The 1990’s : Blackburn, Administration and Wembley revisited
The 1990-91 season ended with another solid League position for manager Peter Morris and Kettering, and was also notable for the fleeting presence at Rockingham Road of talented striker Andy Hunt. Hunt was signed by Morris from King’s Lynn in August 1990 and just 27 appearances in a Poppies shirt later, he was on his way to Newcastle Utd for £150,000. Another good example of the canny knack Morris had for unearthing talent.
The following season Kettering finished 3rd in the Conference but were a long way off the top two (Colchester Utd and Wycombe Wanderers) and their league showing was far overshadowed by their glorious run in the FA Cup. After four qualifying rounds (including a replay), Kettering overcame Wycombe Wanderers in the 1st Round Replay and then slipped past Maidstone Utd in the 2nd Round, both results notably achieved away from Rockingham Road.
In the 3rd Round Kettering were drawn away to 1st Division Blackburn Rovers, then managed by the legendary ex-Liverpool striker Kenny Dalglish and a huge caravan of cars and coaches left the town to travel north to Ewood Park. The match started well for Kettering who came close from an early corner, but Rovers began to apply the pressure and despite their best efforts the Poppies overworked defence couldn’t contain Newell and Speedie. Blackburn eventually ran out 4-1 winners, but not before the Poppies large traveling support had celebrated another superb strike by the effervescent Phil Brown.
Morris resigns, Cusack’s seven games, administrators take over
Morris’ tenure at Kettering was cut short when he resigned from the managership in May 1992, due to the activities of one Mark English and his buddy Brian Talbot, who took the club to the brink of extinction, before the police and the administrators moved in to try and sort out the resulting mess. The manager’s post was being filled at the time by Dave Cusack, but his tenure lasted just seven games when the administrators panel (Kerr & Foster) relieved him of his managerial duties and the future looked pretty bleak for Kettering Town.
It was perhaps a little unfair on Cusack, who took a lot of the flak for Chairman Mark English, and ironically in that very short period in charge, he did actually bring some silverware to Rockingham Road, winning the Maunsell Cup with a 1-0 victory over Peterborough Utd.
With Kettering Town Football Club then in the hands of the administrators, cutbacks, the threat of a winding-up order and a season-long battle to avoid relegation was the stark welcome that greeted Graham Carr when he took over the vacant manager’s hot-seat in September 1992.
Graham Carr, from cult hero to villain
Ex-Northampton, Blackpool (and a host of other clubs) manager, Graham Carr was just the man for the job, and his gritty, no-nonsense approach worked wonders in hauling the team to mid-table safety gaining 13th position by the end of a very traumatic and difficult season for the club and it’s ardent supporters. But despite steadying matters ON the field, the club were still under administration and the sense of achievement by the new manager was overshadowed by the club’s financial plight.
In the summer of 1993-94, after much negotiation with the administrators, Peter Mallinger bought Kettering Town Football Club and lifted the heavy dark cloud that had been hanging over the club since the departure of English 12 months earlier. With the promise of a new beginning under the new Chairman (and of course owner) Peter Mallinger, Carr set about building upon his hard work the previous season that had kept the Poppies in the Conference.
Carr steered the Poppies to within three points of the Championship, losing out to Kidderminster Harriers who ironically failed to gain promotion to the Football League due to the sub-standard ground at Hoo Rd not meeting the League’s entrance criteria. The 1993-94 season, Peter Mallinger’s first as Chairman, was also the last season, with the exception of the brief revival during the 1998-99 season, that Kettering have recorded an average League attendance of over 2,000 (actually 2,026).
The 1994-95 season should have seen a continuation of Kettering Town’s revival and growth but that sadly wasn’t the case as attendances dropped off during the season and Carr’s magic was beginning to wear off. Opportunity knocked for Kettering when they drew Peter Shilton’s Plymouth Argyle in the 1st Round of the FA Cup and Sky Sports televised the match Live from Rockingham Road, but a 1-0 defeat coupled with a very disappointing performance from Carr’s men saw the opportunity wasted and the fan’s disillusionment continued.
Graham Carr was coming under increasing pressure at the club towards the end of the season as the Poppies title challenge faded and with it the attendances, but one final chance to finish the season on a high note came in the shape of the League Cup. Kettering had demolished Kidderminster Harriers 5-1, eased past Woking 2-1 and then come back from a 2-0 home defeat against Dagenham & Redbridge to win 4-2 at Victoria Rd in the second-leg to meet Bromsgrove Rovers in the two-legged final.
The 1st leg was a disaster and Kettering were hammered 4-1 with the Poppies supporters venting their frustration at what they felt was Carr’s lack of motivation of the team, but if the 1st leg was frustrating, worse was to come in the 2nd / home leg when Kettering were completely humiliated as Bromsgrove ran amok and thrashed Kettering 6-1, 10-2 on aggregate.
Carr had gone from cult hero to villain in just over a season, and despite a respectable 6th position in the Conference, the falling gates (now down to a little over 1,800 average) and the loss of the fan’s support saw him depart Rockingham Road shortly after the season ended.
Johnson takes over from Carr, the decline continues
If the final days of Carr’s reign had begun to sow the seeds of doubt in the supporter’s minds about the direction in which the club was heading, the swift and surprise appointment of Gary Johnson as his replacement by Chairman Peter Mallinger led to further confirmation the club was already back into steady decline. However the new manager was welcomed by the supporters, who were hoping he would bring a bright new era to the club.
Gary Johnson’s fresh approach to management was in sharp contrast to the bluntness of Graham Carr, and hopes were raised as the season began that he could turn the club around and bring back the missing support. The former Watford midfielder made a good start to the new season and for a while it appeared that the Poppies chairman’s first managerial appointment would turn out to be an inspired choice. But results started to go badly for Kettering and as the season progressed it was becoming increasingly clearer to the supporters that although Johnson’s coaching abilities were sound, he lacked the necessary toughness and player-management skills that Carr had perhaps greatly overdone.
Kettering finished the 1995-96 season in 16th place, their worst league position since 1984, an early exit from the FA Cup in the 4th Qualifying Round (a 2-1 defeat by Bromsgrove Rovers after two replays) and the average league attendance at Rockingham Road had slumped to 1,426 with supporters now realising that the club was losing it’s prestige position as one of the top non-league teams.
Things went from bad to worse for Johnson and Kettering at the start of the next season, another early exit from the FA Cup, this time even more humiliating, a 1-0 home defeat by Bedworth Utd in the 3rd Qualifying Round, a continuing run of poor results in the Conference and the lowest attendance for a league game at Rockingham Road in almost 10 years (766 v Hednesford Town).
Matters came to a head at an away fixture against Morecambe when the home side started to pile the goals up against Kettering and at half-time a dejected Johnston sat alone in the dugout instead of going into the dressing room to try to talk to the players. Kettering were hammered 5-2 and Gary Johnson was subsequently sacked and soon on his way out the gates of Rockingham Road.
Berry takes over as manager, Poppies hold onto Conference berth
Poppies captain Steve Berry took temporary charge (along with Richard Nugent and Kevin Shoemaker) and four games later accepted the position of player/manager, Kettering’s 22nd post-war manager, to rescue the club from impending relegation and finish a comfortable 14th position in the Conference. The following season started disastrously, 13 league games without a win left Kettering bottom of the Conference and a shock FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round exit at Rockingham Road at the hands of Hinckley Utd looked ominous for the club and it’s long-suffering supporters.
Once again it was Berry’s inspirational leadership skills, rather than his team management abilities that rescued Kettering from the drop at the end of the 1997-98 season to again finish in a comfortable 14th position in the Conference.
The return of Morris and a brief revival
The shock departure of Berry at the end of the season after an alleged disharmony between manager and chairman left the supporters even more disillusioned about the club’s imminent future and chairman Peter Mallinger moved swiftly to try to halt the decline by bringing back Peter Morris to the club, hoping he could repeat his successes during his previous tenure at Rockingham Road and get the club back on the road to knocking on the Football League doors once again.
Morris’ first season back in charge seemed on the face of it to have done the trick and reversed the club’s fortunes as Kettering finished the 1998-99 season as Runner’s-up behind Conference Champions Cheltenham Town, but all was not well behind the scenes at Rockingham Road. Chairman Peter Mallinger who had bought Kettering Town from the administrators and effectively ensured the survival of the football club just five years earlier, was fighting a continual struggle to maintain a sound financial footing for the club and one of the worst moment’s in Kettering Town’s proud history was just around the corner.
Despite Kettering’s runner’s-up spot the previous season, which had initially brought back some of the Poppies’ ‘missing’ supporters, the perceived lack of ambition by those same supporters when a striker was desperately needed to boost the club’s chances of holding off Cheltenham for the title, but never materialised, led to a growing air of disenchantment with the way the club was being managed.
Back to Wembley after 21 years, but the steady decline continues
The supporter’s disillusionment was underlined during the 1999-2000 season as attendances dropped dramatically (from it’s previous season’s average of 2,032 to a dismal 1,506 average) whilst the club struggled both on and off the field to maintain it’s Conference status. A revival of fortunes towards the end of the season saw the club eventually climb to 13th position in the league and dramatically reach Wembley for only their second-ever appearance in the FA Trophy Final.
It had been a hard-fought road to Wembley for Kettering, with three replays and a very close two-legged semi-final against Telford Utd settled by a single Gary Setchell header in the first leg at Rockingham Road. Their opponents, in what was to be the last FA Trophy Final before Wembley was to be demolished, happened to be the returning Trophy holders from last season, Geoff Chapple’s Kingstonian.
The match turned out to be a more even affair than the Poppies’ last appearance under the famous Twin Towers, but unfortunately the end result was the same and despite coming from behind to lead 2-1 after the break, Kettering faded towards the end as Kingstonian’s pressure produced two more goals and the K’s eventually ran out 3-2 winners. Another of Morris’ great Cup days out had deflected attention from the club’s underlying problems as the decade drew to a close, but as the disastrous following season soon showed, the Wembley outing had only served to paper over the widening cracks.