POPA POPS IN FOR POPPIES
May as well start with my old joke – Do you like Kettering? Well, I have never kettered.
A sense of humour was necessary for all visiting supporters who witnessed a rather disastrous start to the game where Dunstable conceded two goals to Kettering Town’s loan player, the starlet from Birmingham City who scored the goals that, for the first half at least, seemed to end this game as a contest.
Dunstable improved almost immeasurably in the second half, pulled a goal back from Chris Vardy and even looked good for an equaliser until the killer third goal, late in the match. I had arrived early and with few cars I chose a nice little spot until a fastidious steward, (who appeared to be having his dinner on the hoof) redirected me to a more distant and obscure spot as if it was all I deserved. Now that fellow could fulfil himself by getting a pair of ping-pong bats and land aeroplanes on an aircraft carrier.
But at least the game was on despite April showers. When we were here for the original fixture the game was called off ‘owing to a waterlogged pitch’ and immediately afterwards there was a mini-heat wave. It meant that the rearranged game placed Dunstable in a punishing schedule of matches, all crammed in to beat the deadline of the season’s end on 23 April.
Two successive goal-less draws at Stratford Town and then a couple of days later at Redditch United asked much from the team who responded gallantly but with the emphasis being thrown on defence. It was tonight as well but the walls were breached as early as the fifth minute and before Dunstable had managed a decent kick or even to get out of their own half.
Kettering, like Redditch, needed the points to boost their play-off chances and put out a much changed team from the one that was defeated 4-0 at Creasey Park in what was a curious game. I recall that of that game I wrote that Kettering had given a lesson in attacking football but just could not finish; they made amends for that tonight by scoring two in ten minutes - with a free header and a virtually unchallenged shot.
The home side’s dominance was so evident that by half –time I was joking that they would declare and put us in. With repeated attacks and virtually all the possession, I wondered if the Dunstable team was suffering from car-lag or something similar. No-one connected and nothing rhymed and an early clearance from goalkeeper Bart Pedrycz suggested a crude game plan when he sent a clearance into a seemingly distant part of Northamptonshire.
It did not stem the flow as a fresh ball was thrown on, as they were with urgency, well until Dunstable looked like equalising and ball boys seemed to suffer from amnesia. David Popa’s free-header was a simple goal and was devoid of defensive challenge. Earlier Liam Canavan had one of his many chances. He was a live wire and, incidentally had a haircut that seemed to suggest he was an electrician in his day job and had touched something he should have avoided. I also should have avoided taking my pre-match pee as I discovered on my exit that I had gone to the ladies’ section. I was unchallenged by the stewards who may have thought I looked like a girlie, which was a waste of my carefully nurtured designer stubble.
The Kettering supporters behind the goal began a chant that I thought was composed of the word ‘Alarming’, repeated ad nauseam. It seemed to be a comment on Dunstable’s play so far and was thus quite accurate. But it turned out to be the words ‘Red Army’ and not because they were celebrating the Russian troops but rather their heroes in red and black hoops. Bart Pedrycz, who has had two notable successive first team appearances, where he kept a blank sheet, dealt with the pressure as best he could and was kept very busy indeed. He was also injured again in a collision in his area, as he was at Redditch but was soon on his feet again, displaying some curious fluorescent bits over and just above his boots.
My subjective view of the Dunstable lads as heroes in the last two games gives way to an objective statement that we seem a bit lacking in the goal-scoring department. Popa’s second was a ow and unchallenged shot from a fluid move that was also granted more freedom than was decent and terms like ‘damage limitation’ were entering my head. Dunstable were simply not allowed to play and were pegged back. Even forward moves were limited to a punt up field with a hit and hope attitude. The best we could manage were some decent long throws from Howard Hall. Each one was followed with a grunt like a tennis star making a serve. But there was no co-ordination, no rhythm or meaningful construction.
Canavan, Popa and Brighton were running the show with good ideas coming from Carvalho. I fully supported manager Tony Fontenelle’s team selection tonight since Pedrycz, Okito and Smith, the signing from Crawley Green, justified their places on impressive performances in the two previous matches.
One feature of the game, which gave it a stuttering edge was the concession of too many free-kicks, which gave the referee the appearance of being rather pedantic, but I will say that he had very good player communication and often preferred to reprimand rather than wave a yellow card. Dunstable ‘won’ this non –competition by receiving three cautions to Kettering’s one which does reflect the very strenuous nature of the game in the second half.
Most of the free-kicks fell to Kettering who utilised them quite well, unlike Dunstable who tended to waste them in a profligate manner. Brighton, for example sent in a beauty that was just headed wide, and this was just before a proper move for Dunstable at last utilising Edwards and Wharton but the ball drifted out of play before Wharton (probably Dunstable’s most notable player tonight), could cross the ball. Wharton showed skill and persistence in outwitting former Dunstable player Gary Mulligan and forced a corner that was headed away with what looked like indignation.
Wales provided Vardy with a chance but this was ballooned. Canavan had a blocked shot as Kettering looked likely to make a third goal a formality. Dunstable skipper, James Kaloczi had a header easily saved and the former seemed selected to take on the role of dastardly villain. He was jeered throughout and was eventually substituted – but why the persecution I wonder?
It was a touch surprising that Kettering did not add to their two goals – which meant Dunstable had coped with over half an hour pf pressure – but just when they seemed cruising the hosts looked vulnerable. In the boardroom, the cordial club officials tried to say something nice about Dunstable Town but it was hard. It would have been restricted to ‘your captain is very tall’ or that we had some players who looked nice in fluorescent boots. Like me they were probably expecting a rather routine victory borne of supremacy all over the field.
Walking back to the playing area, some of us were held up by the barrier to allow players and officials onto the field. I noticed a sign declaring that Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted and thinking of the decent attendance tonight, we could put up a sign saying that trespassers at Creasey Park will be welcomed with a cup of tea, as there is no doubt that a bumper attendance can indeed be the twelfth man. Failing that we could ask our stewards to throw people in.
Whatever Fontenelle said in the interval was immediately effective and it seemed to take the hosts by surprise. Dunstable did not roll over but snapped back with real spirit that is after one or two attacks by the Poppies that suggested a replication of their fine first half. Zack Reynolds had replaced Gedeon Okito and later Lee Roache came on for Steve Wales.
It was not that the Poppies were relaxing with their two goal cushion – there was a real fight about Dunstable who were, at last beginning to co-ordinate attacking moves from midfield and even from defensive moves. Wales was again involved with Vardy with a half chance and nine minutes into the half a smart assistance from Mark Smith enabled Chris Vardy to slot the ball home to give the few Regimentals behind the goal something tangible to cheer about.
It was then followed by Jonathan Edwards making a significant run and coming very close to scoring. At the other end though, Brighton had a narrow miss, and yes, there were still too many stoppages for free-kicks, and there was a perceptible niggle about some players, with the usual pushing and shoving and shunting at corners and free-kicks. Vardy was lively, emboldened by his goal but one move with Edwards saw a completely wasted cross.
A free-kick (one of the many) saw a home effort headed over the bar. Roache had some good touches when he came on and he worked well with Wharton yet the return pass saw a sliced shot that made even the player cringe. Had Dunstable been able to make their game flow instead of conceding free-kicks we might have seen something better – even an equaliser which no-one in the ground could rule out at this stage.
But Kettering were still getting the shots in when they could – one move saw two blocked shots and a corner conceded. As the Dunstable pressure eased, partly through their own inaccuracies in the final third, so Kettering sought what would undoubtedly be a killer third goal.
This came at the second time of asking, so to speak, six minutes from normal time, when Brett Solkhon converted a defensive rebound. It secured the points but it did not end Dunstable securing the role as gallant losers as they tried unto the last but were again dogged by imprecision. They had the six minutes plus four minutes of stoppage time and there were several attempts with the praiseworthy Wharton having two close calls and Vardy trying very hard to double his tally. It was a brave attempt but the better team overall won tonight. Yet if Dunstable had started the first half as they did the second it could have been very different. Fatigue may have had something to do with it but Kettering have a very similar playing schedule, so that may be discounted. The vital missing factor for Dunstable was that old problem of starting slowly and being a bit out of focus. It has been a feature and a remedy needs to be put in place. Having said that it was difficult, given the thrusting start to the game by the hosts, who had oiled the joints and were slick in movement and control. It was not sustained throughout but that is understandable.
Dunstable’s second half rejuvenation showed good character as for a good half an hour it looked as if they would be overwhelmed, chasing the shadow rather than the substance. I liked the sober earnestness of their second half play but I was disappointed by the lack of real quality in the finish. Chris Vardy will be pleased with his goal, but it was Popa of the Poppies who really put paid to Dunstable tonight. His team now hover a couple of places outside the play-off slots and they do have some tough games to come.
Dunstable have a home game after three successive away fixtures and they play Cirencester Town, against whom they achieved their best away win by five goals to one, and you may be assured the Centurions will be looking to improve on that. That game is on Saturday, 9 April and it would be pleasant if we could pull in half of tonight’s attendance figure.
Craig Hill, Liam Bateman, Dominic Langdon, Brett Solkhon, GOAL, 84 minutes, Gary Mulligan, (Chris Carruthers), Herve Pepe-Ngoma, Wilson Carvalho,(Ben Stephens) Liam Canavan, (Will Grocott), Rene Howe, cautioned, David Popa, TWO GOALS, 5 and 10 minutes, James Brighton. Other substitutes – Perry Cotton and Silvano Obeng.
Bart Pedrycz, Howard Hall, Gedeon Okito, cautioned,(Zack Reynolds), David Longe-King, James Kaloczi, cautioned (Anthony Leslie), Adam Pepera, cautioned, Mark Smith, Gary Wharton, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Wales, (Lee Roache), Chris Vardy, GOAL, 54 minutes. Other substitutes – Jonathan Wyllie and Danny Talbot.
Referee – Robbie Dadley assisted by Paul Hands and Simon Kavanagh.