A Ricky Marheineke masterplan almost halted the Southern League Premier Division Central title favourites in their tracks again last Saturday.
But rather than St Ives Town being able to toast a positive result as reward after an astute tactical performance against table-topping Kettering Town, they were instead left venting their fury at a series of refereeing controversies in the wake of a 2-1 defeat.
Marheineke was angered by a penalty given against his side, a foul that went unpunished in the build-up to the second goal scored by the visitors and a ‘stonewall’ late spot-kick that wasn’t awarded when Saints man Ben Baker was crunched in the box during an eventful afternoon at Westwood Road.
Saints produced arguably the finest result of the season at this level when shocking Kettering 3-0 on their own turf back in December and Marheineke adopted a somewhat unusual but effective system for the return clash.
He made a raft of personnel changes and adopted what basically amounted to a 5-5-0 formation without the presence of a recognised striker - attempting to gain success by suffocation in other words!
“We know we can’t go toe-to-toe with top teams at this level so we have to try to be clever with our tactics,” said Marheineke.
“We felt our best way of getting something from this game was by trying to stop Kettering from playing well and but for the officials it could well have worked.”
Speedy widemen Ben Seymour-Shove and Ben Baker were the chief attacking threats on the break as Saints set out to soak up the inevitable pressure from the visitors.
And it was in one such situation that they took the lead as Seymour-Shove burst into the box after a misjudgement by Dion Kelly-Evans only to be brought down by a Declan Towers lunge. Captain Robbie Parker coolly converted from the spot as Saints’ second attack of note provided an opening goal.
Kettering were disappointing in the opening half when failing to find a way through the packed Saints defensive corps.
Towers screamed for a penalty when heading wide at a corner and Aaron O’Connor blazed wide after finding a path through the home backline, but it was a half of surprisingly few alarms for Saints as goalkeeper Martin Conway’s only real contribution was tipping over a Marcus Kelly free-kick.
However, Poppies boss Marcus Law’s decision to introduce giant striker Adam Cunnington – a former National League leading scorer and promotion-winner - at the break proved to be a decisive one.
He provided a focal point for the visiting attack and his presence enabled them to set up almost permanent residency inside Saints territory which resulted in a 55th minute equaliser for O’Connor.
It should have been swiftly followed by a second goal but Saints keeper Martin Conway kept out a Dan Holman penalty awarded on the say-so of an assistant referee after Tom Wood was adjudged to have pulled back Cunnington.
But the reprieve proved to be short-lived as the classy Rhys Hoenes danced into the box and unleashed a rip-roaring shot to put Kettering ahead, although Marheineke felt his side should have received a free-kick for an aerial challenge from Cunnington seconds earlier.
Falling behind prompted Saints to adopt a more attacking approach for the final quarter, but it was only in the dying moments that they were able to apply any concerted pressure.
And that should have been enough to earn reward as former Kettering man Ben Barker was clattered in the box, but referee Barry waved away the penalty appeals.
That decision – or lack of – made the official the focus of much post-match attention, but Marheineke and assistant boss Craig Adams can also be proud of the way their side performed against the champions elect for a second time.