure. Although the new stand presented an impressive backdrop, the main attraction on the pitch was undoubtably the Gunners’ Charlie George, his legendary right foot unleashing a spectacular drive into the top right-hand corner past a helpless Gordon Livsey to put the Londoners 1-0 up. The final score was 3-0 to Arsenal.

Atkinson continued in his role as manager of Kettering Town as the new season kicked-off, but with his understandable ambitions to manage a league club, speculation was already rife that he perhaps wouldn’t see out the season at Rockingham Road. After a second-replay saw them finally overcome Bedford Town in the 4th Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, the Poppies were drawn away to Fourth Division Swansea City, then managed by Harry Gregg, in the First Round Proper. Graham Atkinson, the manager’s younger brother, earned Kettering a deserved replay scoring the Poppies equaliser in a 1-1 draw.

Ron Atkinson had known before the trip to Swansea that he would soon be departing Kettering to take over as manager at Fourth Division Cambridge Utd, however what he couldn’t have known, was that his final game in charge of the Poppies would also be his brother Graham’s final appearance in a Kettering Town shirt also. As the replay unfolded, a superb performance by Kettering saw them comfortably sweep aside Swansea 3-1, but the victory was marred when a reckless tackle from youngster Robbie James scythed down Graham Atkinson. I clearly remember the awful crack heard echoing around the ground and it was apparent from the deathly silence that the injury was serious, Graham Atkinson’s leg was broken in two places and his footballing career was over.

There was to be no more involvement in the club from either of the two Atkinsons, despite Ron’s offer (due to Cambridge Utd having played on the Friday night) to take charge of the Poppies trip to Maidstone Utd on the Saturday. Poppies chairman John Nash was unhappy with Cambridge’s resfusal to offer any compensation, Atkinson insisted he was not under contract at Kettering and so the two (Ron Atkinson and John Nash) departed on fairly accrimonious terms.

Ron AtkinsonAtkinson’s time in charge at Rockingham Road was undeniably a successful one for Kettering Town Football Club. Even though ‘big Ron’ as he was later to be known, had just started out on his notably successful managerial career path, his charismatic and flamboyant character was already coming to the forefront. Looking back on his managerial career during an interview published in the Observer newspaper in May 2003, Atkinson said he could remember how the scoring went in his first game as a manager at Kettering Town, and almost every tactical change he made in the 30 years and 11 clubs he managed afterwards.

During one of his many interviews for the media, recalling his managerial career at a host of clubs, including West Brom, Conventry, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Atleticio Madrid and perhaps most famously his stint in charge of Manchester Utd, Atkinson quipped, “I sold a player for a lawnmower once when I was at Kettering.”

Footnote: At the end of the 1974-75 season, the Club’s fears were realised once again. The League clubs could not decide which non-League club to support and none was elected. Kettering topped the non-league clubs poll with 20, Yeovil were second with just 8 votes, but in the end it was Workington who were re-elected with 28 votes.