Fleetwood Town 3, Kettering Town 0. A cool header and two hotshots helped Fleetwood cruise to the top of the Blue Square Premier on a freezing night at Highbury.
Kettering – cash-strapped, their entire squad up for sale, players unpaid and only able to name two young substitutes, were on paper no match for Town.
But Fleetwood have been here before. Remember Newport County?
That defeat has certainly left a mark on the Town faithful and there was plenty of talk ahead of kick-off of the Poppies being another potential banana skin.
What was needed was a professional performance and Micky Mellon’s men did not disappoint.
Leading scorer Jamie Vardy watched from the bench, Magno Viera making his first start since Town’s 4-2 victory at Stockport in September.
There was a return after suspension for Jamie McGuire, taking the captain’s armband in the absence of Steve McNulty, in whose place loan star Kieran Charnock made his Highbury debut.
And the Morecambe man proved his manager’s choice the right one, opening the scoring for Town after 23 minutes.
Jamie Milligan, who a minute before had rattled the bar from a set-piece, whipped in a free-kick, the defender stooping at the back post to head home his first in Fleetwood colours.
The goal helped settle Fleetwood, who had struggled to cope with the tricky conditions early in the game – handing the visitors far too much possession.
In truth, there had been little to separate the two sides, both carving out a series of half-chances.
Josh Dawkin and Kieran Hughes-Mason both looked to trouble Town, showing pace and skill, particularly on the break, while Peter Till and Sean Clancy both looked to terrorise the visitors down the flanks – Clancy handed a great early opportunity to score but scuffing his shot.
A goal to the good, Fleetwood took command and soon doubled their advantage.
Till combined with Glenn Wilson down the right, the full-back swinging in a cross which was knocked down by McGuire for Andy Mangan who couldn’t miss and duly grabbed his eighth of the season.
Two up and Fleetwood were cruising – they opened up Kettering at will, particularly down the left flank, but were unable to extend their advantage ahead of the break.
Mangan looked certain to score when he went one on one with Aldi Haxia in the Kettering goal but wanted too much time on the ball, allowing defenders a chance to get back and cover his run.
The second half brought more good chances for Fleetwood.
Clancy headed over from substitute Ryan Crowther’s excellent cross and Vieira fired across the face of goal, having shown great strength to shrug off his marker and turn in the box.
But despite the pressure, Fleetwood would have to wait 20 minutes before finding the net again.
Another free-kick was only half-cleared by the Kettering defence, the ball falling neatly for Clancy, who found space on the edge of the penalty area – looping his shot into the visitors’ goal.
A rout was certainly on the cards but Kettering showed great determination to prevent Town closing the goal difference gap on their promotion rivals Wrexham. Fortune and woodwork combined to keep Town pegged at three, despite some glorious opportunities.
Gareth Seddon, who replaced Mangan with 15 minutes to play, could have grabbed a fourth – first blasting his shot wide following a clever move from Vieira and then failing to make contact with what should have been a free header from McGuire’s centre.
Scott Davies, a spectator for almost 90 minutes, was called into action late on to protect Fleetwood’s clean sheet, standing firm to deny Dawkin after the striker had run nearly the entire length of the pitch.
Nathan Pond was also called on to make some big tackles as Kettering looked to take advantage of Fleetwood committing men forward.
Seddon should have made it four on the stroke of 90 minutes – played onside by a sloppy Kettering header, he could only rattle the post.
Banana skin avoided, Town top the table by a clear three points ... at least until this evening when Wrexham meet Darlington.
There might be the small matter of the FA Cup to deal with first, but next up in the league for Town are Newport County – a chance to banish those October demons and cement their reputation as real title contenders.
Fleetwood: Davies, Pond, Charnock, Wilson, Goodall, Clancy, Milligan, Till (Crowther 52), McGuire, Mangan (Seddon 73), Vieira; not used: St Louis Hamilton, Beeley, Vardy
Kettering: Haxhia, Davis, Roper (Dance 64), Ifil, Noubissie, Deeney (Pryor 88), Swaibu, Bridges, O’Leary, Hughes-Mason, Dawkin; Ref: Evans, Attendance 1,221