The FA Cup manages strange and unusual ways to mete out justice. Just ask Tommy Hutchison, who scored both goals in the 1981 final – one at each end, for Spurs and Manchester City. A week ago on Saturday, Kettering Town of the Blue Square Premier must have felt as if they had done enough to beat League Two side Lincoln City when the excellently-named Exodus Geohaghan gave them the side with five minutes to play of a match that they had dominated, only for Lincoln to level things up a minute later after a horrific defensive error. It looked as if they had blown their chance of making it past league opposition.
Kettering’s rise from being close to laughing stocks to the summit of non-league football has been a startling one. In October 2005, they installed Paul Gascoigne as manager, apparently unaware of the chronic alcoholism that was blighting his life at the time. He managed just thirty-nine days in charge before being sacked. The following season there were more strange tales from Rockingham Road. With two matches left to play they sacked manager Morrell Maison, bringing in Graham Westley to replace him, but Westley left after a play-off defeat by Farsley Celtic. This time, the club got it right, bringing in Mark Cooper from Tamworth, and last season they won the Blue Square North. This season, they have started outstandingly in what looks like being a very tight Blue Square Premier division, and are currently in sixth place, just five points off the top of the table.
For the sliver of luck that they had in the first match, Lincoln City could still be forgiven for feeling nervous ahead of tonight’s match. Lincoln’s record in the FA Cup is, by any stretch of the imagination, wretched. They have made the Third Round of the competition only once since 1977 and, going into tonight’s match, they haven’t won a match in the competition at all since 2004. During this period of time they have, for the most part, had a reasonable team. Between 2003 and 2007 they finished in the play-off places every season, setting a Football League record by contriving to lose every time. Last season, however, they slumped to fifteenth place in League Two, and this season doesn’t look like being much better. At the time of writing, they are in the running for having the most anonymous season of any club this season – in twelfth place in the table, with six wins, four draws and six defeats from sixteen matches and a goal difference of plus one. In such seasons, cup competitions have the potential to lift the torpor of the league programme.
The first half sees Kettering start as the stronger of the two teams. Buoyed by a large travelling support (this match is not quite a local derby, but over 600 travelling supporters is still an impressive turn out for an away match on a Tuesday night in November in any competition), Kettering settle quicker than Lincoln, and look the more composed of the two teams. Lincoln, however, have a lively looking striker in Dany N’Guessan (who scored their goal in the first match), and he tests the Kettering goalkeeper Harper with a low shot that has to be pushed behind. The best chance of the half, however, falls to the visitors. Stefan Oakes is caught in possession, and Jean-Paul Marna’s shot hits the post before bouncing away to safety. Half-time comes with the scores still goalless.
Kettering start the second half very much as they finished the first. Their primary tactic seems to be to close down Lincoln quickly, to not give them the space to dictate the pace of the match, and it is successful. Potter’s shot is deflected wide and, from the resulting corner, Geogahan heads over. The opening goal follows soon afterwards, and comes against the run of play. Stefan Oakes’ free-kick is flicked on by N’Guessan and Lenell John-Lewis (who may or may not be the only player in the round to be named after a chain of department stores) turns the ball in to give Lincoln the lead. In the immediate aftermath of the goal, Lincoln have a couple of chances to kill the game off, with N’Guessan shooting just wide, but Kettering settle again and level things up midway through the half, when Craig Westcarr shoots in from an angle.
Lincoln’s brittle cup confidence shows its face again, and Kettering are back on the front foot. Few chances are being created, but with the home crowd now largely silenced, it looks as if there can only be one team that will win the match. The winning goal comes as the the clock ticks over ninety minutes. Gareth Seddon has only been on the pitch for a couple of minutes when he sends a long, looping cross to the far post and Iyseden Christie, another substitute, shoots in from close range. Within a minute or so the whistle blows, and Lincoln’s private FA Cup tragedy continues. For Kettering Town, the reward is a handy £20,000 prize and a Second Round match away to Notts County. On the sort of form that they’ve been showing this season, they’ll fancy their chances of beating a County side that continues to underachieve in League Two and has just one home league to its name so far this season. With the possibility of a Third Round match against a Premier League club at stake, they can hardly say that they have no incentive to play for the win.