The 1980s : Buckley, Morris and Charlton Athletic
The 1979-80 season saw the dawn of a new era for Non-League clubs with the formation of the Alliance Premier League, and Kettering Town proudly taking their place as one of the founding members of the new top-flight of Non-League football. The APL got off to a solid start, with 13 of the top Southern clubs joined by 7 of the top Northern clubs, but there was still no automatic glory for the first APL winners, Altrincham, who failed by a single vote to join the Football League.
Colin Clarke had taken over as Kettering manager following the departure of Mick Jones to Mansfield Town and his first game in charge was ironically against their Wembley conquerors Stafford Rangers. The new season’s opening fixture at Marston Rd ended in a 0-0 draw, and Kettering went on to finish the season in a respectable 7th place. A good finish for Clarke’s first season in charge at Rockingham Road, and an impressive start considering the depletion of the previous season’s fairly successful team through several player departures, suspensions and injuries.
The club’s first-ever goals in the Alliance Premier League were scored by prolific striker Roy Clayton in the 2-0 win over Wealdstone, the ex-Oxford Utd striker, signed by Ron Atkinson in a £10,000 deal in 1972, became Kettering Town’s all-time record goalscorer with 171 goals before his departure to Barnet in late 1980.
The following season saw Kettering finish Runners-up in the Alliance Premier League, just 3pts behind Altrincham who were themselves claiming the championship for the second year running, but still no Football League place, as it would be another six seasons before automatic promotion to the 4th Division (as it then was) took place.
In February of 1982 Colin Clarke announced he was resigning as manager of Kettering to take over at Corby Town and assistant manager Jim Conde took over the reigns at Rockingham Road to try to improve their fortunes, which had nose-dived dramatically after the previous season’s high-spot of finishing as Alliance Premier League Runner’s-up. Conde had been quite popular with the supporters during his time as a striker for the club in their Southern League days, but now he had taken over the hot seat he was under far greater pressure to produce results.
Matters on and off the field were not going well for Kettering Town, a 19th place saw them barely escape relegation and the following season saw no improvement with the club again struggling near the bottom of the table. Poppies chairman John Murphy decided it was time for a change and in March 1983 Conde was sacked to make way for the arrival of Scottish International midfielder Don Masson.
Don Masson takes over the Poppies hot seat
Masson took over the club in the midst of a relegation battle and his first signing was ex-Arsenal veteran Eddie Kelly who was pitched straight into the manager’s first game in charge at Underhill at the start of April (1983). Unfortunately, Kelly only lasted part the way into the second-half, suffering an injury, and although Kettering came away 3-2 winners over Barnet, Kelly never played for Kettering again and the fortunes of Masson went downhill also.
Despite two defeats in their final two league matches, Kettering again finished in 19th position and escaped relegation by a lofty 4pts thanks to the misfortunes of Barrow and Stafford Rangers, and incidentally, Yeovil also finished below the Poppies in 20th place, but that was of course before the three-up three-down rule was introduced.
Masson started the 1983-84 season under a cloud with questions concerning his training methods, and after team results failed to improve, he was sacked in October 1983, with Dave Needham, whom Masson brought in as a player at the start of the season, temporarily taking over the reigns to try to reverse the club’s ailing fortunes.
Needham takes over and APL / Gola becomes the Conference
Once again the incoming Poppies manager had to fight to keep the club in the Alliance Premier League, and despite losing their final game of the season 2-0 at Yeovil, Kettering once again finished 19th, with Yeovil coincidentally in 20th position again and this time the two unfortunate teams relegated were Bangor City and Trowbridge Town. Although Needham’s temporary position did become permanent and he was put in charge of the club for a three year period, unfortunately some of Kettering’s worst defeats were recorded under his leadership.
The 7-0 hammering at Rockingham Road by Swindon Town in the 1st Round of the FA Cup in 1983 was eclipsed two seasons later when the Poppies suffered their worst ever defeat in the (then newly-formed) Conference, an 8-0 hammering away at Sutton Utd.
To be fair, the club’s tenure in the renamed Gola League had been steadied slightly by Needham, with a 12th place position and 9th place position respectively, in the two seasons before it became the GM Vauxhall Conference and coincidentally with the new sponsors came automatic promotion for the 1986-87 Champions, Scarborough.
Unfortunately for Needham he wasn’t to see out that particular season still in charge at Kettering, the embarrassment at Sutton was the final straw and he was duly sacked and replaced by arguably one of the most popular managers during his short term at Rockingham Road, Alan Buckley.
Buckley rebuilds and Kettering win GMAC Cup
Buckley was the youngest player/manager in the Football League when he took over Walsall in 1979 and had a been a player at Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City.
When he was released by Walsall in November 1986, Buckley took over the managership hot seat at Rockingham Road and his mission was to rebuild Kettering Town and start the club back on the road to once again becoming one of the top non-league teams.
It wasn’t a particularly good start to life in the newly renamed (GMV) Conference for Kettering, and manager Buckley’s task over the remaining second-half of the season was a difficult one, trying to rebuild the team as a force again, but the club finished in 16th position with the GMAC Cup in the Trophy cabinet (courtesy of a 3-1 win over Hendon) and the next season the experienced Buckley was able to establish his own style at Rockingham Road.
The 1987-88 season saw Kettering finish in 3rd place, seven points behind Conference Champions Lincoln City who had only been relegated from the Football League the previous season and it came as quite a blow to the Northamptonshire club when Buckley left Kettering to take over at Grimsby Town, and even more alarming when he took key Poppies players Arthur Mann, Paul Reece and Andy Tillson with him to Blundell Park.
Buckley’s departure allowed not only a highly experienced Football League player (Mansfield Town, Ipswich and Norwich City) to take over the reigns of Kettering Town, but someone who had also already managed several League clubs (Mansfield Town, Peterborough Utd, Crewe Alexandra and Southend Utd) and that man of course was Peter Morris.
The first Morris era and Charlton Athletic
Left with only four contracted players, Morris set about rebuilding the decimated squad, and his first major decision was to sell the Poppies supporters favourite player, striker Frankie Murphy, to Barnet for £10,000, not a very auspicious start in the eyes of the club’s supporters. But Morris was never a man looking to win a popularity contest and he took little time in bringing in his own players, strengthening the squad and quickly building the team into a top non-league force once again.
During his four year (first) spell at the club (he later rejoined Kettering in May 1998) Kettering finished Runners-up, 5th, 4th and 3rd respectively in the Conference, the average League attendance (over the 4 seasons) at Rockingham Road was 2,291 and his excellent player trading (bringing in legendary Poppies strikers Ernie Moss and Robbie Cooke) had been the underpinning of the club’s success.
Perhaps the most enduring testament to (what was later to become) Morris’ first tenure at the club, were the two major FA Cup runs which led to the Poppies’ epic encounters with Charlton Athletic (1988-89) and Blackburn Rovers (1991-92).
During the club’s first FA Cup run under Morris’ management, Kettering swept past seven clubs including notable victories over Bristol Rovers (2-1 at home) in the 2nd Round, Halifax Town (then still in the Football League) in the 3rd Round, (1-1 at home then 3-2 in the replay at the Shay) before coming up against 1st Division side Charlton Athletic in the 4th Round (the 1st Division of course being the ‘premier’ league at the time).
The FA Cup 4th Round tie at Selhurst Park (Charlton’s home at the time) attracted an impressive attendance of 16,001 and for Poppies supporters it was a bitter-sweet match, with Kettering striker Robbie Cooke just failing to record his 6th brace of goals (after scoring twice in five of the previous rounds) and his striking partner Ernie Moss, who was certainly unlucky not to get his own name on the scoreboard, instead agonisingly grazing the post. After a hard-fought encounter, Kettering went down 2-1, beaten but certainly not bowed.
The partnership of veteran strikers Robbie Cooke and Ernie Moss ignited the club’s fortunes during Morris’ first season at Rockingham Road, with Cooke not only scoring 11 goals in the Poppies’ glorious FA Cup run (the highest for the FA Cup that season), but following up the next season with 28 league goals which quite rightly earned him the prestigious ‘Goalscorer of the Year’ title from the Mail on Sunday newspaper.