Diamonds secured a late and hugely important victory over fellow play-off hopefuls Leek on Saturday afternoon at the Dog & Duck.
The opening exchanges were largely even but very keenly contested as both sides seeked the opening goal. For the hosts Taylor Orosz saw an ambitious overhead kick go over the bar, and in response the visitors saw winger Rob Stevenson cut in from the left and see a deflected shot well held by Ben Heath. Leek then created the best chance of the match when a free-kick from the left found a rising Chris Budrys, and his floated header hit the crossbar and bounced out for the Diamonds to clear away. Stevenson again threatened moments later when he had a deflected shot from the edge of the box go millimetres wide, though the offside flag was up against a fellow Leek player, and it was the Diamonds who were to forge ahead in stoppage-time at the end of the half. A long-throw was cleared out to Shawn Richards who looped it up for Dolman to flick a lob into the area, and Nabil Shariff’s attempted overhead kick dropped perfectly for the lurking Ben Farrell to fire home from close range.
The hosts went so close to extending their lead in the early stages of the second half. Sam Brown took a quick throw to find Shariff, and he twisted adroitly before slamming a shot against the near post, and Farrell’s rebound was cleared off the line by a Leek defender. The visitors then stepped up their efforts in finding an equaliser, and after striker Tim Grice flicked a free header wide of the far post, they were able to level the scores. A corner from the left was flicked on and defender Darren Chadwick volleyed home via the underside of the bar. Moments later they should have extended their lead when substitute Sam Grimshaw broke clear, but his effort sailed over the bar. The pressure really was on the hosts as a couple of Leek efforts then drifted harmlessly wide of Heath’s goal, but they were able to break away and strike the winner in the 84th minute. Farrell sprinted over the halfway line before finding substitute Tom Lorraine on the left, he in turn powered into the area and pulled it back for Shariff to turn and slam a shot high into the roof of the net. The visitors naturally upped the pressure following the goal, but despite Callum Westwood almost putting through his own net and Grimshaw seeing an effort go inches over the top, Diamonds held on for three priceless points.
Manager Andy Peaks made three changes to the starting XI that had comfortably defeated Northwich in their last league meeting. Brad Harris started a two-game ban for accumulating 10 league yellow cards, which meant Sam Brown stepped inside to partner Liam Dolman, Ben Ford moved to left-back and Callum Westwood came in at right-back. Richard Bunting also returned to replace Dan Quigley, and Taylor Orosz replaced Ollie Brown-Hill, with a strong-looking bench being made up of Matt Finlay, Tom Lorraine, Lewis Leslie, Fazel Koriya and Ross Oulton.
The two teams entered onto the Dog & Duck pitch on a cloudy and overcast day, with a sense of excitement and intrigue being felt by many ahead of the all-important game. Diamonds laid in 4th place coming into the contest, and Leek were only a point behind the hosts in 7th. Rushden had lost their last two home league matches, and Leek their last two league games themselves, meaning both were looking to bounce back in this match with nothing less than a victory.
Referee Wayne Cartmel got the contest underway, and it was the green-shirted visitors who created the first opportunity. Chris Budrys was found on the right side, and he did well to cut inside before seeing a left-footed strike dribble harmlessly wide of the near post. Minutes later a deep cross in from the left then found Tim Grice and his attempted header back across goal was blocked by Brown, with shouts for a penalty waved away by the official.
Aside from this though, the early exchanges were very even, extremely well-contested but ultimately lacking in much goalmouth action. Leek were allowing Diamonds to comfortably maintain possession in their own defence and short of the halfway line, but as soon as the hosts stepped over that line then green-shirts were quick to hassle and pressurise their opposing numbers. Rushden were still passing the ball around relatively well though, and they themselves were defending strongly to limit Leek in terms of chances at goal.
The home side fashioned their first chance of the game in the 14th minute when a loose ball in the air dropped for a falling Orosz, and his ambitious overhead kick sailed over the crossbar and out for a goal-kick. They then won a couple for corners on the right side, and the second of these saw Ford whip a pinpoint delivery into the area that was begging for a white-shirt to meet it, but it flew across the six-yard box and was eventually cleared away by the visitors.
Despite it being a closely-fought match, with neither side giving their opposing numbers a real sight at goal and a final pass often breaking down attacking moves, both defences were being worked hard and sometimes stretched to cope with quick forays forward. Away winger Rob Stevenson embarked on a positive run in the 27th minute as he jinked in from the left flank, and his low shot took a deflection and forced Ben Heath into a smart low stop at his near post. The visitors then created the best chance of the match soon afterwards when a free-kick from the left wing was drilled to the back post for Budrys to rise and loop a header goalwards, but fortunately for the hosts his effort came back off the crossbar and the danger was cleared away upfield.
Two minutes later, following a couple of blocked shots, Stevenson found himself in space on the edge of the box and hit a shot towards goal. It took a big deflection, and that caused a change in the direction of the effort as it rolled past a stranded Heath but inches wide of the far post. The offside flag was raised however, as the deflection had been caused by a Leek man, and so the attempt would not have counted anyway.
Diamonds reacted to this small period of away pressure by moving down the other end and winning a couple of throw-ins that allowed Brown a chance to deliver. His first one from the right was punched clear by Ben Chapman in the Leek goal, but his second one proved much more effective. This time it came from the left, though it initially appeared to be harmless as an away defender headed the delivery away. It dropped for Shawn Richards on the edge of the box, and he in turn flicked it to Dolman who lobbed the ball back into the penalty area. Shariff had his back to goal as he attempted an overhead kick, and though he didn’t connect properly with the effort, it fell perfectly into the path of Ben Farrell who slammed the loose ball into the back of the net from close-range.
The goal came two minutes into added-on time at the end of the half, and no sooner had the referee blown for the resumption of the game, he was soon whistling again to signal the end of the half. Both sides had had moments of pressure and danger in the 45 minutes, and though the hosts held the advantage, it was a slender one and the game was still poised on a knife-edge.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 Leek Town
Both teams re-emerged from the changing rooms knowing that a critical 45 minutes lay ahead for both of their respective play-off hopes, and so the referee blew for the start of the half with everything still to play for. The visitors signalled their intentions from the get-go as they put pressure on the Diamonds back four with some possession and attacking moves forward, but it was the home side who created the opening chance of the half. In the 52nd minute Brown launched a quick throw from the left into the feet of Shariff who had his back to goal in the area, but he spun superbly to give himself some room to crash a left-footed shot off the near post. The ball cannoned out to Farrell just inside the box, and he did well to control his half-volley as the effort skipped off the surface and was hacked off the line by away defender Alex Morris.
Leek responded by quickly switching play up the other end, and they themselves went very close to grabbing a goal in the 55th minute. Stevenson advanced down the left wing before seeing a cross cleared, but he managed to get another chance to whip an inswinging ball into the area. Despite Diamonds appeals for offside the flag was not raised and Grice, who had oceans of space, flicked a header towards goal, only for the effort to flash inches wide of the far post. The early exchanges of the half were very end-to-end, and in maintaining this, the hosts were the next side to threaten a minute later. Shariff neatly played a pass into the path of the advancing Richards, and as he drove into the penalty area he was slightly clipped by an opposition challenge. He stayed on his feet initially, but did go down after losing his balance as the ball ran through to the goalkeeper. There were appeals for a penalty especially from the Diamonds fans behind the goal, but referee Cartmel waved them away and signalled play-on.
The tempo of the play was quite frenetic and very quick, with the game becoming more stretched as Leek searched for a leveller and Diamonds looked to extend their lead. Jack Bowen threatened twice for the hosts on the hour mark, first when he escaped down the left but pitched his cross just too high for Shariff, and then when he moved down the right before seeing his dangerous cutback deflected away by the Leek defence.
The visitors themselves were still continuing to ask questions of the Rushden defence, but Dolman and Brown in particular were efficiently dealing with any balls into the box. Both made important, respective clearances in the 63rd and 68th minute, but following the second of these, Leek managed to grab an equaliser. Brown’s clearance had gone out for a corner on the left, and winger Tom France stepped up to curl an inviting delivery into the middle. One green-shirt managed to get an initial flick on it, and running in behind was defender Darren Chadwick to slam an effort against the underside of the bar before it bounced down into the back of the Diamonds net.
The momentum was certainly now with the visitors as they sensed the opportunity of taking the lead. Two minutes after their goal they should have had another when Peter Williams picked up a loose ball in midfield and played it over the halfway line for Budrys to control and turn. He then played it through originally looking for Stevenson, but he was in an offside position and so left it for the onrushing substitute Sam Grimshaw. Rushden appeals for offside were in vain as the flag had gone up but play was waved on by the referee, and so the winger ran into the left side of the box before hitting an effort over from around six yards out.
It was a huge let-off for the Diamonds, and after some further Leek pressure home manager Peaks turned to his bench to try and change the outcome of the game. Firstly club record goalscorer Tom Lorraine came on in place of Bowen, and then Ross Oulton was also introduced at the expense of Orosz. This immediately brought about some fresh energy and direct running into the home side, though play was still very even and very to-and-fro as both sides searched for the next goal in the contest. As the match moved into the final ten minutes of regulation time Leek fashioned a couple of half-chances, but firstly Francino Francis’ effort from inside the box flew well wide, and then captain Niall Maguire’s shot from the left resulted in the same outcome.
The game was perfectly poised for a grandstand finish as both teams looked dangerous when attacking, but it was the Diamonds who managed to grab the hugely-important next goal in the 84th minute. Oulton won a terrific sliding challenge just outside his own penalty area, and that set the home side on the offensive as the loose ball ran for Farrell. He advanced over the halfway line before sliding a pass out to Lorraine on his left, and the substitute did excellently to accelerate away from Francis into the area before stabbing a ball back towards Nabil Shariff. It reached the striker, but with his back to goal and two green-shirts in close attendance, it looked as if it would prove difficult for the frontman to get a shot at goal. However, he spun on the proverbial sixpence to generate some room, and he then flashed a superb left-footed effort past the helpless Chapman and into the back of the net for his 20th goal of the season.
The celebrations from the Diamonds fans around the ground were loud and vociferous, but there was still time on the clock and defensive work for them to do. Leek immediately sent defender Francis up front as they piled green-shirts forward in search of a second leveller, and they also made an attacking double change just before the end of the regulatory 90 minutes. Six minutes were added on, and in the first of these the visitors were inches away from their desired equaliser. A long kick forward by Chapman was flicked on by the leaping Budrys, and it reached Grimshaw on the left side who had the run on Westwood. The ball sat up perfectly for him, and his well-struck half-volley cleared Heath but also cleared the goal as it flew over the crossbar.
Rushden tried to alleviate the pressure at any given opportunity, and one beak forward saw Oulton jink into the area on the right before being clipped by a Leek player. Cartmel again waved away the appeals though, and the visitors launched one final foray forward into the Diamonds half. They won a free-kick around 40 yards from goal, and it was chipped into the packed area for an away head to direct it back across goal. Dolman, however, was calmness personified as he headed the ball away, and Richards eventually picked up the loose ball before leading a three-on-three counter-attack. He played in Lorraine on the right, and rather than going to the corner-flag with the ball, the striker decided to powerfully run into the area only for his attempted shot to fly over the bar.
Seconds later though referee Cartmel blew his whistle to signal the end of the match, to signal the end of a end-to-end and entertaining second period, and most importantly to signal a crucial three points for the Diamonds.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 Leek Town
With Leek only being a point behind the Diamonds at the start of play, and with Newcastle, Basford and Spalding all emerging victorious around them, it was vital that the hosts also picked up a victory. In what was often a tense but entertaining contest, credit has to go to Leek who threatened Rushden on a number of occasions and will feel slightly hard done-by to be returning to Staffordshire with no points to show for their efforts. However the Diamonds defended superbly, especially in the second half, against some deep and often concerted pressure, with particular praise going to Liam Dolman and Sam Brown who coped admirably in an unfamiliar centre-back position. The hosts were clinical in taking their chances when they came, with praise also going to Shariff for notching his fifth goal in three games and his 20th strike of the season in all competitions. That is to take nothing away from the rest of the squad though who all contributed to this important victory, and with upcoming games against promotion contenders Witton (A), Leek (A) and Newcastle (H) still to come, this victory was made even more vital. Diamonds are back on the road for their next league fixture as they travel to Shropshire next Saturday (March 25th) to face Market Drayton Town.
Diamonds Man of the Match (chosen by match sponsor the Jenkins family): Ben Farrell
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
17. Ben Heath
2. Callum Westwood
3. Ben Ford
4. Sam Brown
5. Liam Dolman
6. Ben Farrell
7. Shawn Richards
8. Taylor Orosz
9. Jack Bowen
10. Nabil Shariff
11. Richard Bunting (C)
12. Tom Lorraine (for Bowen 75)
13. Matt Finlay
14. Lewis Leslie
15. Fazel Koriya
16. Ross Oulton (for Orosz 75)
1. Ben Chapman
2. Danny Smith
3. Alex Morris
4. Peter Williams
5. Francino Francis
6. Darren Chadwick
7. Tom France
8. Niall Maguire (C)
9. Tim Grice
10. Chris Budrys
11. Rob Stevenson
12. Mackenzie Faulkner
14. Jon Beaumont (for Stevenson 87)
15. Anthony Danylyk
16. Sam Grimshaw (for Grice 64)
17. Toby Mullarkey (for Maguire 87)
Goals: Farrell (45+1), Shariff (84)
Goals: Chadwick (68)
Yellow Cards: None
Yellow Cards: Francis (63)
Referee: Wayne Cartmel
Assistants: Mark Stevens, John Wynne