STEVE LENAGH hit a cracking winner as Kettering Town snatched the Dr Martens League championship on one of the most emotionally-charged afternoons any of us could ever have experienced.
The big fellow produced a suitably big finish to write the final dramatic chapter in an exciting and closest-possible title race to lift the Poppies back to the Nationwide Conference at the first time of asking.
It was a nail-biting, edge-of-seat, white-knuckle rollercoaster ride made all the more stomach-churning by the constant relayed messages of rivals Tamworth’s slip-up on the south coast at Folkestone.
The Poppies, roared on by a noisy massed bank of supporters who had travelled down to Devon in numbers to virtually take over Tiverton’s compact Ladysmead ground in the hope of a gloriously happy ending to the season’s last act, made an early, crucial breakthrough with a goal after just eight minutes.
Peter Fear’s free-kick into a crowded area brushed against a yellow arm – Neil Saunders looked the likeliest culprit – and after a considerable delay caused by heated Tiverton protests the unflappable Craig Norman stepped forward to cooly do what he almost always does with penalties and roll the ball past Paul Edwards as the keeper opted to go in the other direction.
One-nil . . . and the cheers reached fever pitch when news filtered through that Tamworth were also trailing and became absolute bedlam as their deficit quickly became two.
Lenagh sent a delicate lob slipping inches past and a header from Chris Perkins bounced straight to Edwards while Antony Lynch skied a reasonable attempt at the opposite end.
Tiverton, though, obviously hadn’t read the script and in the 25th minute caught the visitors cold at an alertly-taken set-piece and Kevin Nancekivell’s cross from the right fell invitingly for the arriving Paul Chenoweth to ram home unchallenged for the equaliser.
Tamworth, meanwhile, had reduced the arrears elsewhere and understandable signs of nerves resurfaced when Richard Pears sneaked in unattended for a free header which, fortunately, found Paul Pettinger perfectly-placed to smother.
All still going to plan at half-time, however, and the Poppies resumed after the refuge of a dressing-room cuppa in more determined and purposeful mood to regain the lead within four minutes.
Andy Turner’s left-wing corner was returned to him and his second delivery dropped for Lenagh to swing a mighty boot and a thunderous volley flew into the net with Edwards a startled bystander and spark pandemonium on the packed terraces.
The celebrations over that stunning strike had barely died down when we heard through the grapevine (mobile phones to the uninitiated) that it was now 3-2 to Folkestone. All, therefore, still going to plan.
Darren Collins pulled out a marvellous full-length stop from Edwards from Lenagh’s thighed lay-off and the latter cleverly hoodwinked Steve Peters only to blast uncontrollably over the bar.
“Tamworth have missed a penalty!” bellowed our informants at the same time as Richard Butcher suffered a similar rush of blood after bursting into the box.
Then “they’ve equalised. It’s 3-3.” And with the tension reaching unbearable heights the Poppies went in search of a further score against hosts not entirely unwilling by this stage.
Butcher bullied his way past a couple of inadequate tackles, momentarily took his finger off the trigger to round Edwards and with Shaun Murray also closing in for the kill the presence of Peters provided the necessary block.
Edwards pawed out Paul Everett’s sliced clearance to prevent an embarr-assing own-goal and the stretching Tiverton keeper palmed round Norman’s looping header from Murray’s astute chip arrowing towards the far post.
The referee’s whistle blew. . .and after what seemed an eternity confirmation came of that other result. And as the heavens opened up jubilant Poppies supporters poured onto the rain- saturated pitch to engulf their heroes and start the wanton waste of a decent vintage as the champagne corks popped.
It had gone down to the wire. But Kettering Town emerged successfully from the pressure-cooker atmosphere and are up . . . where they belong!