Me Owd Duck on Nene Park

by , October 12, 2012

Now then.

On the 8th of August, 2003, I went on a journey. I had never been to a pre-season friendly before and certainly not an away one. The last game of the 2002/03 season had seen Forest robbed of a play-off final place by Sheffield United and even by August it still felt raw. It did not help that at the time I had fallen out with my boss and he had employed a big fat thug as my new line manager with a brief to make my life hell. The thug was a Sheffield fan.

Can you imagine anyone in Nottingham saying they supported Forest and County? Well the thug reckoned he supported both Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United. In his office he had signed match balls from both sides. After we lost the play-off game he was mercilessly mocking me for a whole month.

So in the summer holidays I went on a journey from Norfolk to Rushden to watch Forest play in a pre-season friendly. Rushden and Diamonds were formed in 1992 by a merger of Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds. The move was the idea of Max Griggs, the owner of the Doc Martens footwear factory in Irthlingborough. Doc Martens were, and still are, iconic boots.

The club’s first seasons were remarkable for the success the team enjoyed, finishing third in the Southern League Midland Division in their opening season. The following year they won the division, winning promotion to the Southern League Premier Division, and two years later the Diamonds were again promoted as champions. The team had gained promotion to the Football Conference after just four years in existence.

After their rise to the top tier of non-league football, the club then spent five seasons attempting to reach the Football League, finishing 12th in the 1996–97 season, and then fourth, fourth and second in the Football Conference before they finally won promotion to the Football League as champions in 2001.

In their first season in the league, the Diamonds reached the Division Three Play-Off Final. After overcoming Rochdale 4-3 on aggregate over the two-legged Semi-Final, the club lost to Cheltenham Town 3-1 in the final at the Millennium Stadium. In 2003, they won the division outright, pipping Hartlepool United to the Division Three championship on the last day of the season – their third promotion and league title in eight seasons.

I had watched this rise on Anglia TV as I lived in Norfolk. Anglia Today had done a special feature on Nene Park and the work Griggs had done there to make the club a future Premiership outfit. They had shown the club members bar and said the food was outstanding like everything else about Nene Park. Griggs had spent £30 million on building Nene Park up to a ground capacity of 6,500. I had begun to believe that a footballing miracle in Northamptonshire was taking place before me.

On the day of the friendly I left ridiculously early in the morning, feeling really excited. Under Paul Hart, Forest had begun to resemble a decent team again. Now they were meeting this new little club that had great things ahead of it for the first time. I imagined Forest v Rushden in the Premiership around about 2006. Kick-off was at 3. I arrived at the ground at 12. I wanted to experience this great new stadium Nene Park and see what Griggs had built. I wanted to try the excellent food I had heard about on Anglia News. The song going through my head all day was ‘Shine on you Crazy Diamonds.’

The first thing I liked was that I was able to park inside the ground for free as I was so early, too early. I bought my ticket in the home end then went into the club shop. Rushden played in white, all my football shirts had previously been red. Their badge was a shield divided into four quarters with red, blue, lion rampant and football sections. I liked the shirt and I especially liked the badge..

Nene Park, pictured in 2010On further exploration of the ground I discovered the fabled members bar and restaurant. The germ of an idea was planted. Soon in my new Rushden shirt I had managed to get myself signed in by a ‘fellow’ Rushden fan to the members bar. I ordered my gourmet meal – Pork chop and mashed potato and soon discovered that I was sitting next to the wife of one of the Rushden players. The pork chop was dry and the meal was poor but I did not let that dampen my enthusiasm, especially when I went outside and saw the Forest coach arrive. The players all disembarked already in kit as if the dressing rooms at Nene Park were unfit for Division One consumption. Terry the kitman wheeled a trolley off the coach containing all their tea and sandwiches. Paul Hart’s team left nothing to chance.

I decided to walk through the town before kick off. The Forest fans had arrived and I walked right though them in my Rushden shirt. I can remember seeing a lad I had known since I was about five. I couldn’t say hello to him as I was in ‘foreign’ colours. He saw me and just looked confused.

I took my place in the North Stand and looked over at the Forest fans in the Airwair stand. Doc Martens had Airwair soles. I seemed to be the only ‘home’ fan in colours. The rest were mostly old men. As the Forest team ran on to the pitch the long haired sixties throwback next to me said: ‘Nottingham Forest? More like the Notting Hill bloody carnival. They are all black buggers.’

That was the moment I stopped liking Rushden and Diamonds.

A Forest team of Ward, Louis Jean, Oyen, Walker, Cash, Bopp, Reid, Jess, Johnson and Stewart with Harewood, Gunnarson and Doig as second half substitutes proceeded to humiliate the Diamonds 6-1. Rushden’s goal was scored by the player whose wife I had sat next to at lunch. He was a trialist called Marcus O who went on to be a lower league journeyman striker. I am fairly sure that Forest never had more than four black players on the pitch at any one time. It made the sixties throwback’s comment seem even more old fashioned, racist and ridiculous. Particularly as David Johnson, who scored four of our goals, was black, as was Marcus O, who scored theirs. Despite scoring for them, they let him go after that game. He joined a rival team and had a really good season, scoring against Rushden twice.

You could hear the players on the pitch calling to each other. They called Brian Cash ‘Pat’ after the tennis player. I never saw him play for Forest again but he played well and scored. He made seven substitute appearances for the club in games subsequent to this and then was loaned out before returning to Irish football. He last played for Galway in 2011.

When I got back to Norfolk I threw the Rushden shirt in a drawer and never wore it again.

It turned out that we met Rushden when they had reached the highest level they ever achieved, in the old Division Two (now League One) in 2003/04. They were relegated that season and soon returned to the Conference. We loaned out our goalkeeper Dale Roberts to them.

Roberts had signed for Forest in 2005. He had successful loan spells at Eastwood and Alfreton Town. He joined Rushden on loan in 2008. He made 19 first team appearances for the club, including the Conference League Cup Final. He rejoined Rushden for a second loan spell in October 2008 as cover for Alan Marriott, currently goalkeeper at Mansfield Town, who was out with an injury. Roberts signed permanently at Nene Park on January 2, 2009. He was named Rushden’s player of the season in 2008/09.

Roberts’ performances for Rushden & Diamonds during the 2008/09 season earned him international recognition. He made his debut for the England C team. He was a Nene Park hero. During the 2009/10 season, Roberts played in all four England C games and was voted the England C player of the year.

Roberts was engaged to Lindsey Cowan, but the pair split in May 2010 after revelations she had been having an affair with Roberts’ team mate Paul Terry. Later in the year, Roberts and Cowan got back together and were still engaged at the time of Roberts’ death.

On December 14, 2010, just hours before he was due to play in an FA Trophy match against his former club Eastwood Town, it was announced that Roberts had died. Rushden & Diamonds chairman Gary Calder released the following statement:

It is with great sadness that this afternoon our England-C goalkeeper Dale Roberts passed away, our thoughts and prayers at this time go to his parents, family and friends.

The goalkeeper had hung himself after struggling to come to terms with an injury and national media speculation about his fiancé’s affair with Paul Terry.

Somehow Rushden never recovered from this. Griggs had withdrawn finances five years earlier and handed the club over to the supporters. When they were threatened with closure over debts of three quarters of a million pounds in 2011, the Rushden fans thought the Doc Martens man would step in again and help them. He did not. Rushden and Diamonds ceased to exist. Nene Park was closed and the keys handed over to the club’s biggest rival, Kettering Town.

It was like shutting down Forest and giving the City Ground to Derby County. The fans met together and started up again. They formed AFC Rushden who now play in the United Counties League. They play at the Dog and Duck, home of Wellingborough Town.

Kettering Town closed down the Airwair stand and the newly renamed Dale Roberts Terrace. Imraan Ladak had become involved in the club in 2005, with former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne taking over as manager. The appointment of Gascoigne, a big name with no managerial experience whatsoever and hardly the temperament for football management, was a clue as to what might happen next. Last week Kettering Town were unable to name a squad for Tuesday’s league game at Leamington, strengthening fears their 140-year history could come to an end.

The Poppies could only field 10 players in Saturday’s 7-0 Evostik Southern Premier defeat by Bashley and they must pay £3,000 as part of a company voluntary agreement to avoid a winding-up petition. On top of that, the club has no electricity at Nene Park.

Ladak had hoped to de-register a number of youth players in order to free up squad spaces for the Leamington game. Saturday’s visit of Bideford is also in doubt, with the club looking to hire a generator to power Nene Park, after electricity was turned off when the club could not afford to pay a deposit to the supplier.

Ladak, who is attempting to recoup £422,000 in a dispute with sponsors, has also assured supporters that the £3,000 required to meet the conditions of a company voluntary agreement and thus avoid a winding-up petition, will be paid.

The Poppies are currently bottom of the league following a 10-point deduction. They were founded in 1872 and at one time were one of the leading clubs in non-league football. The club’s former managers include Tommy Lawton of Notts County, Ron Atkinson, former Forest manager, and Alan Buckley, a former Forest player.

Nene Park, home of broken dreams and shattered illusions is likely to be sold in the hope of keeping Kettering alive.

I’ll see thee.