On a door on the main stand at Kettering Town’s old Rockingham Road ground, someone has daubed the words “KTFC WILL NEVER DIE.” It might be a trite slogan, but it’s almost certainly true. No matter how badly they’re treated by the people entrusted with their well-being, football clubs generally don’t die. If a club really matters to the community it belongs to then the chances are it will survive, even if it is in a much-diminished form. Kettering are living proof – but only just.
A decade ago, the Poppies found themselves in the unlikely position of being at the centre of the football world. In October 2005, the non-league club’s new owner Imran Ladaak revealed that Paul Gascoigne, the most famous and most talented footballer of his generation, was the new manager. It was an announcement that took absolutely everyone by surprise, possibly including Gazza himself. His role was to coach the part-time Conference North club, to the upper echelons of English football and at the same time bring the crowds into Rockingham Road. Anyone who knew anything about Gascoigne should have known that the former was never going to happen but he certainly achieved the latter, albeit briefly.
Gascoigne’s first game in charge – an FA Cup defeat to Stevenage – attracted a crowd of more than 4,000, compared to the usual 800 or so. It was the biggest attendance seen at the ground in years. Fans were caught up in the hype and for a while bought into the notion that the club was heading for the top. Sadly the Gazza revolution came to a swift and predictable end. He fell victim to the personal demons that have plagued so much of his life and lasted just 39 incident-packed days in the job. The media circus moved on from Northamptonshire, and Kettering Town fell back into obscurity as far as most of the country was concerned. But for the fans it turned out to be the start of a nightmare that they still haven’t properly emerged from.
Stalwarts of the non-league scene, Kettering had enjoyed moments in the spotlight before. In the mid 70s they were the first English club to have a sponsor’s name on their shirts when chief executive Derek Dougan signed a four-figure deal with a local tyre company. The move caused predictable uproar at the FA and the club was threatened with a fine if they didn’t remove the advertising. Another slightly more bizarre claim to fame is that they were apparently the first – and, for all I know, the only – club to have their initials spelled out in their floodlights.
Those floodlights still stand today, looming over the crumbling stadium that had been Kettering’s home since 1897. In August 2011, with the lease on Rockingham Road – or the Elgood’s Brewery Arena as it was officially known – coming to an end and a long-term agreement apparently not forthcoming, the owners made the ill-fated decision to move out. The team took up residence at the former home of Rushden and Diamonds, Nene Park, and a few months later Rockingham Road was repossessed by bailiffs. It has lain empty ever since, gradually falling apart and slowly being reclaimed by nature. The land has been put up for sale and is expected to be purchased by housing developers.
However there could be a glimmer of hope. Kettering, after a nomadic five years of drifting from one Northamptonshire ground to another, continue to search for a home in the town. This month the club submitted an application to Kettering Borough Council for the Rockingham Road stadium to be listed as an asset of community value, with a decision expected within eight weeks. This would give them the opportunity to bid should the land be sold, although there would be no guarantees that they’d be able to match a commercial offer. Without the classification, the possibility of a return to Rockingham Road would seem unlikely and the longer the stadium is allowed to deteriorate the chances of it ever being used for football again diminish.
And that’s a great shame. When it closed in 2011, the ground had a capacity of more than 6,000 and with its huge main stand, towering floodlight pylons, traditional terracing and red-brick perimeter walls, Rockingham Road still looks and feels like a real football ground, a throwback to a traditional style of British stadium that is fast disappearing. First impressions as you walk round the outside are that, apart from a few patches of rust, it looks to be in surprisingly good condition for a structure that has been abandoned for so long.
Inside it’s a different story. All the plastic seats in the 1800 capacity main stand have been removed and the offices and food outlets trashed and stripped of anything of value. Windows are smashed and walls covered in graffiti. Trees and bushes have pushed through the concrete terracing and the pitch is overgrown with weeds and shrubbery. Some intruders have placed chairs on the playing field, presumably for an al fresco drinking session. Pitchside adverts for the likes of Dr Marten’s, British Steel and McDonald’s, as well as numerous local businesses, remain in place, paint peeling and colour fading. It’s a sorry sight and for fans of the club a frustrating one.
The supporters have suffered much since the end of the Gazza debacle. Things started off well enough, with Kettering winning the Conference North in record-breaking fashion the following season. Subsequent FA Cup runs brought finance and profile and for a while it looked like the club was moving in the right direction.
Then it started to go badly wrong. The move to Nene Park – itself now abandoned – never worked out and financial chaos quickly followed, with players not being paid and huge debts being run up. Eventually the club entered a CVA agreement that saw the team being relegated two divisions, deducted points and having a transfer embargo imposed. To add to the turmoil businessman George Rolls, who had taken over day-to-day control of the club from Ladak in February 2012, was suspended from football for five years after breaching Football Association betting rules.
In October 2012, a humiliating 7-0 defeat in a game in which they could only field 10 players seemed to signal the end. With Nene Park no longer available, and a lack of registered players meaning they were unable to field a team, several games were postponed until a temporary home at Corby was found. Now at long last, with a team of volunteers led by club chairman Ritchie Jeune now at the helm, there are signs of stability.
The Poppies are currently in the Premier Division of the Southern League and going for promotion. They play a few miles outside Kettering at Latimer Park, ground sharing with Burton Park Wanderers of the United Counties League. It’s been a nightmare few years for Kettering but a move back to their spiritual home at Rockingham Road remains the dream.