Diamonds were beaten on their return to action at Hayden Road on Tuesday night thanks to a single 44th minute strike by their impressive visitors.
The first half was an even affair between two in form sides. The visitors were positive from the off but were kept to some promising midfield play as Diamonds had to adapt to an early change when Jack Ashton had to be replaced by Blaize Punter in just the 10th minute. Chances were limited in the early stages with Mentis threatening for Hayes and Yeading and Joel Gyasi and Luke Fairlamb for Diamonds. Ben Heath saved well from Duku and Ryan Robbins and Tom Lorraine came close to converting headed chances for Diamonds. The breakthrough finally came for the visitors in a frantic final 5 minutes of the half. Mentis had two great shooting chances for Hayes and Liam Dolman headed over for Diamonds before Laste Dombaxte picked up loose ball on 44 minutes and fired low past Ben Heath from the edge of the box.
Diamonds came out at the start of the second half with the increased intensity they needed to get back into the game. Joel Gyasi had an early shot that stinged the keeper’s fingers and dangerous crosses from Luke Fairlamb, Ben Farrell and hour mark sub Ross Outlon all came close to creating the killer chances. On 69 minutes they came incredibly close with Ryan Robbins hitting the post after good work again by Ross Oulton. Ben Farrell volleyed just over minutes later as Diamonds pressed hard but the occasional missed pass or missed control impacted the momentum they were trying to build.
Fairlamb nearly found another sub Callum Westwood with a great ball that produced a corner from which Liam Dolman had a half-chance just cleared. As Hayes tried to see the game out their keeper made a quite brilliant save from a Callum Westwood effort that seemed bound for the top corner. A series of corners built pressure with Hayes at full stretch to keep them at bay and free-kicks were being conceded by some desperate challenges. But Hayes held with some solid defending for a well-earned point to complete the double over Diamonds without conceding against the table toppers.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks kept the same starting XI that had defeated Barton Rovers in their last league game, with the only alteration in the squad coming amongst the substitutes with Callum Westwood replacing Cameron Gilchrist. There was a keen sense of anticipation amongst the Hayden Road crowd as both sides took to the playing surface, with Diamonds looking to continue their promotion push after their previous two league fixtures had been postponed and aiming to extend their lead at the top of the table. Hayes & Yeading entered the contest in 4th place knowing a victory would take them up to the second automatic promotion place, and were one of only three teams to have defeated Rushden in the league so far this season meaning they were looking to secure a double over the hosts.
After the two captains had shook hands and the coin-toss had been conducted, referee Scott Tallis got the game underway. The visitors made a quick start, and after a swift break ended in a goal-kick, striker Spyros Mentis made his way into the Diamonds area only for the danger to be well quashed by the covering Liam Dolman. Hayes were making the early running in the opening stages with their passing swift and precise, and with their moves forward representing a threat to the home defence. Rushden were forced into an early change in the 10th minute as Jack Ashton seemingly pulled his hamstring, and he signalled to the bench to notify them that he would not be able to continue, with Blaize Punter taking the field in his place.
The substitute defender helped to create Diamonds’ first opportunity of the contest shortly after his introduction when his precise ball over the top found Tom Lorraine, and the striker won a corner under pressure from the visitors’ defence. The first set-piece led to another, but the danger was cleared and the scoreline remained deadlocked. The away side then responded by building a period of pressure down the other end, and this resulted in a couple of chances in as many minutes. Firstly a shot from distance was well blocked away by a Diamonds player, but the ball was worked back for Keano Robinson to chip a ball into the area. Manny Duku rose superbly well to meet the cross, but he couldn’t direct his header on target as it flew wide of the far post. Then Laste Dombaxe played a neat through ball into the left channel for Duku to collect, and he quickly spun away from Punter before hitting a shot that Heath was able to collect at the second attempt by his feet.
Diamonds were looking threatening when they attacked, with Luke Fairlamb and Joel Gyasi in particular looking effective and dangerous when running at the opposition defence, but it was evident that the visitors were having the better of proceedings. The match was just short of the half-hour mark when the two sides exchanged chances. Firstly confusion in the away defence led to a Diamonds opportunity as Ryan Robbins and Lorraine both looking like they had chances to head home, but both efforts were stopped by last-ditch challenges. Another last-ditch tackle prevented another potential goal, this time down the other end, moments later when Hayes won a free-kick on the left, and Scott Donnelly curled the ball into the area. It sailed over a couple of heads before ricocheting perfectly for Ismael Ehui only five yards out, and it seemed for all the world that he would find the back of the net with his effort. However, a combination of Punter and Heath diverted the ball away from goal, and Diamonds were then able to win a free-kick to relieve the pressure.
The game was being played at a quick pace, with both teams attacking with speed and at a high tempo, and the time was quickly passing by. Just before the forty minute mark Mentis had a couple of half-chances for the visitors, but both his attempts went harmlessly wide of Heath’s goal. Rushden then had a chance of their own as a swift throw-in by Sam Brown on the left found Fairlamb, and he moved away from his marker before curling a right-footed cross into the area. It found the run of Dolman, but the defender couldn’t steer his header on target and it floated high and wide of goal.
Two minutes later, and only a minute before the end of the regulation forty-five minutes, Hayes took the lead. Laste Dombaxe picked up possession around thirty yards from goal, and he initially chipped a ball across for the advancing run of a teammate on the right side of the box. He headed the ball down to another red-shirt, and the ball was then worked back to Dombaxe. He had plenty of space to take a touch, open his body and then precisely drill a low left-footed effort past Heath, despite a touch by the Diamonds keeper, and into the far corner of the net to send the small band of away supporters behind the goal into delirium.
There was barely enough time for Diamonds to restart, and for the one minute of additional time to be played, before the half-time whistle was signalled, a half in which Hayes had held the upper hand and one in which they deservedly led, despite Diamonds not playing badly and holding an attacking threat in the contest.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-1 Hayes & Yeading
The attendance figure of 433 was announced during the half-time break, and shortly afterwards the two sets of players returned to the pitch from the changing rooms. A keen sense of intrigue was felt by many as to how Diamonds would respond to having gone behind just before the interval, and to how Hayes would approach the second half. After a quick count of both teams the referee sounded his whistle to recommence the match.
The visitors were again the first to threaten as Adam Cash strode forward and almost reached the Diamonds area only for his resulting effort to be weak and easy for Heath to collect. The hosts responded when Fairlamb delivered a curling cross from the left that away keeper Zaki Oualah punched away, but it ran only as far as Gyasi arriving to hit an effort goalwards from just outside the area. His shot was travelling before it was blocked away by a Hayes player, and despite strong calls for handball and a penalty the appeals were waved away.
This signalled the beginning of deep Diamonds pressure in the second period as they attempted to find a way back into the game, though Hayes still posed a threat when attacking. To highlight this Duku found room to shoot for the visitors from 12 yards after a deep free-kick had fallen for him, but his attempt flew over the crossbar, and moments later the hosts were attacking with intent. They won a corner, and Fairlamb’s delivery found Robbins only for the striker’s header to flick wide of the post. In an attempt to gain more midfield dominance Peaks then made his second change of the evening, with Ross Oulton taking the place of Joe Curtis, and the substitute almost had an immediate impact. He picked up the ball on the right-hand side and looked up before whipping a tantalising ball into the area and across the face of goal. Lorraine was just unable to reach it, but it appeared it would reach Robbins at point-blank range at the back post. However, away defender Ryan Kinnave had other ideas and crucially stretched out a long right leg to divert the ball up into the air, forcing Oualah to tip over the bar as it dropped towards his goal. The subsequent corner was dangerous and resulted in the Hayes keeper dropping the ball, but before anyone in a white shirt could react the referee blew his whistle to signal a foul and a free-kick for the visitors.
The time ticked past the hour mark, and Diamonds were now beginning to dominate possession and territory more as they searched for an equaliser. In the 62nd minute Gyasi embarked on a forward run before being brought down on the left wing but, although Oulton’s delivery was dangerous, Oualah read the flight of the kick well and was able to come out to catch. Five minutes later Oulton was at the heart of the move again as Rushden came so close to levelling the contest. The midfielder nicked the ball away from a Hayes player before pressing forward and slipping a pass into the left channel for Robbins. The striker faced up Kinnave before quickly slamming a low effort across goal, and Oualah was rooted to the spot as it flew past him and thudded off the far post. The rebound ran out as far as Gyasi on the edge of the box and touched the ball away from the closing defender only for him seemingly to be fouled, but the referee waved play on and the attack was halted.
A minute later the ever-intensifying Diamonds pressure created another opportunity. A long throw by Brown on the left was hastily cleared straight to the lurking Ben Farrell on the edge of the area, but after he had set himself his looped left-footed half-volley flew over the top and out for a goal-kick. The next few minutes then passed without any real action of note, and in response Peaks made his final available substitution by introducing Callum Westwood at the expense of Gyasi. The hosts still searched, strived and pressed for an equalising goal that would preserve their record of not having lost a home league game since September 9th, and Hayes’ attacking threat of earlier had severely reduced as Rushden bossed the closing proceedings. As the match entered the final ten minutes of regulation time the visitors were being forced further and further back, and the home pressure almost paid dividends in the 84th minute. A long throw by Brown, this time from the right, was flicked on by Dolman perfectly for Jack Westbrook around eight yards out. His header looked destined to find the top corner, but Oualah superbly flung himself to his right to tip the effort over the crossbar.
There was a sense that that might have been the chance to snatch a draw, but still Diamonds pressed. A cross dug out from the right wouldn’t sit right for either Oulton or Westbrook, and after the former’s shot was blocked the loose ball fell for Farrell to let fly. His effort took a nick off a Hayes player and flew towards the far corner with Oualah only looking on, but fortunately for him the ball went wide of the far post and out for a corner. Rushden then won a couple of free-kicks but neither of these came to anything, and the match then entered stoppage-time. Hayes had a chance to seal the three points when substitute Sahr Kabba latched onto a flick-on to run clear on goal only for his effort to roll wide of the far post, but as the time ticked further down it appeared more and more likely that that miss wouldn’t matter. Despite a couple more minutes of home pressure referee Tallis did signal the end of the game to confirm Diamonds’ second home league defeat of the season, but they still remain five points clear at the top of the table.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-1 Hayes & Yeading
This undoubtedly represented a setback in Diamonds’ push for promotion, but Hayes just about edged the contest and just deserved their success on the balance of the entire game with their quick, pacey attacking play that caused plenty of problems combined with their resolute defending in the second half when it was required. This was far from a bad performance from Rushden however, with them also looking a constant threat when attacking especially in the second period, and on another day their persistent pressure in the second forty-five would have borne fruit and rescued a draw at least. It wasn’t meant to be though, but the most important thing is that Diamonds still remain in an excellent position at this stage of the season and still have their promotion hopes very much in their own hands. Two of their next three games are away games against teams also in the top-five, and the first of these is their next fixture as they make the trip to Hampshire to face fifth-placed Hartley Wintney (Saturday March 24th, 3pm kick-off). Their playing ranks have been bolstered by the arrival of prolific marksman Spencer Weir-Daley, and the return of fans favourite Brad Harris, two signings that will help improve the squad further as the season draws towards its conclusion.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Jack Westbrook
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer (Initial Match Summary by Paul Judd)
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Hayes & Yeading
13. Ben Heath
2. Joe Curtis
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. Luke Fairlamb
12. Ben Ford
14. John Dean
15. Callum Westwood (for Gyasi 79)
16. Blaize Punter (for Ashton 11)
19. Ross Oulton (for Curtis 58)
1. Zaki Oualah
2. Keano Robinson
3. Priestly Farquharson
4. Adam Cash
5. Tommy Smith (C)
6. Ryan Kinnave
7. Scott Donnelly
8. Laste Dombaxe
9. Manny Duku
10. Spyros Mentis
11. Ismael Ehui
12. Ola Olajubu (for Robinson 90)
14. Kaan Fehmi
15. Sahr Kabba (for Ehui 58)
16. Toby Little (for Cash 64)
17. Jack Roper
Goals: Dombaxe (44)
Yellow Cards: Farrell (90+4)
Yellow Cards: Dombaxe (64), Robinson (89)
Referee: Scott Tallis
Assistants: Ian Croston, William Doyle