The build up to the start of the 2008/2009 season was one much riddled with pessimism and a distinct lack of hope that the Harriers would be able to pull off anything this season. This feeling wasn't without base with only a few players being contracted at the start of the season and the manager Mark Yates opting to try and play the triallist raffle and hope he could pick out a few diamonds that had slipped under other clubs radars.
One fan summed it up in saying:
'We've got a decent spine but look weak down the flanks and any (inevitable) injury crisis or fire sale to that spine will result in a major problem for us.'
One other reason that people thought the club might find it hard in attracting players was due to the economic recession which hit everyone in the country and football clubs such as the Harriers weren't an exception to the rule, with it being well known that to find finances to fund the club over the season would be a hard task. As the friendlies came and went the results were okay, a victory over Hereford and a well earned draw against Championship side Plymouth Argyle being the pick of the games.
Prior to the league's big kickoff on August 9th, against Lewes, Mark Yates decided to sign Martin Brittain a winger formerly from Newcastle who was described by one Harriers fan as 'who looked useful out wide but couldn't take a corner to save his life'.
Also coming in were David McDermott, a midfield flair player from Walsall, Sam Foley from Cheltenham Town, Martin Riley, a young ex-Wolves centre back, was given a shorter contract to try and prove his worth. Michael Bowler was also signed despite him not proving as useful as former Port Vale full back Keith Lowe, who expressed his desire to play in the Football league and went on to have a trial for Luton Town. Lee Baker joined on loan from WBA for a month to try and solve the problem left back area that had been a particular worry for Harriers fans arguably since Scott Stamps left in 2004.
Harriers kicked off their start to the season against newly promoted Lewes who had been victorious in the Conference South the season before. Simon Russell and Dean Bennett both made the starting line up after not being given deals but instead deciding on having week to week contracts. The Harriers fans were wary of the opposition as the memory of St Albans only two seasons previously was still fresh in the memory.
Despite countless chances being squandered from the Harriers they struck first and it was Justin Richards who scored the goal to put us one ahead after 22 minutes. However only twenty minutes later the joy turned to bemusement as Dean Bennett tried to clear a cross and instead it went straight past the Harriers goalkeeper into the back of the goal. After that Lewes weren't going to let it slip and they walked away with a vital point from the first day.
After that Harriers faced two away games in the space of a few days with tough opposition in the form of Cambridge United and newly relegated Mansfield Town. Harriers lost both of those games with the new signings Brittain and McDermott staying firmly on the bench much to the confusion of the fans. The Mansfield game in particular proved to be disastrous for the young Harriers full back Michael Bowler who gave away a penalty and was blamed by some sections of the support for the loss.
Between then and the next game as Yates promised there were changes to both the starting lineup and the playing staff. Simon Russell left the Harriers to join York and Keith Lowe joined after failing to secure a contract at Luton. The next home game Harriers trashed Altrincham with four goals flying in via the Harriers boots. Brittain and McDermott both started and some saw this as the reason for the victory.
After this game Harriers went on a decent run, drawing against Burton Albion with Luke Jones scoring a goal via a corner from a certain Martin Brittain. How wrong first impressions can be Phil eh? ;) Harriers then went on to beat Rushden with goals from Russ Penn and then Torquay United also succumbed to the Harriers at home with Matthew Barnes-Homer scoring the goal to give Harriers the win.
After a minor blip against Harriers away bogey side Grays we picked up yet another home victory against Oxford and then went on to beat Weymouth, York City and Eastbourne with Andy Ferrell scoring a screamer against 'Boro to give Harriers the victory.
By the end of the month the Harriers were flying high in second place and although it was early on in the season optimism was soon building around Aggborough. The day before the Eastbourne game Neil Mackenzie rejoined the club from Notts County and Paul Bignot left to join Newport Country.
After this Harriers went on to deservedly lose their first home game of the season to Barrow and then drew away at Northwich on a Tuesday night with Brian Smikle getting his fourth goal of the campaign to earn Harriers a point.
Next up at Aggborough were the holders of the FA Trophy, Ebbsfleet United. Before the game the Harriers had signed the former Aston Villa striker Stefan Moore on a short term deal and he proved to be instrumental for the victory against Ebbsfleet. Harriers were 1-0 down after the break thanks to Ricky Shakes who sprinted past the static Harriers defence before scoring. Midway through the second half Mark Yates made a tactical change bringing on Moore for the largely ineffective Darryl Knights. Immediately Moore controlled the ball and laid off to Neil Mackenzie who drove the ball straight past the 'Fleet keeper Cronin into the right hand corner of the goal.
Five minutes later Moore was there again to roll the ball across goal for Brian Smikle to put the ball into the roof of the net. To cap off the result Barnes-Homer scored a 74th minute goal to give Harriers a 3-1 victory and Moore had a hand in all of them.
The following week the Harriers travelled and lost to Kettering Town.
The next game after that was a chance for Kidderminster Harriers to win some money against Kings Lynn who were a division below Harriers. Barnes-Homer, Penn, Brittain, Smikle and Richards all scored to give Harriers a victory and some money to put in the bank and pay off the bills.
An unfortunate casualty from this game was Luke Jones who was correctly sent off for manhandling an attacker when he was clean through on goal. This red card was the springboard for another Harriers player to boost his Harriers playing career - Martin Riley came in for the next game to fill the berth vacated by Jones and performed magnificently as Harriers rolled out 2-0 winners against Grays Athletic.
Harriers then crashed out of the Setanta Shield to Burton Albion in a 3-2 loss then they managed to pick themselves up to win 1-0 against Cambridge United and Wayne Hatswell after the former Harriers defender poleaxed Richards for a penalty. Justin then picked himself up and drove the ball home to add another goal to the tally and prove his critics wrong about his ability.
In the following game he scored in a victory over Rushden, again from a penalty, then Brian Smikle scored a good goal to topple Wrexham at Aggborough. At this stage of the season the Harriers were fourth and keeping up the pace and not even a 1-0 loss at Oxford could knock them off that perch.
They then went on to record victories over Curzon, Salisbury, Mansfield and Burscough Utd.
The Curzon victory proved to be deeply important for the Harriers as they were then entered into the draw for the third round of the FA cup. Dreams were of Manchester United at home or Arsenal away but we had to make do with Coventry City at the Ricoh Stadium, a local yet winnable game which was a good draw from some Harriers fans point of view.
The last game before Christmas saw Harriers lose 2-0 to a Crawley side that nearly took apart Harriers, yet they still remained in fourth place. To some fans it was as if we were destined to be there after remaining in and around that place for well over a month.
Harriers then went and drew 1-1 at home to Forest Green Rovers on Boxing Day with Martin Riley scoring his first ever Harriers goal to hand us the draw. Riley struck again a few days later against Torquay in a game that the Harriers goal was peppered with shots but Adam Bartlett, the England C team first choice goalkeeper, saved with ease and they even had a penalty saved by Barts.
In the New Year Russ Penn signed a new deal to keep him at the club beyond the summer. This to some wasn't a good move at all as, since Peterborough and Barry Fry had become disinterested in him, his form had gone downhill and a large majority of the support were questioning why he was still in the first team.
The first game after the New Year was Coventry where the Harriers took 4000 fans to the Ricoh to see if the Harriers could be giantkillers like they had been before. Mark Yates seemed to have some ideas about going for a draw by starting with a 4-5-1 formation and dropping Brian Smikle to the bench. He had been superb in the Harriers run in the playoff places.
Despite the Harriers holding out until half time they couldn't last any longer and in the 52nd minute Leon Mackenzie, who had been ripping apart Lee Baker the young Harriers full back, scored from a corner with a cool finish to give Coventry the lead. Leon Best later came on to double the lead and despite Penn having the best game for a while the Harriers didn't show any real drive to win and went home empty handed.
After this we went on a poor league run, losing to both Barrow and Weymouth. The Barrow game also saw Russ Penn get injured with a knee problem. Penn hadn't been performing too well and one fan thought that the injury might just make him come back stronger.
In the next game, just as things appeared to seem to be picking up against Histon where they ran out 2-0 winners, York City dumped them out of the FA Trophy 14-13 on Penalties. Harriers then went on to lose the next two games.
Due to the countrywide snow transfer deadline day had been delayed until the second of February was but we saw no arrival of the huge players who had been rumoured to joining like Robbie Fowler or Dwight Yorke but instead we Michael Carr joined the club on a free. Paul Bignot got released later in the month and we saw Chris McPhee, a FA Trophy winner and goalscorer with Ebbsfleet the previous season, join the Harriers on a free transfer after Weymouth's financial problems got the better of them and they had to let their players go.
That day, February 26th 2009, proved to be the day that re-lit the embers of the Harriers playoff dream with McPhee coming in on his debut and performing brilliantly to start in midfield and then dropping into defence when another signing Craig Armstrong got unfairly and harshly sent off for a sliding challenge.
Salisbury then earned a goalless draw against the Harriers leaving us in tenth place. Harriers then went on to win the next two games against Crawley and Lewes 2-0 and 1-0 respectively. This pushed us back up into sixth and the fans started to look at the playoff places once again. Was it possible? the question was being asked.
The next home game was against Woking who were scrapping at the bottom of the table for survival and after Harriers had ninety minutes with them they hadn't a clue what had hit them. The superb Riley scored, Richards scored what could be the best goal of the season seen at Aggborough and McPhee finally got his deserved goal for Harriers with a superb header beating the Woking keeper all ends up.
Harriers then travelled to fellow playoff hopefuls Wrexham. We were under pressure all game with shots coming in from all angles at Adam Bartlett but he just kept on saving them! Then in the 94th minute the ball was firmly headed into the back of the net by Chris McPhee to give Harriers a huge victory and send fans into raptures.
The Harriers then gained a scoreless draw with York away and beat Woking again in the return games but this time more comprehensively, 5-1 it finished to the Harriers with Barnes-Homer scoring two and the goal tally's between MBH and Richards getting ever closer.
At this stage every game was billed as a 'must win game' and the first of these was Stevenage Borough at home.
Harriers occupied fifth spot and they knew a win at home to Stevenage would give them a huge chance of getting into the playoffs. We fell behind very early due to poor defending for Lee Boylan to sneak a header in and a huge goalkeeping blunder from Bartlett allowed Mitchell Cole to score from a rebound after Bartlett held onto the ball for too long. Instead of clearing it into the stand he booted it straight to a Stevenage player.
At this point the fans were doubting their chances, but Barnes-Homer gave the Harriers hope as he scored in the 44th minute to send the teams in at 1-2 at half time. Presumably Mark Yates had lifted the players spirits at half time because we came out of the blocks and Martin Brittain - who wasn't starting as many games as the fans would have liked him to - put a delightful ball in for Penn to run, dive and head the ball into the back of the net for one of the finest goals seen at Aggborough this season.
Aggborough erupted as the ball flew past the Stevenage keeper and after that goal nobody was going to stop the mighty Reds as Baker put a ball over the back four that landed perfectly for Richards to hit home. After going 2-0 down it was unbelievable to go 3-2 up. I'm sure the Stevenage fans can sympathise.
After that McPhee put a ball in for Martin Brittain to drive both the ball and the point - that he should have started - home.
Off the back of this superb game the Harriers travelled to Forest Green, and my first ever away game. From the first twenty minutes Harriers were all over Forest Green and it was deserved when Brittain scored to give Harriers the lead. Then Forest Green got a counter attack going with Andy Mangan, who had earlier been publically investigated by the FA for betting, put the ball over Bartlett to a very obviously offside Conal Platt who scored, but of course the linesman like most in this league had learnt the offside rule from his hairdresser and not at refereeing school so the goal stood.
Until the end of the half it was all Harriers until Lee Ayres flew straight into Justin Richards from about five yards behind him. Instead of Justin staying down and letting Ayres get the red card he fully deserved he got up and put his head towards Ayres. Mr Coote, the referee, convieniently forgot about the two footed lunge as Richards got sent off and Ayres only got booked. Another sad thing was is that Ayres is an ex-Harrier and to see that from him was disgraceful.
The end of the first half saw Mark Yates storm onto the pitch to mis-guidedly dish out abuse to both the referee and Ayres for their part in the Richards sending off.
The second half came and they were going straight for the Harriers' jugular and had all the possession with Harriers finding it hard to get it out of their own half never mind into the final third. The referee gave more nonsensical decisions and Yates was correct in expressing his feelings about them, unfortunately as Yates wasn't managing FGR he had to be sent to the stands for the rest of the game.
You would've thought the referee, Coote, would have been finished by then? No of course not, Mangan sprinted down the left flank towards Martin Riley and has he went to go past Riley he cut across him, kicked Riley and dived like it was the Olympics. Now Riley had already been booked for a challenge only a few minutes earlier, surely it would be a yellow for Mangan for diving? No of course not, Mangan walked off smirking as Riley got sent off for a 'foul' that barely ever occurred.
This sent the Harriers fans (me included) into angry hysterics with abuse being hurled at the referee and it wasn't without any due reason either. Mangan went on to score later on and we thought it was all over, but it wasn't. Neil Howarth who was standing in for Yates as he was in the stands brought Stefan Moore on for Lee Baker, and Moore controlled a superb pass on the chest, turned and bent the ball around the goalkeeper from about 25 yards out. The Harriers fans went into crazy celebrations and the bench emptied to celebrate. It seemed even a dodgy referee couldn't stop us now as the game finished 2-2 and the referee came under a barrage of abuse as he left the field, and it was his own fault.
Further draws against Altrincham (where a dubious last minute penalty gave the home side a point) and Ebbsfleet prolonged us securing our position inside the playoffs and we then faced Burton Albion, who needed a point to secure promotion, at home.
It was a quiet first half for Harriers with little going our way and when Lee Morris headed the ball over the line to give Burton the lead I for one started to doubt our credentials as playoff candidates due to the lack of fight we had shown. The second half brought a wind of chance with Barnes-Homer and Brian Smikle getting the goals to send Aggborough once again, like against Stevenage, into pandemonium and gave us the victory. It also saw 2,200 Harriers fans at Aggborough which is the first time in a long time we've had that sort of number of KHFC fans at Harriers.
We then faced Histon away and showed a distinct lack of fight as we drew 1-1 with a superb bending drive from Keith Lowe. Then Harriers faced the next must win game against Stevenage away at Broadhall Way. Stevenage completely overpowered Harriers as they walked away 3-1 winners and doubts were starting to spring up in people's minds. It was now all down to the game on the final day against Kettering and we had to hope results would go our way, and it was possible.
Torquay had to play a Burton side who needed to get a result to seal promotion and Stevenage travelled to Mansfield who had a decent home record. The whole week was spent waiting in anticipation for the game, would we win? will we get in to the playoffs?
Before you knew it, it was Sunday 26th April, the day where dreams of League football would either be realised or crushed. There was a buzz around the ground pre-game, with more Harriers fans at the ground than we saw against Burton and an expectation that the Harriers need to win or fail and the unthinkable would happen - they would miss the playoffs.
The Harriers were looking over their shoulder at an ever impressive Oxford Utd side who had strung a superb run together and were now touching distance from the Harriers. David McDermott was recalled to the side and Martin Brittain was benched along with Penn who had been superb since his return and the ever ineffective Knights came back to the squad.
Harriers started well forcing superb and suprising saves from the rather large Kettering goalkeeper Lee Harper. Shots continued to fly at the goal with no real reply from Kettering and still they would not go in. Justin Richards squandered chances, as did some of the other Harriers players, and the tension was unbearable.
News was spreading around the ground that Torquay were losing to Burton and chants broke out to try and encourage the Harriers to push that little bit harder to get a winner. Half time came and passed and there was still nothing separating the two sides. Guy Branston made a two footed challenge that normally would equal a straight red but didn't on this occasion.
Nothing seemed to be going the Harriers' way and when Richards squandered a chance and the news filtered through that results were turning against us it seemed it wasn't to be our day. Kettering's Ben Wright then scored a good header on the 90th minute to put our playoff dreams to bed and as the final whistle blew the players were distraught. Dean Bennett especially as he was everywhere in the game and he deserved to be on the winning side because he had been putting the same performances in week in week out to prove the people wrong who said he hadn't 'got it' anymore.
As 'You'll Never Walk Alone' played and pulled at the fans heartstrings the players applauded the fans and walked off down the tunnel, some it seems will have done so for the last time.
This season had been one of little promise at the start but surprise when things picked up. Every player in the squad from Bartlett to Ferrell have all had a part to play. Players have improved, Barnes-Homer is now one of the best strikers in the league, Riley the same for defence.
Other squad members have emerged to be superb with Brittain supplying assist after assist all season, Bennett who I personally thought was poor in the first half of the season, displaced Ferrell and has not looked back. Credit has to also go to Chris McPhee who was the catalyst for the team to kick on and improve to try and aim for the playoffs.
It has been a season of a lot of success and joy, the FA Cup run, the games against Stevenage and Burton will live long in the Harriers memory and this will go down as the best league season since relegation. The fans are another thing to improve, the atmosphere being the best I've heard and been a part of in years.
Last night (30/4/09) the budget meeting was held to see who will be retained and who will have to go due to a perennial lack of money. The credit crisis will make the summer very hard and the fact that our squad have been superb wont help our plight in trying to keep them all. We can just hope that we can keep the top players and those we lose, replace adequately or even better.
It's going to be a long summer, but it wont be without events, that's for sure.