Aaron O’Connor’s late winner condemned Banbury United to a cruel final day defeat against Kettering Town.
The Poppies won Saturday’s Evo-Stik Southern League clash 2-1 to claim all three premier division points. O’Connor was gifted the winner after Manny Duku had cancelled out Ben Baker’s first half opener at the Banbury Plant Hire Community Stadium.
With the play-off dream over, manager Mike Ford rang the changes, rewarding those who had spent recent weeks on the bench. In came Jacob Blackstock, Sam Humphreys and Darius Browne while Duku retained his place in the starting line-up, having barely featured at Leamington.
Luke Carnell wore the skipper’s armband, in charge of arguably the youngest side Ford had fielded during his time at the club.
Kettering came out of the blocks quickly and Rene Howe fired wide after United failed to deal with an early cross from Baker. United recovered their composure and Zac McEachran shot wide from the edge of the box.
But the Poppies broke the deadlock in the 12th minute when James Brighton’s corner was only partially cleared as far as Baker who took a touch before volleying past Jack Harding from 15 yards.
United had an immediate opportunity to equalise when Liam Bateman lost possession out wide, keeper Paul White was left stranded but Duku hesitated, didn’t shoot and the chance was gone. Moments later Duku failed to convert Brown’s inswinging corner at the far post after the ball came through a crowd of players.
Humphreys cut in and curled a shot wide as United tried to get back into the contest. But they found little joy against a Kettering back line well marshalled by the experienced Brett Solkhon with his former Brackley Town team-mate Gary Mulligan anchoring the midfield.
Town went close when Nathan Hicks released O’Connor, his attempted lob beat Harding and cleared the bar. But it took a smart save from White to keep out McEachran’s drive after Browne’s quick corner caught out the visitors.
O’Connor bustled his way into the box until Tom Bradbury halted his progress as the experienced striker looked to get his shot away. Baker continued to pose problems on the flank but it was a cross from James Hall which opened up United again and O’Connor glanced a header wide when he should have scored.
Harding almost gifted the visitors a second goal just before the break when he completely miskicked as he was being closed down by Brighton. But the keeper managed to recover in time and gather the ball before the Kettering wing back could capitalise.
Browne was United’s most creative player in the first half but after the restart McEachran created an opening for Humphreys who blasted the ball wide from the edge of the box.
Neat inter-play between McEachran and Browne came to nothing as United struggled to create a clear opening. But the introduction of substitute Tom Winters had an immediate impact.
Winters fired a free-kick over the bar before the equaliser arrived in the 71st minute. Winters surged into the box before he was sent flying by Dominic Langdon and Duku calmly sent White the wrong way from the ensuing spot-kick.
Boosted by the equaliser, United went for the winner as Kettering began to tire and the visitors failed to offer much of a threat in the final third. Ford threw on Conor McDonagh and Ricky Johnson to try and get the three points but Kettering won it in the 83rd minute when Bradbury’s back pass fell short and O’Connor nipped in to round the United keeper and roll the ball into an empty net.
It was a forgettable way to end what has been an unforgettable season for the Puritans.