Football: Kettering on the climb to pastures new

The Poppies' blossoming challenge for promotion to the Football League is backed by an ambitious chairman with a taste for high life.
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The Independent Online
A WRECKED American bomber plane from the Second World War reputedly lies beneath Kettering Town's pitch, while the favoured site for their new stadium is a breakers' yard for old bangers. Yet the scrap that preoccupies their chairman is of neither the crashed nor crushed variety, but the one for promotion to the Football League.

Peter Mallinger has experienced the emotional extremes of big-time football, having been vice-chairman of his first love, Newcastle United, for a year at the start of the Kevin Keegan/Sir John Hall era. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine he is blase about the prospect of Kettering winning the Nationwide Conference championship.

It is even disturbing his sleep, though not with the cold sweat over money and managers that afflicts many chairmen, or even the frustration of Saturday's last-gasp defeat by Doncaster. "Sometimes I wake up with the excitement of it all and go `Yesss!'," he explains, pushing his fist into his palm. "For this club to go into the League after 127 years... the prize is massive. And there's only 14 games left."

Kettering start today's home match with Dover a point clear of Cheltenham. Intriguingly, the third serious contenders are their Northamptonshire neighbours, the mega-rich Rushden & Diamonds. They make the eight-mile journey to Rockingham Road next month - a week after Kettering go to Cheltenham - with the return fixture on the season's last day.

"The Diamonds' rise has made our job much more challenging and added to the pressure," says Mallinger, who began his business career in Kettering and bought "The Poppies" from the liquidators for pounds 100,000 soon after Max Griggs merged Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds. "It has also provided some nice local rivalry, though I'd be happier if we were competing on level terms financially.

"A number of people from this town drifted off to support them because they were a winning side, whereas there wasn't much to cheer here. But I'd never say anything against Max because he's a terrific guy, and he's doing exactly what I'd love to do. I just wish I had his money."

Kettering's challenge this season has surprised many, including the bookmakers, who listed them as 20-1 ninth favourites. Fifteen months ago they were bottom of the Conference after taking 14 games to win in 1997- 98. They eventually finished 14th, the same as a year earlier.

Why the dramatic improvement? "Two words," says Mallinger. "Peter Morris. Before my time here, Peter was manager for five years and took Kettering to runners-up. But there was a big upheaval and he was forced out. He went off to manage Boston United and then King's Lynn.

"When we parted with our manager last summer, I went for Peter. Some people said we shouldn't be looking back, but his feeling was that he came to do a job: to get this club into the League. He's just picked up where he left off.

"He assured me, even before he'd put his squad together, that we'd be in the top six. At Newcastle when John Hall looked you in the eye and said something would happen, you believed him. It's the same with Peter."

Only three of last season's side survived Morris' revamp. One, Carl Adams, delivers bread in Birmingham for eight hours from 2am on Saturdays, and according to Mallinger has to have his eyes propped open with matchsticks after the bus picks him up. The contrast with the 30 full-timers available to Rushden's ex-Kettering manager, Brian Talbot, could hardly be greater.

Morris, who managed at Crewe, Mansfield and Peterborough and coached Newcastle, has relied on free transfers and his knack of spotting young talent. One of Kettering's discoveries, the speedy, 6ft 1in striker Ben Wright, has guested for Leeds and Bolton reserves; another, the midfielder Matt Fisher, is also attracting Premiership scouts.

Mallinger is aware that some of the clubs promoted from the Conference have strayed out of their depth. Asked whether Kettering could cope with League football, he rubs his hands. "Oh yes, please. It's what we've been planning for. The support's there, too. We had to coax them back at first, but we've had well over 8,000 at the last three home games.

"What Macclesfield and Halifax have achieved shows that we shouldn't be frightened. I'd love to be sitting here in June with a copy of our Third Division fixture list, and I'm quietly confident it will happen."

As he speaks, he surveys the ground from the elevated office that nestles in one corner. It used to be the manager's bolt-hole, and Ron Atkinson, who launched his managerial career at Kettering, describes it as the best office he ever had. Soon, though, it may be rubble.

"We want to move because the days when you could finance a club by revenue from the turnstiles are gone," argues Mallinger. "We've got no facilities for corporate entertainment like they have at Kidderminster or, dare I say it, the Diamonds."

Kettering hope to be in their new ground by 2001, possibly at the cars' graveyard by the A14. Perhaps, when the bulldozers move in at their current home, the mystery of whether a US fighter really did nosedive into the pitch will be solved. In the meantime, the plan is to prove that League status is no mere flight of fantasy.