Ground No. 232
Visited - Saturday 23rd July 2011
Result - Kettering Town 0-1 Coventry City
Competition - Pre-Season Friendly
Attendance - 969
When I was younger I quite often spent summers in Northamptonshire with my Grandparents, and it was around this time that Max Griggs was revolutionising football in the area by merging Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds and building them a new home at the stunning, yet remote Nene Park. There was doubt even then as to whether his dream of league football would ever come to pass and whether fans would flock to the new ground, and come the summer of 2011, despite his vision having come true, in the long term the dream had proved unsustainable with the club being wound up, and losing their ground in the process.
Ten miles up the road, Kettering Town had for years been hampered by a similar problem in reverse. They had the fanbase and they had the sustainability for their Football League dream, but their own ground, Rockingham Road, was deemed unsuitable and with tenure not secure, a pressing problem on the horizon. The answer seemed obvious, at least to the clubs chairman who swooped quickly to negotiate with Nene Park’s owners to secure a deal for the club to jump into Diamonds’ grave and take over the running of the stadium. Of course it didn’t go down too well with the fans, not only Diamonds having been their local rivals, but moving the club out of the town and leaving them with a long journey for home matches was far from popular, leading to a series of meetings, accusations, suggestions of a breakaway club and general ill feeling over the summer. Despite several half planned trips, I’d never been to Rockingham Road, so with the wrangling still going on, and it not being clear as to whether they would start the 2011/12 season at Nene Park or not, then I decided to visit it for the home friendly against Coventry to be on the safe side and make sure I didn’t miss out on it if the move did go through.
Formed in 1872, the club have a long and proud history, albeit one not shy of controversy. Former Wolves hero Derek Dougan took over as Chairman, Manager and Player in 1975 and was the architect of the famous sponsorship clash with the FA during January 1976. Having signed a deal with Kettering Tyres to have their names printed on the shirts, the FA quickly ordered them to remove it after one game, only for the Doog to try and get around that by shortening the logo to ‘Kettering T’, claiming the T stood for Town! The FA weren’t having any of it, and the threat of a £1000 fine, more than the sponsorship deal itself, was enough for him to drop the issue, but in true style, unrepentant he refused to give up pressing for what he believed in, and 12 months later changed both the FA’s minds and the game forever. It’s probably the most famous incident in the clubs history, which is a shame as it gets overlooked that this was also their most successful period, winning the Southern League Championship in 1973 and League Cup in 1975 and coming close to being elected to the Football League in 1974, Workington beating them by eight votes. Still, becoming founder members of the Alliance Premier (Conference) in 1979, they’ve remained more or less at the top of the non-league pyramid ever since, their most notable achievement since then coming in 1999 when they became the highest goalscorers in the FA Cup, a record they’ve since held. Paul Gascoigne became manager in 2005, although quickly left after only 39 days, the two mile walk from Rockingham Road to the nearest KFC presumably being too much, and since then, the club have regained their place back in the Conference after a brief spell out, going full time with their intention to step up made clear long before moving to Nene Park became a possibility.
They’ve played at Rockingham Road since 1897, and with its four tall, traditional floodlights, then the ground is visible on the way into Kettering from the train, although creeping past it for several miles and seeing it disappear into the distance before reaching the station is a bit annoying! The journey down there had gone fine, quick changes at Birmingham and Leicester before arriving in mid-morning and heading off up to the ground to have a look round. Situated just off the main road in and out of town, it’s the Rockingham Road End and Britannia Road terrace that first catch the eye, albeit not greatly with not a lot to see of either other than a wall with the turnstiles in, the floodlights grabbing most attention thanks to the pitch being below street level. It’s the same at the Cowper Street End, and from the outside it’s only really the Main Stand that is visible, an impressively tall structure, with the main entrance and club shop at one end, and the Tin Hat Bar adjacent to it at the far end.
Going in and the Main Stand again catches the eye the most, a big cantilevered structure with the only seats in the ground. If it ran the full length of the pitch then it would be very impressive, but unfortunately it stops short just past the halfway line where the front of the clubhouse is, running round to the Cowper Street End which is an uncovered terrace, seven steps high, with a large tarmac covered expanse behind it giving the impression something may have been there previously, like the terrace extending backwards at one time. It runs around the corner into the covered Britannia Road terrace which is about twice as deep and runs the full length of the pitch to the Rockingham Road End, which is an open terrace, gradually sloping up from pitch level instead of having steps for a better view. This end is usually given over to away fans, but for todays game both ends would be closed. Finally, the floodlights, notable not just for being the much loved old traditional style pylons are also worth mentioning for having the lights arranged in the letter K, reminiscent of Villa Park’s old lights and their A V pattern, giving another unique touch.
Having had a brief look round then I headed back to town for an hour or so finding the Old Market Inn for a couple of pints before going back to the ground, and into the clubhouse for another drink and a read of the programme ahead of the match.
Generally speaking, I don’t tend to bother with friendlies too much, but I’d hoped that this one might have a bit of spark with Coventry not being too far down the road from here. Perhaps not as much as the forthcoming match against Leicester, but with that being a Tuesday night, then this seemed a decent choice instead. Unfortunately though, the Cov fans hadn’t travelled as well as I thought Wolves might have had in a similar distance, and with them restricted to the Main Stand, the ground was feeling a bit empty when kick-off approached, not helped with fans only on the sides of the pitch. Apparently they’d done that to help with the costs of stewarding, but it seemed a very odd decision to at least not use the home end which runs around from the Britannia Road Terrace and wouldn’t have been any more trouble to monitor than what they were already. Anyway…
Once underway I got chatting to a Kettering fan, and that it has to be said was the highlight of the afternoon, the game on the pitch doing little to peak interest. The visitors seemed to be doing most of the pressing in the first half, having had a good chance blocked early on by Kettering defender Nathan Koo-Boothe, before the hosts flashed a header wide on 10 minutes that would have put them ahead if it had been on target, Joe Murphy in the Coventry goal nowhere near. His opposite number Laurie Walker was having a busy afternoon, tipping a free-kick onto the bar halfway through, but it looked like the hosts were the first to break the deadlock just before half-time when John Challinor turned the ball home, only for the ref to rule that Murphy had been fouled in the build-up to the goal.
They’d come to regret that after the break when on 50 minutes Gary McSheffery gave the Sky Blues the lead, heading home from a corner, and sadly that was pretty much it in terms of excitement, the visitors making a host of changes around the hour mark to bring on youngsters and squad players, with the game running down. Kettering pressed for an equaliser late on, but it was never coming and the 377 City fans in the Main Stand left the ground the happier, even if not having been enthralled by a typical pre-season workout for both clubs.
After leaving myself, I headed home, catching the train back with no problems, before getting home glad to have visited. Whilst it was a shining example as to why I don’t usually bother watching Wolves, or any league clubs, in pre-season, it was good to have had the chance to see the ground. I had been hoping to leave it for the August Bank Holiday game against Cambridge, but events gathered pace after this trip, and the club did indeed start the season at Nene Park, with Rockingham Road having seen its last competitive action for the time being. Whilst it does need improvement in places, notably the facilities and away end (a roof over the home end wouldn’t go amiss either), it is still a classic old ground, and more importantly, home. The reserves and youth/ladies teams will continue to play there at present, but you get the feeling that its future as a first team venue may not quite be over yet. For a club that can easily pull in several thousand for their bigger games then it will be interesting to see how attendances hold up at Nene Park. 2047 turned up for the first match, but a sunny Saturday in August isn’t a cold, wet Tuesday night in November, so it makes you wonder what will happen when fans inevitably get bored of a 20 mile round trip to an area with poor public transport links and nothing else around it in terms of pubs, etc. It’s not that I wish the club ill, and they’re in the unfortunate position of not owning Rockingham Road, but I feel that a great many of their fans will remark likewise in hoping the move doesn’t work out and sooner rather than later they can return back to the place that they’ve called home for the last 114 years.
Welcome to Rockingham Road!
Rockingham Road End Turnstiles
Rear of the Britannia Road Terrace
Turnstiles for the Britannia Road Terrace
Rear of the Cowper Street End
Rear of the Main Stand
Main Entrance to the Ground
The Club Shop
Rear of the Main Stand
The Tin Hat Bar
The Britannia Road Terrace
The Rockingham Road End
The Main Stand
The Cowper Street End
The Rockingham Road End
One of the Floodlights
Ready for Kick Off
The Britannia Road Terrace
The Main Stand
Rockingham Road Panoramic 1
Rockingham Road Panoramic 2