Diamonds were narrowly edged out 5-4 on penalties after a thrilling and dramatic 3-3 draw at Kettering in the NFA Hillier Cup Semi-Final.

The game began, and would continue to be played, at a frenetic pace, and it was the visiting Diamonds who made the first impression. After a Joe Curtis free-kick from the right was well held by home keeper Paul White, a free-kick from the left brought the opening goal of the contest. Joel Gyasi whipped it into the box where the returning Ryan Robbins flicked a header past the despairing dive of White and inside the near post. It was the perfect start for Rushden, but Kettering responded with a Matthew Stevens shot being blocked and ex-RDFC man Aaron O’Connor producing a cross that caused a scramble in the area before it was cleared away. The hosts then won a corner, but that was also cleared and Diamonds broke at pace. Callum Westwood played a neat ball through for Robbins to run onto in the right side of the box, and though a covering defender attempted to challenge the striker, he skipped past the tackle before curling a shot into the far corner of the net. Rushden were clearly full of confidence and continued to attack, with Gyasi seeing a shot blocked before Tom Lorraine latched onto the loose ball and fired into the side-netting, though the front-man was offside. There was then a big shout for handball against a Kettering defender as Gyasi’s cross was blocked, but the referee waved away the appeals. As the half neared its conclusion both sides traded chances, with Rene Howe firing over from distance for the hosts before Ben Farrell attempted an ambitious effort from 30 yards for the visitors, but the home keeper was able to hold easily. Just as it appeared that Diamonds would hold their two-goal advantage heading into the interval, Kettering won a penalty. Despite calls for offside, Kalern Thomas broke into the right side of the box before Sam Brown was adjudged to have tripped him, and so the referee pointed to the spot. Brett Solkhon stepped up and confidently sent Ben Heath the wrong way to reduce the arrears in the last action of the opening half.

After a delay to the start of the second period following a reported altercation in the tunnel, the hosts were evidently buoyed by their goal on the stroke of half-time and began to put further pressure on the Diamonds. Howe should have levelled the contest almost immediately from the restart, but after finding himself through on goal in the left side of the area, he rolled a shot wide of the far post. Moments later Howe met a corner from the left with a downward header, but it was blocked on the line before the ball ricocheted for Heath to gratefully hold onto. Kettering were having much more possession and territory than in the opening half and looking much more threatening as a result, and they had another opportunity when Thomas was fouled on the right just outside the area. Half-time substitute Ben Toseland stepped up to take the kick, but thankfully for the Diamonds his dangerous inswinging delivery was confidently held by Heath. They didn’t have long to wait for a leveller though as in the next attack, an outswinging corner from the left found Howe to head goalwards, and the effort rolled slowly into the far corner of the net. Diamonds responded as they earnt a corner of their own, and Lorraine met Curtis’ delivery only for his header to be easily saved by White. There were then a couple of bookings, Orrin Pendley for the hosts and Farrell for the visitors, and a number of substitutions as both sides looked to forge ahead in the match, and Kettering came close to taking the lead for the first time when Gary Mulligan had a shot blocked away before O’Connor saw a curling effort fly high and wide. The game, which really had been a breathtaking spectacle, entered the final five minutes of normal time, and there still remained a couple more dramatic twists to the action. Firstly O’Connor lobbed a precise through-ball over the Diamonds defence for substitute Rhys Hoenes to run onto, and he kept his cool to run into the area before slipping a low finish under Heath and into the back of the net. With the time standing at 87 minutes, and judging by the nature of the Kettering celebrations, many thought that was the game sealed and the home comeback completed. However, Diamonds were to have one final say. They earnt a throw-in on the right, and Brown launched one of his archetypal deliveries into the heart of the area. Dolman flicked it on, and after it had bobbled around, the ball fell for Dolman again who took one touch and then placed a calm shot past the despairing dive of White and inside the post. The goal came in the 90th minute, and the Diamonds’ celebrations were understandably just as loud and passionate as the Kettering ones had been moments earlier. There was little time for any remaining action in normal-time, and with no extra-time being played in the NFA Hillier Cup, the contest went straight to penalties.

Kettering went first, and successful efforts by Solkhon and Hoenes were matched by composed finishes from Dolman and Curtis. O’Connor then scored for the hosts, despite Heath getting a hand to the ball, before Diamonds substitute Ross Oulton saw his penalty saved by White diving to his right. Howe then scored by delicately placing his effort down the middle, and faced with having to score to keep their chances alive, Lorraine showed tremendous calmness under pressure to drill his penalty also down the middle. Thomas therefore had a penalty to seal the game, and to send Kettering through to the final, but his effort flew way over the bar to hand Rushden a lifeline. Westwood then placed his penalty just beyond the dive of White to send the penalty shoot-out to sudden-death, but Toseland calmly tucked away his penalty to put the pressure right back on Diamonds. Gyasi stepped up and rolled his effort agonisingly wide of the right-hand post to confirm Ketteirng as winners of the shoot-out, and as the team who go on to face Brackley Town in the final.

After having three of their previous four games postponed, it was a very welcome return to action for Diamonds as the contest was passed playable. Questions had been sounded ahead of the match as to how strong both line-ups would be, and in the end both managers decided to name a pretty much first-team side. Diamonds manager Andy Peaks only made two changes from the starting XI that had beaten Moneyfields last time out, with both alterations enforced. Ben Diamond was cup-tied and Luke Fairlamb began his three-match suspension, so Ryan Robbins and Callum Westwood returned to the line-up. With Kettering sitting 4th in the Southern Premier and having only lost one home league game all season, and with Diamonds 1st in the Southern League Division One East and coming into the contest on a fifteen-game unbeaten run, a hugely intriguing semi-final was in store. Alongside the noticeable local rivalry between the two sides was the fact that in their previous three match-ups against one another thirteen goals had been scored, and so there was a sense that this game would be just as entertaining and dramatic as those affairs had been. The two sides took to the Latimer Park pitch in their traditional home colours, and after the hand-shakes and the coin-toss, referee Wayne Chalmers sounded his whistle to begin the match.

Rushden settled the quickest of the two sides in the early exchanges, and looked purposeful and dangerous when on the ball as they looked to make a quick breakthrough. They won a free-kick on the right in the fifth minute, and though Joe Curtis’ delivery initially looked like it may cause problems, Paul White in the Kettering goal was able to hold onto the ball comfortably. Moments later they won another free-kick, this time on the left, and it resulted in a much more fruitful outcome. Joel Gyasi had won the set-piece, and he picked himself up to whip an inviting ball into the box where Ryan Robbins met the ball with a flick of his head. The effort flashed towards goal, past the dive of White and inside the near post to give Diamonds the lead in front of their joyous fans.

It was a dream start for the visitors, and their confidence was clearly up as they seeked to add to their lead immediately from the start. Gyasi embarked on one of his trademark jinking runs before cutting inside from the left just outside the area, but his resultant shot was weak and easily bobbled through for the home keeper to collect. Kettering tried to respond to the Diamonds’ quick and energetic start and get a foothold in the game, with their first chance arriving in the 19th minute. Aaron O’Connor did well to release Matthew Stevens in space, but his shot was well blocked away by a covering Diamonds man for a corner. The resultant set-piece came in, and although it was initially cleared, the ball was worked back out to O’Connor. He hung up a dangerous cross to the far post which caused a bit of a scramble in the area, but thankfully for the visitors they were able to clear the ball away to safety.

The hosts were beginning to step up the pressure slightly, though Diamonds still looked comfortable and confident in possession and dangerous when moving forward. This was exemplified when Kettering won another corner shortly afterwards, but it was cleared and set up the opportunity of a visiting counter-attack. Westwood moved over the halfway line before slipping a precise through-ball in behind home defender Liam Bateman for Ryan Robbins to run onto. He met the ball on the right side of the area, and despite Bateman’s attempt to recover and tackle, the striker cut inside, took one touch to set himself and then curled a fine finish past White and into the far corner of the net. It was another example of Diamonds’ pace and proficiency on the counter-attack, something that has been evident throughout much of the season, and doubled their advantage halfway through the opening period.

Diamonds really had taken the game to Ketteirng so far in the half, and two minutes after Robbins’ second goal they threatened again. Gyasi caused yet more problems for the home backline by cutting in from the left, and as he reached the edge of the area he hit a fierce effort goalwards. It was only partially blocked as the ball ran through for Tom Lorraine to latch onto, but he was flagged offside shortly after he had hit his shot into the near side-netting. The match, after such a frenetic and action-packed beginning, then began to settle slightly as a few minutes passed without any action of note. The visitors still remained in control, attacking with pace and purpose but also defending resolutely when they were called upon to do so. In the 36th minute Gyasi again created danger as he ran forwards before hitting a cross into the area that appeared to strike a Kettering hand. The penalty appeals were loud and numerous, but referee Chalmers waved away the shouts.

The contest ticked towards half-time with Rushden still looking comfortable and well in control of the tie. However, the hosts did create a good opportunity moments before the stroke of half-time. Liam Dolman was robbed of possession by ex-RDFC man Rene Howe, and he was given plenty of time and space on the edge of the box to curl an effort goalwards. However, the ball flew well over the crossbar, and the Diamonds had survived their first proper scare of the match. The time ran past the allotted 45 minutes and into stoppage-time at the end of the half, and after Ben Farrell had seen a long-range strike held for Diamonds, there remained one final chance for the hosts to get back into the game before the interval. A scrappy period of play down the host’s right saw Kalern Thomas win a sliding-challenge for a Kettering man to latch onto. He appeared in an offside position but he quickly played the ball back inside to Thomas, and he bundled his way into the area before falling under pressure and contact from Sam Brown. Referee Chalmers pointed immediately to the penalty spot, and Brett Solkhon stepped up to confidently place the ball to Heath’s left, as the Diamonds stopper dived the other way, to halve the deficit.

The game had barely restarted when the half-time whistle was blown to signal the end of a half that Diamonds had enjoyed much the better of and had ultimately dominated, but one in which saw Kettering still well in the tie.

Half Time: Kettering Town 1-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

As the players and staff left the field for the half-time interval an altercation occurred in the tunnel with police quickly on the scene, but at the time of publishing no concrete details have emerged as to what happened. The beginning of the second period was consequently delayed by an extra fifteen minutes, and in the end both sets of players and staff made their way back onto the playing surface. Kettering brought on two substitutions, with Lindon Meikle and Ben Toseland entering the fray, and after a swift count of both teams the referee signalled the start of the second half.

It was to be expected that Kettering’s goal moments before the interval would give them renewed vigour and confidence for the second period, and this proved to be the case as they began to put the Diamonds under pressure. They could, and possibly should, have scored only a minute after the restart when a neat ball into the area sent Howe clear on the left, but his effort across goal found neither the far corner nor the inrushing O’Connor as it ran out for a goal-kick. Minutes later the home side won a corner on the left, and the subsequent outswinger found the rising Howe. His downward header looked destined for the corner, with Heath rooted to the spot, but Jack Westbrook was in the right place to block the effort on the goal-line. The ball ricocheted off a Kettering man and could have gone anywhere, but fortunately for the Diamonds it ran for Heath to gratefully fall onto.

Although the contest settled down after these couple of early openings for Kettering, it was clear and evident that the tide of the game had changed. The hosts were the ones now controlling possession and the tempo of the contest, and they were the ones forcing Diamonds back. The time ticked onto the hour mark as Thomas was brought down just outside the area on the right by the covering Gyasi. Toseland stepped up to whip an inviting effort through the wall and towards goal, but Heath did very well to hold onto the cross. The home pressure continued though, and shortly afterwards in the 64th minute it told. Kettering won another corner on the left, and the outswinging delivery again found Rene Howe. He was in space to head down and towards the far corner, and the ball rolled past a number of players before nestling into the back of the net.

The game was back level and now truly was anybody’s to win. A minute later home player Orrin Pendley was booked for a foul on Robbins, and then it was Diamonds’ turn to create an opportunity. They earnt a corner of their own on the right, and Curtis’ high inswinging delivery found the run and leap of Lorraine above a Kettering defender. However, he was unable to generate much pace on the header, and it bounced up for White to easily collect. Tackles and fouls were now starting to become more frequent in the contest, and Farrell was the next man to receive a caution for a foul. Chances from set-pieces, especially corners, were also an increasingly dominant theme, and after a Kettering one had fallen loose in the box Gary Mulligan saw an effort blocked away.

Three minutes after his yellow card Farrell went to ground again in attempting to win the ball back for Diamonds, and he was adjudged to have committed a foul. Referee Chalmers had a decision to make in determining whether to give the midfielder a final warning or to opt for a second yellow card, but in the end he decided for the former outcome. As a direct result Peaks brought on Ross Oulton in place of Farrell, a very welcome return for the midfielder, and Kettering made a change of their own by introducing Rhys Hoenes in place of Stevens. Minutes later the dangerous and dynamic Robbins went off with a touch of cramp, and he was replaced by Chief Boateng in Rushden’s second change.

The game was now in the final ten minutes, and it was on the proverbial knife-edge as both sides looked to seal victory in the regulation 90 minutes. Shortly after the substitutions O’Connor did well to turn away from a couple of Diamonds challenges on the left side of the box, and he worked a shooting angle on his right-foot only for the effort to fly comfortably high and wide of the target. Moments later, three minutes from time, O’Connor was involved again as he volleyed a superb pass over the top of the Diamonds backline from just inside his own half. Rhys Hoenes took a couple of touches, the second of which a heavy one, to run into the area, and he calmly rolled a shot underneath Heath and into the back of the net. This sparked pandemonium and chaos amongst Kettering players, staff and fans alike, and they wasted no time in celebrating directly in front of the dugouts.

Though some thought this was the comeback victory complete, time still remained in the contest for Diamonds to rally and search for one final opportunity to send the match to penalties. O’Connor was booked for the hosts, and as the tie ticked into the 90th minute it appeared that the visitors may have ran out of time. However, one final chance did remain. They won a throw-in on the right, and Brown trotted across to launch in a long pitch into the box. The delivery found the run of Liam Dolman who leapt to flick a header goalwards, and after it briefly ricocheted around the ball was only cleared as far as the central defender. He calmly took a touch to side-step an attempted challenge, took another touch to set himself and then his final touch ended up in the back of the net. His shot had passed through a heap of men, and passed the despairing dive of White to his left-hand side, to nestle in the corner of the net. As had been the case with Kettering’s goal moments previously loud and deep celebrations ensued, this time amongst the Diamonds faithful, and as had been the case in their meeting back in the 2016 Hillier Cup Final, very late drama had occurred.

There was just enough time for one last period of Kettering pressure as five minutes of added-on time began, but Diamonds defended stoically to alleviate the danger. Soon Chalmers blew the full-time whistle on a game that had certainly been a game of two halves, and one that had had everybody on the edge of their seat throughout. The drama was not over though, and with any draws in NFA Hillier Cup games not going to extra-time, the match was to go straight to, and be decided by, a penalty shoot-out.

Full Time at the end of normal time: Kettering Town 3-3 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

Everybody had barely had chance to take stock and to take breath following the pulsating conclusion when a coin-toss was conducted for which end of the ground the penalties would be taken at. Kettering won the toss and decided that the shoot-out would take place in front of their home fans, and they were also going to be the first to take. When everything and everybody was ready Solkhon stepped forward to take the first penalty, and he calmly swept a finish into the top-right corner with Heath diving the other way. Dolman then stepped up for the Diamonds’ first kick, and he rolled his penalty to the left of White as the Kettering keeper dived the opposite way. Hoenes was next up for the hosts, and like the previous two penalties the kick went to the right as the keeper went the other way to make it 2-1 to Kettering. Curtis was next for the visitors, and he lofted his effort slightly to the right and into the roof of the net with White nowhere near the kick. It was then O’Connor’s turn for the home side, and he also hit his effort to the right-side. Heath guessed correctly and got a strong hand on the kick, but it was not enough to stop the ball nestling in the corner of the net. Oulton was Rushden’s third penalty-taker, and he hit his shot slightly to the left only for White to dive the right way and parry the ball to safety.

Kettering therefore led 3-2 after three penalties each, and Rene Howe was the next man up for the hosts. He confidently swept the ball down the middle and into the back of the net as Heath dived to his right meaning the advantage was extended, and meaning Lorraine had to score to keep the Diamonds in with a chance. So much pressure was on the front-man but it did not show as he drilled his kick straight down the middle, with White diving away to his left-side. The score was now 4-3 after four kicks each, and it meant that if Thomas scored for Kettering, they would have won the shoot-out. The full-back stepped up and hit his penalty to the right, but he leant back as he made contact with the ball and so the effort flew way over the crossbar. It was a huge lifeline for the Diamonds, but Westwood still needed to score to take the shoot-out to sudden-death. The wing-back stepped forward and swept his kick towards the left corner, but White got a hand to the effort. However, like Heath’s earlier with O’Connor’s kick, the shot was too powerful and ended up in the corner of the goal. It was 4-4 after five penalties each, and therefore sudden-death began. Toseland was next for the hosts, and he hit a low effort to Heath’s left that passed the keeper’s flailing left leg and hit the back of the net. The advantage was back with Kettering, and Gyasi was up next for Diamonds. He ran up and attempted to place his kick into the bottom right corner, but the ball sped wide of the post. Kettering had therefore won the shoot-out 5-4 and, after the other semi-final had also been decided by penalties, will go on to face Brackley Town in the final.

At the end of penalties: Kettering Town 3-3 AFC Rushden & Diamonds (5-4 on pens)

Though Diamonds will naturally be somewhat deflated at the nature of the defeat, they can take tremendous heart, courage and confidence from the way they performed throughout the contest. They dominated the opening half against a team in the play-off places of the league above and thoroughly deserved their two-goal advantage, and then after falling behind so late on, the never-say-die spirit of the squad and club in general shone through as they rallied to find a last-gasp equaliser to force penalties. Ultimately penalties is a lottery and either side could have won it, though that is to take nothing away from Kettering who forged their way back into the contest, enjoyed the better of the second half and turned the game on its head from 0-2 down to 3-2 in front. Overall it was an enthralling, captivating and hugely dramatic contest throughout, and one that will not be forgotten for a long time. Attentions now turn back to the league for Rushden as they look to consolidate their position at the top of the table, and as they look to extend their unbeaten run in the competition. Their next match is on Saturday (February 10th) and sees them travel to Bedfordshire to take on Arlesey Town, with a kick-off time of 3pm.

Diamonds Man of the Match: Ryan Robbins

Attendance: 309

Match Report by Ollie Mortimer

Kettering Town

AFC Rushden & Diamonds

1. Paul White

2. Kalern Thomas

12. Liam Bateman

4. Brett Solkhon (C)

5. Gary Mulligan

6. Orrin Pendley

14. Gary Stohrer

8. Aaron O’Connor

9. Rene Howe

10. Kyle Barker

15. Matthew Stevens

 

Substitutes:

3. Ben Toseland (for Stohrer HT)

7. Lindon Meikle (for Barker HT)

11. Rhys Hoenes (for Stevens 76)

16. Ben Bradshaw

17. Callum Snow

13. Ben Heath

2. Callum Westwood

3. Sam Brown

4. Jack Westbrook

5. Liam Dolman (C)

6. Jack Ashton

7. Joel Gyasi

8. Ben Farrell

9. Tom Lorraine

10. Ryan Robbins

11. Joe Curtis

 

Substitutes:

12. Ross Oulton (for Farrell 76)

14. Cameron Gilchrist

15. Ben Ford

16. Chief Boateng (for Robbins 81)

17. Blaize Punter

Goals: Solkhon (pen 45+3), Howe (64), Hoenes (87)

Goals: Robbins (9, 23), Dolman (90)

Yellow Cards: Pendley (65), O’Connor (88)

Yellow Cards: Farrell (72)

Referee: Wayne Chalmers

Assistants:

 

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