AFC Rushden & Diamonds were narrowly defeated in the Southern League Division One Central Play-Off Final by St Ives after extra-time.

In front of a brilliant 1523 attendance at ProEdge Westwood Road, the first half was very tetchy and nervous as both sides largely cancelled each other out. The hosts had the better chances, though these were limited, with striker Danny Watson seeing a bobbling shot saved and then stabbing over from inside the six-yard box. Diamonds in response saw a Jack Bowen cross just elude Lewis Leslie, and then a Liam Dolman header drop wide of the far post.

The second half saw Diamonds have more possession and more of a tempo and rhythm as they begun to dictate the match, though the hosts always represented a threat on the counter-attack. Shawn Richards and Andy Hall saw efforts blocked, and Leslie flicked a header over before being denied by a brilliant last-ditch challenge. A Richards free-kick then fortuitously bounced for Bowen right in front of goal, but the ball was cleared before he could get a shot away. For the hosts Jack Higgs had a shot saved and Phil Draycott volleyed over as the time ticked away. 

It was the Diamonds who were to take the lead though in the 80th minute when a Richards corner from the left found substitute Elliot Sandy in acres of space, and he rose to power a header into the far corner of the goal. Chaotic and memorable scenes ensued from the travelling masses, but there was still time for Ives to find an equaliser. This proved the case with three minutes of normal time to go when a short corner saw a cross to the back post volleyed home by Watson. 

Extra-time began with Diamonds attempting to force the issue, but they were hit with a sucker-punch in the 96th minute when a long kick forward by the home goalkeeper was cushioned by Watson for Ben Seymour-Shove to crack a dipping shot into the top corner, leaving Finlay with no chance whatsoever. This prompted the Diamonds to lay siege to the Ives’ goal, with ball after ball launched at the home defence, but they stood strong against relentless pressure. Nabil Shariff flicked a header over, Liversedge had a downwards header blocked with appeals for a handball waved away, and Sandy saw a goalbound effort right at the death also blocked, with further appeals for a handball and penalty dismissed. The final whistle was blown shortly afterwards to start the St Ives celebrations, with Diamonds coming so close and yet so far.

Diamonds manager Andy Peaks made one solitary change to the starting XI that had valiantly and heroically defeated Royston in the semi-final last Tuesday night, with Claudiu Hoban being suspended after his red card during that game. Andy Hall came into the side in a like-for-like alteration which would see the continuation of the 4-2-3-1 formation, and Tom Liversedge made a return to the substitutes as he joined an attacking bench.

The atmosphere was loud and visibly rocking, with large amounts of fans populating each side of the ground, as both sets of players entered the field of play for the all-important game. St Ives, on the back of their penalty shoot-out victory over Egham Town in their semi-final, and with them having conceded the least amount of goals in the regular season along with keeping 10 clean sheets out of 21 at home in the league, came into the final with confidence, and so did the red-shirted Diamonds who were aiming to reach the high performance levels that they had set at Royston.

Naturally there was a lot of tension in the air as referee David Spain got the contest underway, and this lent itself to a nervy start to the match. A neat early flick-on by Jack Bowen ran down the left side for Lewis Leslie to chase, but he fouled the defender in the process of trying to reach the ball. In the fourth minute Andy Hall then picked up the loose possession in the right channel, though his early shot was always rising and easily cleared the crossbar.

The first half would see a lot of midfield contests in the air and on the ground, and one aerial duel in the sixth minute saw Dan Quigley adjudged to have fouled home midfielder Jack Higgs. His resultant free-kick led to a corner for the Ives, and it was cleared only to the edge of the area where skipper Luke Knight was waiting, but his shot also went over the top.

Both sides were struggling slightly to maintain possession for any sustained period of time in these opening exchanges, with both sets of players being closed down quickly by their opposing numbers. Jack Bowen did brilliantly to escape down the right flank in the 11th minute, and his resulting cross was narrowly out of reach of the onrushing Leslie. Rushden then earnt a free-kick which Richards floated towards the back post, and though it appeared the ball had been headed behind for the first corner of the match, the offside flag had already been raised against Bowen.

St Ives were then able to win a free-kick of their own moments later when Jack Ashton was forced to pull back home striker Andrew Phillips around 25 yards out from goal. Knight lined up the kick, though his effort was tame and straight into the middle of the four-man Diamonds wall. A corner from winger Ben Seymour-Shove then sailed harmlessly out of play just after the 20 minute mark, with the contest very even and neither side giving an inch to their opponents.

Matt Finlay in the Rushden goal was the first goalkeeper to be forced into a save after 22 minutes as Ives forward Danny Watson cut in from the right side and skidded an effort goalwards with his left foot. Despite the ball bouncing just ahead of him, the Diamonds Player of the Season was able to confidently hold the ball in his grasp.

Play then swung back down the other end, and a minute later good strength and perseverance by Leslie down the left saw him win a corner. Richards’ subsequent inswinger almost found Ashton with a chance to head at goal, though an Ives defender just beat him to the ball, and another Richards delivery then found Dolman at the back post, but he was unable to generate any real pace on the attempt and the ball drifted out for a goal-kick.

The hosts then created the best chance of the opening half in the 27th minute as a spot of pinball in the Diamonds penalty area saw the ball eventually drop for Knight on the left side of the box, and his lofted ball into the centre found Watson around six yards out from goal. However, although he beat the advancing Finlay to the ball, he could only stub his shot over the bar from point-blank range. The same player then saw a powerful header from a deep free-kick brilliantly saved by Finlay, though the offside flag was raised anyway.

The Ives were now starting to build a spell of pressure as the Diamonds still tried to cope with the hard, bobbly and bouncy nature of the pitch which tested players’ close control and first touch throughout. Every single set-piece they won posed a threat to the visitors’ backline, and one whipped delivery in the 35th minute saw Liam Dolman glance the ball just past his own far post for a corner-kick. Jason Lee and Ives defender Steve Gentle were then each warned after the resultant set-piece as they grappled and battled at the back post.

Diamonds’ other full-back, Connor Kennedy, then received the first yellow card of the match as he brought down an Ives midfielder as they attempted to swiftly turn into space. The free-kick was again resolutely defended though, and both defences being on top and quashing the majority of forward threat was a key factor of the opening half. Dan Quigley then received a yellow card as he battled in the air with Knight, and as a direct result of the challenge the home skipper had to hobble off after attempted treatment to be replaced by Jack Warwick. The following free-kick was dangerously headed back across goal, though the referee had already blown and signalled a foul committed against the Diamonds.

After four minutes of added-on time that were signalled mainly due to Knight’s injury, the whistle was blown on a first half that was characterised by nerves, strong defending and a lack of clear-cut chances.

Half Time: St Ives Town 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

Diamonds re-emerged onto the pitch around a minute before their hosts, with discussion around the ground largely focusing on the contest being on a knife-edge and thoughts that the first goal would be absolutely crucial.

Referee Spain got the second period underway, and it was the Ives who were on the attack immediately as Seymour-Shove galloped down the right channel and chose to go for goal rather than find a teammate in the middle, with his shot slamming into the side-netting. The diminutive winger was then involved again moments later as his daisy-cutter flicked off Dolman for a St Ives corner on the left side, and Ashton won a terrific defensive header before the ball was volleyed harmlessly out of play.

With the bobbly surface Rushden had tended to favour the long ball into Bowen and then work off the flick-ons in the opening half, but in the early stages after the break they began to get the ball down and started to monopolise more possession as a result. One neat period of play ended in Bowen flicking the ball round the corner in the direction of Hall, though his shot from the edge of the area was well blocked away by home defender Jordan Jarrold.

Shawn Richards started to look threatening with his purposeful and direct runs, and in the 55th minute he jinked away skilfully from right-back Harry O’Malley to get to the byline, but unfortunately for the visitors the ball bobbled up and resulted in an overhit cross that was eventually cleared to safety. Four minutes later a good cross by Kennedy was only half-cleared to Richards, and he chested the loose ball down before his sweetly-struck effort was charged down.

The away side, just like in the first half, were defending strongly but were now able to find more room in the midfield areas, with Quigley especially orchestrating from a deep-lying midfield position. He was able to get forward on the hour mark before being fouled, and Richards’ curling delivery found Leslie but his header sailed over the top of Tim Trebes’ goal. The official attendance figure of 1523, a record amount for a fixture at Westwood Road, was then announced over the tannoy, and the masses of spectators present made for a loud atmosphere throughout the match.

Diamonds continued to build pressure and probe for an opening that could give them the lead in the contest, and one almost arose in the 62nd minute when Brad Harris latched onto possession and saw a shot blocked, with the loose ball almost finding its way through for Leslie in front of goal before he was denied by a tremendous and perfectly-timed slide tackle to relieve the danger for the hosts. They then sprang on the attack themselves as Higgs found space to curl a right-wing cross into the box, but Phillips could only loft his header over the bar.

The game was beginning to open up and be played at a quicker and more frenetic pace as Diamonds then created another opportunity a minute after the Ives’ chance, but after a nice run and pass by Bowen to Hall, the Rushden number 11 could only shank an effort wide of goal after cutting in from the right side. That was to be Hall’s last contribution to the match as he made his way off the pitch to be replaced by Elliot Sandy, and he took up the position behind Bowen as Leslie moved out to the right wing.

Two minutes after this alteration had occurred, the visitors created their best opening of the entire game. A long free-kick from the left side appeared to represent a simple clearance for an Ives defender, but his clearance cannoned into the back of a teammate and drop for the lurking Bowen. However, despite being ideally placed in front of goal, and with only Trebes to beat, he couldn’t sort his feet out and the ball was whipped away before he could shoot. Ives then responded with a couple of half-chances down the other end, with first Higgs seeing a bobbling half-volley held by Finlay, and then Phil Draycott latching onto a Dolman clearing header to chest down and fire a volley over the goal.

The game entered the last twenty minutes of normal time with the contest very much still in the balance, and although the Diamonds had arguably had the better of the second period, Ives always looked dangerous especially when they had a set-piece or when they had the ball in wide areas. Striker Watson drifted out to the left-wing and found some space to move inside in the 76th minute, but his shot was straight at Finlay who held it with confidence.

Four minutes later Quigley, who had a brilliant second half, picked up a loose ball in midfield and with a lack of options and movement ahead of him, he decided to have a shot from around 30 yards out. Although his effort was relatively weak, it deflected off an Ives defender and just ran out for a corner-kick despite Trebes’ best efforts to keep it in play.

And seconds later Diamonds had the lead. Richards trotted over to take the left-wing corner, and he curled in an inviting delivery that found substitute Elliot Sandy alone in the middle of the six-yard box. He leapt like a proverbial salmon to bullet a header into the corner of the goal, and the scenes of ecstatic celebration that greeted the goal from all Diamonds’ players, fans and staff alike were picturesque and highly memorable.

However, there was still nine minutes of the regulatory 90 to play so Diamonds knew that the game wasn’t won yet. In the 83rd minute the ball was worked to Watson on the edge of the visitors’ box, but under a bit of pressure he could only scoop an effort over the crossbar. The Rushden droves of fans were in strong voice and song with the minutes ticking away as they attempted to roar their side into closing out a famous victory. Their side won a corner on the right side, and Richards’ delivery looped up for Dolman to head the ball into the six-yard box, but Sandy with his back to goal was unable to get a shot away as the marking defender managed to block and clear the ball away.

The hosts then made their final two substitutions in an effort to get back into the contest, as Dan Moyes and Scott Sinclair replaced Jarrold and Draycott respectively. Moments afterwards a move down their right flank saw an attempted cross from the byline blocked behind for a corner, and Diamonds switched off for a brief moment as the ball was swiftly worked short to Moyes. The momentary lapse of concentration was fully punished, as the full-back’s cross to the back post was met full on the volley by Danny Watson and flew into the back of the Diamonds net.

This goal, like in the regular league fixture back in August, came in the 88th minute, and despite Rushden thoughts naturally turning to how close they were to sealing the victory and promotion, they had to rouse themselves and go again. Ives understandably had their tails up on the back of the well-taken leveller, though it was the away side who would have the final two opportunities of normal time. Firstly a Richards deep cross from the right found Leslie at the back post, and his header back across the face of goal was agonisingly too high for the unmarked Harris, and then after Finlay had palmed away a dangerous right-wing cross, Lee stepped into space before drilling an effort at goal that Trebes did really well to hold, with Sandy closing in for if the ball was spilt.

The final whistle was blown shortly after, with extra-time and potentially penalties having to decide the all-important and crucial contest.

Full Time at the end of Normal Time: St Ives Town 1-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

After a brief period where water was taken on board and both sets of players had the chance to receive instructions from their respective managers, the game got underway again, with this being the first time Diamonds had been involved in an extra 30 minutes since the beginning of November. A substitution was made by manager Peaks two minutes in, with Tom Liversedge going on to replace the tireless and hard-working Bowen.

It was the away side who had more of the ball in the opening exchanges as they tried to forget about the equalising goal and looked to score the next goal. Leslie was able to hit in a low cross from the left side, and though it was cleared, it fell for Kennedy to hit a shot from range that looked like it may dip into the top corner but instead hit the stanchion behind the goal.

In the next attack of the first period of extra-time, St Ives were to take the lead for the first time in the match. A huge drop-kick upfield by Trebes reached the edge of the Diamonds penalty area, and with the visiting defence on the back foot, Watson was able to lay the ball off to Ben Seymour-Shove who took a touch, set his sights and arrowed a brilliant dipping strike into the top right corner of Finlay’s goal, leaving the Rushden stopper with absolutely no chance.

The home support was naturally boisterous and in high noise immediately after the goal, though with 24 minutes left of extra-time to play Diamonds knew there was still plenty of time left to find an equaliser. However, the hosts were buoyed by the goal and were seeking to put the game to bed as Phillips unleashed a shot from the edge of the box that Finlay was able to pat down and then gather. They went even closer a minute before the break as Watson was found in space behind the away back-four, and as Finlay came out to meet him the Ives number 10 lofted the ball over him, though fortunately for the away side Dolman was able to run back and hook the ball clear. A corner from the left then saw Diamonds unable to clear the ball on two separate occasions, and a fierce shot driven in required Lee to block the ball on the line with Finlay well beaten.

Half-time in extra-time was then signalled for by referee Spain, with Rushden knowing they had 15 minutes to find a leveller and thus keep their hopes of promotion alive.

Half Time in Extra Time: St Ives Town 2-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

Diamonds made their third and final substitution at the short break, with ex-RDFC striker Nabil Shariff taking the place of Richards as manager Peaks threw caution to the wind to try and find a goal. A minute had elapsed in the second period when Liversedge received the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the box, but after a neat turn his resulting effort was slightly weak and represented an easy save for Trebes in the Ives’ goal.

The pattern for the rest of the game was now established as Diamonds harboured large swathes of possession and attempted to hit the front three of Sandy, Liversedge and Shariff as quickly and as accurately as possible. Leslie was booked after throwing the ball way in frustration at being flagged offside, and Shariff was then also given offside as the hosts’ offside trap worked effectively. In between these two moments the Diamonds won a corner on the left, and the ball was flicked up for Shariff to loft a header over the bar with his back to goal.

 Kennedy and Lee were now playing as wingers as Rushden committed more and more men forward in search of the vital equaliser, and it was a barnstorming run from Kennedy that resulted in a cross to Liveresdge in space at the back post. His downward header hit an Ives defender, and despite loud calls for a handball the appeals were waved away by the referee. Kennedy then flung a long-throw into the heart of the box, but a flick-on at the near post was well defended by Ives and cleared to safety. This was indicative of the resolute and strong defending from the hosts in the closing stages, especially under almost constant bombardment from the red-shirted away side.

Liam Dolman then moved up front for the last couple of minutes as Diamonds threw even more caution to the wind with a 2-4-4 formation, and this left them susceptible to the counter-attack which Seymour-Shove almost exploited as he ran into space down the right side, but his shot across goal flew out for a goal-kick.

There was to be one final chance for the Diamonds to salvage an equaliser and force penalties in the frenetic close to the match. A throw-in was earnt on the right side, and Kennedy’s long dispatch was headed clear back to him to drill a low ball into the area. Liversedge was able to flick it inadvertently on, and there was Sandy in space at the back post. His shot was goalbound and may even have gone in if it hadn’t have been blocked by a desperate and flinging Ives’ tackle, and huge, enormous appeals for a handball and penalty erupted amongst players and fans alike, but these were ignored by the referee as the ball was hoofed away to safety.

After a few more moments the whistle was blown to signal the end of extra-time, the signal for the Ives’ celebrations to begin and the signal for the end of Diamonds’ promotion hopes and dreams.

Full Time in Extra Time: St Ives Town 2-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

This represented a largely nervy and tense affair that livened up after the first half of normal time, with both sides have the better of certain stages of the contest but with the game as a whole being a mainly even affair. This is not to take anything away from the players of St Ives who took their chances well when they arose and defended stoutly and courageously after they took the lead, and many congratulations go out to them, the fans and all the staff associated with the club. For the Diamonds questions and thoughts of ‘what might have been?’ and ‘if only we could have held out for a few more minutes…’ are natural to be held, but the target at the beginning of the season of reaching the play-offs and embarking on a good FA Cup run have been met, achieved and in some regards exceeded. Memories of the first league win at Step 4 level, the two FA Cup matches against Barwell, dramatic late goals at Petersfield and Uxbridge to secure last-gasp victories, wins at Leighton and at home to Hanwell and Barton to seal a play-off place, the drama, elation and euphoria of the play-off semi-final victory at Royston, and even the rapturous scenes that greeted Sandy’s goal here can be held onto and reflected upon when looking back at the season as a whole. With this being the club’s first venture into Southern League football, to finish inside the play-offs and to come close to promotion is a fantastic achievement and should be viewed as a positive, not as a negative at missing out on the opportunity to play Southern Premier League football next season. The players will undoubtedly return stronger than ever ready for the 2016/2017 season, and that is something that every Diamonds fan can look forward to over the summer months. Before then, however, there is one final game remaining this season as the Diamonds take on Kettering Town at Sixfields Stadium in the NFA Hillier Senior Cup Final on Thursday evening, 19:30pm kick-off.

Diamonds Man of the Match (chosen by Match Reporter): Dan Quigley

Attendance: 1523

Match Report by Ollie Mortimer

St Ives Town

AFC Rushden & Diamonds

1. Tim Trebes

2. Harry O’Malley

3. Jordan Jarrold

4. Charlie De’Ath

5. Steve Gentle

6. Jack Higgs

7. Ben Seymour-Shove

8. Luke Knight (C)

9. Andrew Phillips

10. Danny Watson

11. Phil Draycott

 

Substitutes:

12. Dan Moyes (for Jarrold 87)

13. Brendan Brown

14. Jack Warwick (for Knight 45+1)

15. Scott Sinclair (for Draycott 87)

16. Declan Rogers

17. Matt Finlay

2. Connor Kennedy

3. Jason Lee

4. Jack Ashton

5. Liam Dolman (C)

6. Brad Harris

7. Shawn Richards

8. Dan Quigley

9. Jack Bowen

10. Lewis Leslie

11. Andy Hall

 

Substitutes:

12. Tom Manship

13. Nabil Shariff (for Richards 105)

14. Robbie Parsons

15. Elliot Sandy (for Hall 66)

16. Tom Liversedge (for Bowen 92)

Goals: Watson (88), Seymour-Shove (96)

Goals: Sandy (81)

Yellow Cards: Moyes (112)

Yellow Cards: Kennedy (40), Quigley (43), Leslie (110)

Referee: David Spain

Assistants: Gerry Herron, Kane Dempster

 

 
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The updated Match Stats, Player Stats and Attendance figures along with league stats are found in the First Team stats area on this website here. You can also find updated fixture lists in the main fixture and results grid.
 
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Match Gallery courtesy of Malcolm Swinden Photography (click on the link to access the Diamonds Photo Gallery for more images from this game and ecommerce options). Copyright Mal Swinden ©2016

 

 

 

 
 
 

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