KETTERING Town drew first blood against ten men Harrogate Town on Saturday afternoon with a 2-0 win at Wetherby Road in the FA Trophy.
Town were simply awful in the first half and after Mark Rawle gave Kettering a seventh minute lead, Town's Nathan Peat was shown a straight red card for a late tackle on the brink of half time.
Even with ten men, Town were massively better after the break and had several chances to equalise but Jean-Paul Marna hit them with a sucker punch and an 88th minute second.
Leaders Town and third placed Kettering are two of the chief contenders for the Blue Square North title and Town boss Neil Aspin admitted the FA Trophy game was a great chance to 'size Kettering up.'
However, while Kettering undoubtedly impressed in attack, Town were dreadful in the first half, "third best" commenting one supporter.
It was one of the most one sided first halves at Wetherby Road in recent memory and it was so bad that Aspin called for a double substitution after just 34 minutes.
Town lined up 4-3-3 with Danny Holland, Kirk Jackson and Lee Whittington up front but the formation was seeing Town outran in midfield and Aspin decided enough was enough after just one third of the match.
Whittington and Leigh Wood were sacrificed for Nathan James and Nathan Peat as Town switched to a 4-4-2 but while the move did improve Town's shape, it didn't improve their performance.
Indeed, sub' Peat lasted just 11 minutes before we has shown a straight red card for a challenge in the middle of the park.
The incident caused a 20 man melee with pushing and shoving and even after the affair had cooled down, Mark Hume was booked for dissent.
Though angry with Town's sloppy display, the home fans focused their attention on referee Richard Hewitt's whose whistle for half time was greeted by a chorus of boos.
It really was a bad 45 minutes for Town who had just one serious foray into Kettering's half when Darren Dunning's half volley went wide after Jackson's knock down.
Holland also saw a volley deflected for a corner on 19 minutes but other than that it was all Kettering who deservedly took the lead on seven minutes.
The Poppies had all the early possession and after just three minutes Gary Mills cut in from the right wing before curling a great effort just wide of the right post.
Town weren't so lucky four minutes later when Rawle latched on to Nicky Eadon's fine long ball and beat 'keeper Paul Musselwhite to it before coolly lobbing home, Denny Ingram ripping the net trying to clear the ball in vain.
Seven minutes later Rawle's bullet header was just wide from a Tommy Jaszczum corner and on 22 minutes Rawle stabbed home John Brady's cross only to be ruled offside.
More Kettering pressure saw Callum Lloyd lob over after Paul Musselwhite's cross after which Aspin rightly decided enough was enough and made the double substitution.
That improved matters slightly but Lloyd very nearly made it 2-0 when cutting in and curling just wide and both Rawle and Craig Westcarr were dangerously close to being one on one near half time.
Peat's straight red card then followed and Aspin probably spent half time demanding more passion, more commitment and just a damn sight better, albeit with Town ten men.
In fairness, he got it, and if Kettering have any sense, it is Town's second half performance they will take away, not the first.
Aspin used his final substitution bringing on Chris Ellerker and sacrificing the unlucky James and Town changed to a 3-4-2 with Dave Merris and Jamie Price out wide.
Driven on by the crowd, Town started brightly and a much improved Kirk Jackson very nearly picked out Danny Holland on 52 minutes.
Kettering hit back with two great chances on 57 minutes, Musselwhite brilliantly tipping over Jon Brady's effort and then palming over Rawle's header but again Town came back with merit considering their ten men.
On the hour mark, Jamie Price played in Holland who was just offside and Town's best chance yet came on 65 minutes when Price volleyed just over from the edge of the box.
Horrendous horizontal rain in Town's faces made their task even harder but still they pushed on and so nearly equalised on 77 minutes.
Holland beautifully played in Merris who had just the 'keeper to beat but 'keeper Lee Harper got just enough to his low shot to turn it agonisingly wide, the far side of the ground convinced it was heading in.
With their numerical advantage, Kettering of course threatened at the other end and both Chris Ellerker and Denny Ingram had to pull of brilliant tackles to stop a Kettering second on the counter.
However, ultimately Kettering got that second with just two minutes to go when the excellent Rawle nodded down a corner to sub' Jean-Paul Marina who waited for the bounce before heading home.
That was that - Kettering through to the FA Trophy First Round and first blood to them but, if forgiving the dreadful first half performance, Town can take plenty of positives ahead of the league games with Kettering in the New Year.
Kettering may well underestimate Town next time who were without two key attacking players on Saturday in injured winger Chris Bettney and cup tied striker Town Hackworth.
The gate will also be significantly better than the poor and at times rather flat 507 next time.
The two sides next meet at Rockingham Road on Saturday, January 5 before the reverse fixture at Wetherby Road on Saturday, February 16.
Town are back in action on Wednesday at Silsden in the County Cup but the next game of note is next Saturday's hosting of mid-table Redditch in Blue Square North.
Don't miss this Friday's Harrogate Advertiser for a full preview of the game.