Diamonds were defeated on penalties in the NFA Hillier Senior Cup Final by Brackley Town at Sixfields.
The game throughout was a largely even affair, with only a few decent chances for either side. Brackley almost led inside the first minute when striker Omari Sterling-James had an effort straight at Ben Heath, and Rushden responded with a Sam Brown ball across that just ran away from the arriving Nathan Hicks. Brackley, who were third in the National League North coming into the contest, did have the better of possession and territory in the opening exchanges, but they weren’t able to create very much. Daniel Nti shot well wide and ex-Diamonds man Lule Fairlamb saw an effort from inside the area charged away. Diamonds did threaten when they had space in midfield, and Tom Lorraine was only inches away from finding the free Jack Bowen for a tap-in in one narrow miss. Sterling-James then had a shot comfortably held, Fairlamb shot over and full-back Ellis Myles had a goalbound effort brilliantly blocked by Dolman before the rebound was headed wide. Dolman came closest to breaking the deadlock moments before the interval when a free-kick from the right was headed across to him by Alex Collard, and the defender’s effort was kept out by a combination of post and a goalline block.
The second half was similarly high on endeavour, but low on real quality with both sides lacking a killer final pass. Nti blazed over a presentable opportunity from just inside the area, and Sterling-James had a half-volley kicked behind by Heath. The lively Brackley man went close again soon after when he collected a cleared corner, took a neat touch and then fired in a low effort that zipped just wide of the post. Both teams made their full allocation of substitutes, but this did little to open the game up and to create an action-packed finish. Brackley sub Shane Byrne had a shot deflected behind, and so did Nti as the higher-league side looked to win the contest in normal time. Diamonds could have nicked it down the other end when a cutback from the right was missed by Lorraine, but it ran for sub Joe Curtis whose slid shot was charged down. Four minutes of additional time also failed to separate the sides, and the game went straight to a penalty shoot-out.
Brackley won the toss and went first. Alex Prosser comfortably scored before Hicks did likewise for Diamonds. Shepherd Murombedzi then sent Heath the wrong way, but Curtis’ effort was saved by Brackley keeper Danny Lewis to give the National League North side the advantage. Fairlamb and Lorraine traded successful spot-kicks, and James Armson dispatched his effort past Heath to put Brackley 4-2 ahead. Diamonds sub Declan Rogers had to score to keep the shoot-out alive but, like Curtis, his effort was saved by Lewis to the keeper’s right. This confirmed Brackley as 4-2 winners in the shoot-out, and crowned them as the 2019 NFA Hillier Senior Cup winners.
Manager Andy Peaks made two changes to the side that had drawn with Royston on Saturday afternoon. Sam Brown came into the side along with Jack Bowen as Diamonds lined up in a 3-4-3 system. Ashton, Liam Dolman and Alex Collard made up the back three, Brown and Zack Reynolds would play out wide with Nathan Hicks and Ben Farrell in the centre of midfield, and Bowen, Tom Lorraine and Ben Diamond began up front. The substitutes bench was made up of Adam North, Jack Westbrook, Joe Curtis, Declan Rogers and John Dean.
The two teams stepped out onto the Sixfields pitch, the home of Northampton Town, for the highly-anticipated final. Diamonds had beaten Peterborough Northern Star, Northampton ON Chenecks and Cogenhoe without conceding to reach this stage and, though they were unbeaten in their last three matches, they had only emerged victorious in one of their last six. The last time they had played at Sixfields was in the 2016 final when they had memorably defeated Kettering 2-1 courtesy of a stoppage-time winner from Jack Ashton.
Brackley entered the contest third in the Vanarama National League North table, and looked well on course to reach the play-offs for the second successive season. They were the current holders of the FA Trophy, and their excellent recent form had seen them be unbeaten in their last five and only lose two of their 19 games in all competitions. They had reached the final of this competition last year only to be beaten by Kettering, and they had last won the trophy back in 2015.
A healthy crowd was in attendance, all congregated within the main East Stand. After the pre-match formalities were completed, referee Wayne Chalmers blew his whistle to start proceedings.
The higher-league opposition were fast out the traps, and had a chance immediately from the kick-off. Striker Omari Sterling-James jinked into a modicum of space just inside the area, but his flashed attempt was straight at Heath in the Diamonds goal. Rushden responded by launching their first attack only three minutes later when Brown was released down the left. He got into the area before cleverly laying it across towards the advancing Hicks. It looked like the midfielder would latch onto it and shoot at goal from just inside the area, but it narrowly evaded him and ran away for a defender to clear.
The early exchanges were played at a pretty quick tempo, with a few misplaced passes from both sides but with both looking run at their opposing defence to put them under pressure. In the sixth minute Brackley man Daniel Nti decided to have a shot from 30 yards out, but his effort flew well wide of goal. Shortly afterwards they got in down the left via an overlapping run, but the resultant cross was wild and blazed over for a goal-kick.
Ex-Diamonds man Luke Fairlamb, who was such a key figure in Rushden’s promotion last season, was starting on the left for Brackley. He threatened when a through ball was played in behind the Diamonds defence for him to get onto, and he appeared to be clean through on Heath. However, he appeared to think he was offside as he stopped pretty much on the spot, and the danger was cleared. The offside flag hadn’t been raised though, and so it was a let-off for Rushden.
Moments later, Fairlamb skilfully skipped past Reynolds down the left to get to the byline. His cross towards the near post was threatening, and it was controlled by a Brackley attacker only for the referee to award a free-kick to Diamonds for a handball.
Peaks’ men hadn’t been able to build much possession or to apply consistent pressure to their opponents. They were able to construct a couple of promising moves when, firstly, the busy Diamond drilled a diagonal cross towards the far post for Bowen to climb. He won the header and looked to find Lorraine with the flick, but Brackley keeper Danny Lewis was swiftly out to claim. Then the two were involved again when Lorraine was fed on the left, and he did well to get close to the byline before playing a low ball across for the waiting Bowen. It looked for all the world like he would tap home into the unguarded net, but a stretching defender made a timely interception.
The contest then entered a quieter period, one where the ball was turned over regularly and one where both defences were limiting the opposing attacks. In the 25th minute Heath was forced into another save from Sterling-James after the Brackley number 10 had found room, but it was a comfortable hold for the Rushden keeper.
Diamonds won their first corner of the match on the half-hour mark, though Hicks’ resulting delivery was cleared away at the near post. The attack was kept alive, and Ashton launched a long ball over the top looking for the galloping run of Reynolds. Lewis came out to punch away the ball, and the offside flag was raised against the Rushden man.
The National League North side reacted by Fairlamb having a shot that went over, and then the right-back Ellis Myles got into an advanced position. After a neat exchange Myles was played into the area in a shooting position, and his left-footed strike looked goalbound until Dolman made a superb sliding block. The loose ball ricocheted up in the air, and the rebounded header dropped wide of the post.
Ashton received the first yellow card of the game shortly afterwards for a foul halfway inside his own half, though the resulting free-kick was cleared away. Diamonds won a free-kick of their own only a few minutes later, and this led to the best chance of the game. Hicks delivered a teasing cross towards the back post, and Collard rose well to head it across. It dropped for Dolman close to goal, and his smacked effort was somehow blocked away by a combination of the post and defender Oran Jackson.
Brackley reacted straight away by getting down the other end and setting up Nti to cut inside from the left. He did so effectively, but his end product didn’t have the same result as his curled attempt went harmlessly wide of the far post.
Two minutes of additional time were signalled at the end of the half, but these passed without any action of note. Chalmers signalled the end of the half, one which had been enterprising but shy on clear-cut chances. Diamonds had come the closest to breaking the deadlock, but the game remained well in the balance as the respective players made their way to the changing rooms.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 Brackley Town
Much of the half-time talk in the stand centred around if the game would open up the longer it went on, and which side would “blink first” if it remained deadlocked for much longer. Of the scoreline was to remain level, the contest would go straight to penalties. The two teams returned to the pitch, one that was saturated due to the heavy rain before kick-off, and the referee soon got the action back underway.
Diamonds won an early free-kick on the right after Lorraine was brought down, and Hicks delivery looked dangerous until it was well headed away and then cleared upfield. Aside from this, Brackley enjoyed the majority of possession in the early exchanges of the half without creating a huge amount. In the 52nd minute they won a free-kick of their own, and Alex Prosser played it towards the back post. Captain Gareth Dean rose highest to meet it, but he couldn’t generate much pace on the header and Heath could easily collect. Seconds later Nti had a decent opening to shoot at goal from just inside the area after space had opened for him, but his effort flew over the bar.
Brackley were beginning to increase the pressure and step up their efforts to find the first goal of the contest. Shortly before the hour mark a loose ball broke for Sterling-James on the left corner of the area, and his half-volley almost caught Heath out only for the Diamonds keeper to kick it out for a corner. That one was cleared, but they won another one a few minutes later after Prosser’s long-range effort was deflected behind. The subsequent corner was initially cleared, but only as far as Sterling-James on the edge of the box. He took a neat first touch to set himself, and his left-footed snapshot looked bound for the bottom corner until it veered narrowly wide of the post.
Despite the increased pressure, Diamonds were defending stoically in allowing their opponents to play in front of them, but then pressing and winning key tackles and interceptions closer to goal. Brackley were winning some set-piece opportunities, but these were also being dealt with well. One such example saw them win a free-kick on the left, but Prosser’s low delivery was easily claimed by Heath. A dangerous moment arose soon afterwards when a Brackley attacker for into the left side of the area before attempting to pull it across, and it ran for Brown to clear away in the nick of time.
For one of the first times in the half, Diamonds were able to construct some consistent possession and to have a spell of pressure down the other end. A neat passing interchange resulted in Hicks being fed down the left, and his drilled cross to the back post found Bowen. The striker was under a lot of pressure by a nearby defender though, and as a result his header bobbled through for Lewis to collect.
A series of substitutions were then made. Brackley made a tripe change, including introducing their top scorer James Armson, and shortly afterwards Diamonds brought on Rogers for Farrell. Before this latter change Brackley won a corner on the left, but the delivery led to a push on a Rushden man and a free-kick was awarded.
One of the Brackley subs Shane Byrne had an immediate impact as he dispatched a shot at goal from the edge of the box, but it was deflected behind for a corner that was cleared. Nti then cleverly span away from a challenge before quickly shooting towards the far corner, and this also took a deflection on its way out for a corner. This set-piece was cleared as well by a strong and commanding punch by Heath.
The substitutions had certainly had a positive impact on Brackley, but Diamonds were still defending valiantly and ensuring that Heath didn’t have a lot to deal with. Another of the Brackley substitutes Matt Lowe had a couple of dangerous and driving runs, but these were both well dealt with.
The time ticked into the final five minutes, with it looking more and likely that the contest would be decide by penalties. Rushden made their final two subs when Curtis and Dean came on for Diamond and Bowen respectively, and the former was involved in a good late chance. After Armson had gone down looking for a penalty at one end, the referee quickly dismissed it and so Diamonds were able to break down the other end. Rogers was released down the right, and he got into the area before showing awareness to lay it back towards the arriving Lorraine. The Rushden top scorer was around 16 yards out with a clear sight at goal, but he missed the ball. It ran through for Curtis to slide an effort goalwards, but this was blocked behind for a corner. It was Diamonds’ first one of the half, and the back-post delivery towards Dolman resulted in a push and a free-kick for Brackley.
There was just enough time for Brackley to win a couple of late corners. The first one was commandingly headed away, but a second one was earnt. This one was whipped in towards the near post, and a flick towards goal was well gathered by Heath.
No sooner did the keeper have the ball in his grasp then the referee signalled the end of the match. It had been an even game with Brackley enjoying more of the possession throughout, but with Diamonds arguably having the better chances. With the scoreline level, the match would be settled by a penalty shoot-out.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 Brackley Town
After a team-talk from both managers, the respective captains were called forward by the referee for the coin-toss. Brackley called correctly, and they chose to take first. The penalties would be taken at the end where Ashton scored that famous last-gasp winner three years ago.
Prosser was to take first for Brackley, and he stepped up before calmly placing an effort to Heath’s left. The Diamonds keeper dived the other way, and the ball hit the back of the net to put Brackley 1-0 up.
Hicks moved forward to take Diamonds’ first kick, and he took a very short run-up before whipping a low effort to Lewis left. The Brackley keeper went the right way, but the penalty was right in the corner of the net to draw Rushden level.
Shepherd Murombedizi was next for Brackley, and he confidently slotted his kick into the net to the right of Heath. The Diamonds keeper went the other way, and so the first three spot-kicks had been effortlessly converted to put Brackley 2-1 ahead.
Curtis strode forward for Rushden’s next effort, and he took a slightly longer run-up to the previous efforts. He side-footed an effort to the keeper’s right, but Lewis guessed correctly and parried it away to leave Brackley ahead.
Fairlamb was the next one up, and he also had a little longer run-up. He caressed it to Heath’s right, and the keeper went the other way as it slammed into the back of the net to increase Brackley’s lead to 3-1.
Lorraine walked up next, knowing that he effectively needed to score to keep Diamonds in it. He approached the ball with a straight run-up, and he put his laces through his kick to dispatch it past Lewis to the keeper’s right. This reduced the arrears, and left the scoreline at 3-2 after three kicks each.
Substitute Armson had the responsibility of the next kick and, if he was to score, he would leave Diamonds needing to convert to stay in the shootout. His effort was very similar to Lorraine’s in that he put his laces through it, and again the keeper dived to the left as the ball went to the right. This put Brackley into a 4-2 lead.
Another substitute, this time Rogers, went up for Diamonds knowing that he needed to score. He put the ball down on the spot, moved forward and hit a sidefooted effort to the keeper’s right. It was an almost carbon-copy of Curtis’ penalty, and it ended in the same outcome as Lewis guessed correctly to parry it away. This put Brackley into an unassailable 4-2 lead, and confirmed them as the 2019 NFA Hillier Senior Cup winners.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 Brackley Town (Brackley win 4-2 on penalties)
Diamonds were knocked out of last season’s Hillier Cup on penalties, and the same befell them in this year’ competition. It is the sheer lottery of such a conclusion to a match, but Rushden can take great pride from the way they defended and fought valiantly to match Brackley for the vast majority of the game. They perhaps didn’t retain the ball as well as they would like, but they showed all their battling qualities (a hallmark of this season) and created the most presentable opportunities at the end of either half. They also defended very well in limiting Brackley to only a couple of proper chances, and they didn’t look overawed by the occasion or opposition at any moment.
Credit must also go to Brackley for their success, and all the best wishes goes to them as they seek promotion to the National League via the play-offs. Diamonds’ own play-off hopes had mixed news during the night, as Coalville lost at home to Royston but Alvechurch narrowly defeated Leiston. This leaves them in sixth place six points behind with five games remaining, but hopes are still alive. Their next game sees them travel to Cambridgeshire to take on St Ives Town on Saturday afternoon, 3pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Alex Collard
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Ashton
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Alex Collard
7. Jack Bowen
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Joe Curtis (for Diamond 87)
14. Declan Rogers (for Farrell 80)
15. Jack Westbrook
16. John Dean (for Bowen 87)
17. Adam North
1. Danny Lewis
2. Ellis Myles
3. Glenn Walker
4. Alex Prosser
5. Oran Jackson
6. Gareth Dean
7. Luke Fairlamb
8. Shepherd Murombedizi
9. Daniel Nti
10. Omari Sterling-James
11. Shaun Jeffers
12. Matt Lowe (for Jeffers 78)
14. James Armson (for Sterling-James 78)
15. Connor Hall
16. Shane Byrne (for Myles 78)
Yellow cards: Ashton (38)
Yellow cards: None
Referee: Wayne Chalmers
Assistants: James Wetherall, Seth Sheehan-Galia