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Column: Who Are Your Non-League Heroes?

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Back in the dim and distant past of the mid-1960s, my mum used to put me on the 295 bus from just outside my house in Burton Latimer and allow me to go and watch Kettering Town play on a Saturday afternoon.

Fortunately, the bus went all the way to Kettering Town`s Rockingham Road ground without the need to change or walk very far, so it was ideal for a parent to trust the loss of their 11-year-old youngster for a few hours.

Believe it or not, I was a little too young to see the great Tommy Lawton`s Poppies team which also included another former England international in Jack Froggatt, who was apparently good enough to play either as a winger or a centre-half!

Tommy Lawton

My late older brother used to say that he was often disappointed when attending Kettering games because after he`d paid his 6d or whatever it was then to get in, the announcement would blare over the tannoy: “wearing number 9 today replacing Lawton is….” and he`d often drop out of games – after the crowd had come in – although he still ended up with almost as good a goals-per-game ratio for Kettering that he achieved for Chelsea, Arsenal, Notts County and England.

Non-League football in the 1950s, 60s and 70s saw a plethora of former international or top-level stars winding down their careers.

Indeed, in the 60s some could earn a lot more playing semi-professionally and `working`, often for the respective club`s chairman, than they could in the lower reaches of the Football League.

I was fortunate enough to witness first hand and close up legends such as John Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Johnny Morris – all internationals – and later Jimmy Greaves and Martin Chivers turning out for Barnet.

My older brother was a team-mate of John Ritchie in one of the local teams in the area in the early 1960s.

John Ritchie

Big John was soon picked up by Kettering Town and then went on to carve out a terrific career at the top level with Stoke City and Sheffield Wednesday and finished with 430 games and 209 goals – so what would he be worth in today`s market!?

But to me he was always that nice bloke who came and picked my brother up on a Saturday and always had a kind word to say to mum and me.

My clearest memories of watching regular Poppies matches was during the era of Steve Gammon as player-manager.

Gammon had been a highly-rated midfielder with Cardiff City and a Welsh under-23 international until injury put back his career.

Steve Gammon

He was always a decent player for Kettering though, perhaps better than the crowd often thought he was!

He evolved a terrific free-kick routine with fellow Welshmen Ken Gully that became almost telepathic.

A fantastic FA Cup tie at Bristol Rovers watched by over 9,000 was another big occasion I remember being allowed to attend and then the replay….!

Kettering should have won that in front of another huge crowd at Rockingham Road – winger Harry Walden missed a penalty and then Gammon conceded an own goal – I can still see both clearly now!

I later became pals with Ken Gully along with two more stalwarts who started under Gammon in the now sadly late Welsh defender Trevor Peck and full-back or midfielder Roger Ashby, who went on to become the Poppies record appearance holder, much to my chagrin as I was later to try and compete for his place under Ron Atkinson!

Roger Ashby

Another hero of mine was signed by Atkinson at the time I was with the club as player in Roy Clayton.

Clayton cost the club a record £8,000 fee from Atkinson`s old club Oxford United in 1972 and was a brilliant striker.

Not big, yet terrific in the air, and his movement was brilliant – as I found out several times in training!

He went on to spent eight years in Poppies colours, and still lives locally, despite going on to have spells with Barnet, Nuneaton Borough and Corby Town.

It was said that Clayton was so influential that when Kettering made it to Wembley for the 1979 FA Trophy Final, Stafford Rangers made special plans to deal with him, reckoning that if they did that, they`d stop the Poppies playing – and it worked!

Billy Kellock was undoubtedly Kettering`s best player at that time under Mick Jones` management.

Billy Kellock

But like Clayton, he was tied down at Wembley and instead of being the star man on the day as was anticipated, he found it hard to get into the game as the Poppies lost to Stafford in front of a then-record 35,000 crowd.

In the 1980`s I saw some terrific players donning the red shirt, including Steve Daley, who cost Manchester City a then-record £1,437,500 fee from Wolves in 1979.

Most thought he`d just turn up and take his money, but he was, in fact, excellent for a couple of seasons and worked and played really well in a basically struggling side at the time.

Another star midfielder from the same era also had a short but influential spell with Kettering in the late 80s – former Aston Villa European Cup winning captain Dennis Mortimer.

Dennis Mortimer

I loved watching those two in particular because, although they had obviously slowed down, their skill was obvious, but was sometimes lost on their team-mates who often failed to anticipate a shrewd pass here or a flick there.

I always liked watching defenders up close and two of my favourites were former Charlton Athletic stalwart Bob Curtis and ex-Notts County Scotsman Arthur Mann.

It was clear to see why Curtis made over 350 appearances for Charlton as he was a classic full-back who could also slip into the centre of the back four.

Bob Curtis

So could Arthur Mann, who sadly died aged just 51 in 1999.

A former Hearts and Manchester City player, Arthur went on to play over 250 times for Notts County and was one of the few successful signings during the brief spell of Scottish international Don Masson as player-manager at Rockingham Road.

Masson made the mistake of underestimating the standard of the then still fairly new Alliance Premier League (National League as it is now).

He signed several old Notts County team-mates such as Les Bradd, David Needham, who went on to succeed him as manager, Mark Goodwin, Trevor Christie etc., who were all getting on a bit and they suffered some poor results.

But Mann was one of the few successes and went on to have spells as manager at the likes of Boston United.

However, I missed watching Kettering regularly during the time of one of the biggest names in its history – Irishman Derek Dougan – as I was playing on Saturdays.

The always controversial former Wolves and Northern Ireland star came in with fancy ideas and some were probably ahead of their time – such as the first ever shirt sponsorship deal with Kettering Tyres.

Derek Dougan

He played only occasionally but one game I do remember him playing was a midweek FA Cup replay against Oxford United at Rockingham Road when he managed to wind-up the U`s defence brilliantly!

Considering they are a non-League club, Kettering Town have had a lot of star names playing for them over the years – many more than I have mentioned.

I cannot recall another current non-League side that can boast as many?

But I`m sure someone will correct me if I`m wrong!

Sadly, with the money players earn as professionals these days, the number of former star men in non-League football these days has become fewer and fewer.

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About Author

Former Swansea City and Kettering Town defender who has been managing the likes of Kettering Town u18s, Rothwell Town, Desborough Town and Wellingborough Town for 33 years as well as being technical director at AFC Rushden & Diamonds. Began in non-League journalism as editor of Team Talk magazine back in the early 1990s and then as editor of Non-League Daily, joining Pitchero to set up Pitchero Non-League in January 2011. Also works for the National League.

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