AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-1 Nuneaton Borough FC

Diamonds suffered final-day heartbreak as they missed out on a play-off place on goal difference.

Knowing a point, or Alvechurch failing to beat Royston, would be enough to secure at least fifth place, they looked nervous throughout and Nuneaton played with the freedom of already being safe. Dean Snedker made an early save, Nathan Thsikuna blocked a goalbound strike and away striker Luke Benbow saw a bobbling effort easily held. Rushden briefly threatened through Will Jones’ header that was comfortably saved, but the away side then took the lead when Charlie Dowd’s half-volley found the net via the inside of the post. They should have doubled their advantage shortly afterwards when Anthony Dwyer was denied, and Cain Noble’s follow-up effort flashed narrowly wide.

After Snedker made a crucial save early on in the second half, Rushden upped the pressure after Alvechurch came from behind to lead. Paddy Casey’s header across was just cleared, a Connor Furlong corner somehow evaded a sea of players, Tshikuna fired a free-kick over and Liam Dolman shot over from close-range, though the offside flag was raised. Over seven minutes of additional time were played, and Jones almost scrambled home a dramatic equaliser, but Diamonds couldn’t find a goal as their season ended in devastation.

First half

Following their disappointing defeat at St Ives on Easter Monday, manager Burgess made just the solitary change as Jordan Graham was ruled out through a knock, and so Shane Bush returned from injury to take his place up-front alongside Will Jones.

Rushden entered the final game of the regular season three points ahead of nearest rivals Alvechurch, which meant that a draw would secure fifth place and a shot in the play-offs. Nuneaton’s safety had been confirmed following Biggleswade’s defeat at Tamworth in midweek, and they had lost their last two (with having a player sent off in each) after winning their previous two prior to that.

Dean Snedker had been awarded the Supporters Player of the Season before kick-off, a well-deserved recognition for the range of crucial saves he had made throughout the campaign, the amount of points that he had helped Diamonds to win and his overall impact on the team. He was called into action two minutes into this clash as a strike from the edge of the area was easily held by the Rushden stopper.

The visitors continued their positive start as Nathan Tshikuna got back to make an important block from dangerman Charlie Dowd, and Luke Benbow then had a low effort comfortably caught by Snedker. Moments later Benbow almost broke through before the loose ball ricocheted to Dowd whose final attempt dribbled harmlessly wide.

Diamonds were struggling to get into the game, with Nuneaton having most of the possession and proved a regular threat when going forward. The hosts did briefly threaten when, firstly, Jones almost latched onto a Warburton long-throw before the two combined again for the striker to have a header easily held following a free-kick.

It was very tense and, after Bush thrashed a half-volley wide and Connor Furlong had a couple of promising crosses cleared, the nerves were drastically increased when Nuneaton took the lead. A long ball forward was chested down by Benbow for Charlie Dowd who instinctively hit a half-volley from outside the area. The sprawling Snedker got a touch on the strike, but he was only able to tip it onto the inside of the post and it rolled across into the net.

Alvechurch had just equalised after falling behind early on, so Diamonds were still in a play-ff place as it stood. Things almost got much worse only three minutes afterwards when a defensive mix-up was capitalised on by Anthony Dwyer as he strode through on goal. His effort was saved, and the rebound eventually fell to Cain Noble whose fierce strike flew inches wide of the upright.

Ben Diamond was required to crucially head away a dangerous free-kick, and Benbow acrobatically launched into an overhead kick that drifted wide as Diamonds remained on the back foot. They were relieved when the half-time whistle was blown, with the deficit only being one.

Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-1 Nuneaton Borough FC

Second half

Diamonds were out for the second period a few minutes earlier than their opponents, and they immediately looked to put more pressure on the away defence. They came close when a corner from the left found Paddy Casey at the back post, but his header back across was just cleared away. The defender almost then reached Tshikuna’s return ball in, but Tony Breeden in the Nuneaton goal was able to parry it away.

Only two minutes later, Snedker made a huge save to deny Dwyer after the midfielder had casually strolled past a few Rushden challenges into the left side of the area. Alvechurch then took the lead over Royston meaning they leapfrogged Diamonds into the final play-off place, and would remain there unless Rushden found a goal.

Furlong was the hosts’ main threat, and another terrific inswinging cross from the right almost found Liam Dolman before it just drifted out for a goal-kick. Tshikuna’s ball in then found Jones whose effort on-the-turn was deflected over, and the resultant corner found Bush only for his header to be hacked clear.

Set-pieces looked the best way for Rushden to find that vital goal and, just after the hour mark, Furlong’s corner from the right only needed a touch but it somehow evaded a throng of players. AJ George, who had made a difference when introduced on Monday, was then brought on to replace Bush.

Alvechurch soon made it 3-1 and so, with twenty minutes remaining, there was no doubt that Diamonds needed to score if they were to have a chance at promotion. George won a free-kick around 35 yards out, but Tshikuna’s driven effort flashed just over the crossbar.

Lauric Diakiesse came on for Akubuine as Dolman and Diamond were also thrown up-front in a do-or-die ending to the match. Nuneaton almost sealed it when Dwyer’s shot from range beat Snedker, but it went milimetres past the post. The home side responded to that let-off as Diamond crossed for Dolman who had the goal at his mercy, but the defender fired over the top. The flag had been raised for offside, though Dolman didn’t know that at the time.

Rushden then won a free-kick on the left, but Tshikuna’s delivery lacked pace and was easily caught by the grateful Breeden. An initial five minutes of additional time were signalled, though a couple of stoppages meant that over seven minutes would be played.

Two final chances remained as Tshikuna’s whipped delivery saw Jones and Breeden challenge, and the striker almost forced the ball home from close-range before the referee blew for a foul on the keeper. Furlong then got down the right and had Diamond completely free in the area, but his cross was overhit.

Seconds later the referee brought the game, and Diamonds’ season, to a close as a number of home players sunk to the turf in desolation. Alvechurch’s 3-1 victory was confirmed soon afterwards meaning Diamonds finished sixth, level on points with Alvechurch but having a worse goal difference.

Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-1 Nuneaton Borough FC

Words struggle to summarise how this feels after everything that has been put into the campaign. There have been many ups, some downs and, though it is devastating to come so close and miss out after being in pole position, we will soon reflect on what has been a truly memorable and positive season.

The response and form after being 17th in October, and the reaction to other moments of adversity such as Andy Peaks and Ty Deacon leaving, along with the late-season injuries, was terrific. Considering this is only our second full season at Step 3, and the resources we have at our disposal, our highest-ever league position is one to be proud of. Everybody has played such a big part in this season’s success and the foundations have been laid for much more to look forward to in coming seasons.

We will bounce back stronger. Bring on July and the start of a new season, renewed hopes and dreams to chase.

Diamonds Man of the Match: Liam Dolman

Attendance: 644

Match report by Ollie Mortimer

Diamonds: Snedker, Diamond, Warburton, Bell-Toxtle (C), Dolman, Casey, Furlong, Akubuine (Diakiesse 81), Bush (George 66), Jones, Tshikuna (subs not used: Snelus, Hughes, Johnson)

Diamonds goals: None

Diamonds yellows: Akubuine (62), Dolman (90+5)

Nuneaton Borough FC: Tony Breeden, Chukwemeka Beejer (Ahmed Obeng 78), Jaden Charles, Joseph Magunda, Scott McManus (C), Charlie Dowd, Luke Benbow (Christopher Clements 86), Revarnelle James (Gregory Kaziboni 57), Cain Noble, Shaquille Master, Anthony Dwyer (subs not used: Damien Mccrory, Isaiah Osbourne)

Nuneaton Borough FC goals: Dowd (33)

Nuneaton Borough FC yellows: Beejer, Charles (63)