Diamonds started the new season with a point as they ground out a gutsy draw against Needham.
On a sunny day at Hayden Road, Rushden started brightly and almost led within ten minutes when Jenson Cooper hit the outside of the post. They should have forged ahead on the half-hour mark when a superb cross from Miguel Ngwa found Evangelos-Nikalaos Epochontsif only a few yards out, but his downward header skipped up and over the bar. The visitors came close themselves when full-back Kyle Hammond’s strike from distance flew narrowly wide, and Dean Snedker made a terrific double save to deny Ross Crane and Patrick Brothers.
Needham had the better of the second period as they regularly threatened with a series of driving runs and swift attacks. Hammond almost caught Snedker out from over 45 yards only for the Diamonds keeper to get back and tip over, before Jacob Lay embarked on a couple of penetrating sprints forward before firing just past the post on both occasions. Lay was also denied by a crucial Ryan Hughes clearance off the line, and another counter-attack saw the ball lobbed over Snedker but the eventual header somehow go wide. The Diamonds keeper then pawed away a late free-kick from underneath his own bar as the hosts held on for a clean-sheet and an opening day draw.
Manager Burgess decided on a 4-4-2 system for the opening match, with only six players who were in the squad for the final game of last season in the 16 for this encounter. There were league debuts for Courtney Lashley, Evangelos-Nikalaos Empochontsif, Miguel Ngwa, Jenson Cooper and Jack Connor, whilst Nathan Hicks took the captain’s armband on his second Diamonds spell.
The visitors had finished a respectable 12th in the league last season and had announced five new signings on Thursday, with four of them named in the starting line-up. They created the first action of note as, in the first minute, a short corner was taken quickly and led to a strike at goal that was blocked away. Play swung down the other end as neat link-up play between Connor Furlong and Paddy Casey released the latter down the right, and his cross towards the back post found Cooper. He chested it down and struck towards the near post, but it cannoned off the upright and behind for a goal-kick.
Both sides battled for possession and an early foothold in the match, with a number of midfield tussles and possession regularly being turned over. In the 24th minute another away set-piece caused danger as a corner was played to the edge of the box, and full-back Kyle Hammond lined up a low piledriver that flew past a crowd of bodies but just past the post. Shortly afterwards midfielder Evan Collard received the first yellow card as he hauled down Ngwa.
The new Diamonds signing, on loan from Northampton, threatened a few minutes later as he escaped down the right and whipped in a terrific delivery to the back post. Empochontsif was only a few yards out in front of goal, but his downward header bounced up and over the bar.
The away side, nicknamed the Marketmen, responded as a Daniel Morphew header from a left-wing corner was deflected behind. The following set-piece found Ross Crane whose close-range strike was instinctively parried clear by Dean Snedker, and then Patrick Brothers’ dipping half-volley from outside the box drew another good save from the Rushden keeper down to his right.
Moments before half-time, Crane was found in behind on the left only for Snedker to get down to turn his effort behind. The corner came to nothing, and the whistle was then blown to signal the end of an entertaining first half where both sides had come close to breaking the deadlock.
Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 Needham Market FC
Diamonds won a corner only a minute after the restart following Furlong’s deflected cross, and Lashley’s back-post delivery almost found Empochontsif. The visitors would go on to have the better of the second half though as they regularly found space to run at the back-four and showed neat approach play. Crane had a low shot easily held, and then Hammond launched a speculative strike from range that forced Snedker to back-pedal and tip the ambitious attempt over the bar.
Burgess made his first change just before the hour mark as Luis Pinto-Leite replaced Cooper, but Diamonds struggled to stem the tide of Needham’s building pressure and dominance. Jacob Lay got the better of Casey on the left before springing forward and fizzing a strike that just passed the post, and a minute later he came even closer. The creative midfielder was played through on goal and he stayed on his feet, despite Empochontsif’s tug of his shirt, to dink it past Snedker. The keeper got a touch on it which slowed its approach towards the back of the net, and Ryan Hughes got back to clear it against his own crossbar and behind for a corner.
Both Casey and Ngwa entered the referee’s notebook for stopping potential counter-attacks, and Ngwa then seemed to be hauled down in midfield only for the official to allow play to continue. Needham almost capitalised as they sped forward and into the box, the ball was lobbed over Snedker for an incoming attacker but he somehow headed wide with the goal at his mercy.
One final chance was fashioned as substitute Tyrese Sutherland committed a foul on the left, and the subsequent strike forced Snedker into another reflex save to parry it away from danger.
Three minutes of additional time were signalled, but these passed with only Empochontsif being booked for an aerial challenge as Diamonds held on for a draw.
Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 Needham Market FC
After conceding 25 goals in their nine pre-season games, Diamonds will have been happy to keep a clean-sheet and to claim a point after the raft of changes since the end of last season. They could and should have scored in the first half, and they then battled well after the break, though they were indebted to several superb Snedker saves to preserve the clean-sheet.
The point is a platform to build on, something which they will be aiming to do in their next match as they travel to one of the league’s newcomers, Basford United, on Saturday 13 August, 3pm kick-off, for their away match of the new season.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Dean Snedker
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
Diamonds: Snedker, Casey, Lashley, Hughes, Furlong, Akubuine, Cooper (Pinto-Leite 58), Connor, Hicks (C), Empochontsif, Ngwa (Sutherland 79) (subs not used: Agemoh-Davies, Corden, Snelus)
Diamonds yellows: Casey (69), Ngwa (72), Empochontsif (90)
Needham Market: Marcus Garnham, Kyle Hammond, Jake Dye, Keiran Morphew, Daniel Morphew (C), Jacob Lay, Evan Collard, Jamie McGrath (Seth Chambers 72), Patrick Brothers, Ross Crane (subs not used: Hugh Cullum, Archie Exworth)
Needham Market yellows: Collard (26)