AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-2 Peterborough Sports FC

Diamonds were narrowly defeated by league rivals Peterborough Sports in the 2022 NFA Hillier Senior Cup Final at Sixfields.

Chances were pretty few and far between in the first half, with Sports’ Ryan Fryatt coming closest when his header beat Dean Snekder but came back off the bar. AJ George was a big threat for Rushden as he had a couple of efforts held, and fellow winger Lewis Johnson saw a 30-yard strike fly just over.

Diamonds started the second period brightly as Johnson had a deflected shot saved, but Sports soon won a penalty after Liam Dolman brought down the advancing Kyujon Marsh-Brown. However, Dan Lawlor struck his penalty wide, and Rushden almost made them pay when substitute Nathan Tshikuna’s vicious free-kick was tipped onto the post. He then played in Johnson who rounded the keeper, but his goalbound attempt was cleared away, Sports took the lead 12 minutes from time when Snedker made a brilliant save, only for ex-Diamonds man Jordan Macleod to sweep home the rebound. Paddy Casey and Will Jones came close to forcing a penalty shoot-out but were denied by a goal-saving block and near-post save, and Sports wrapped up their success in stoppage time as Dion Sembie-Ferris strode away to slot home a low effort.

First half

Interim manager Burgess made three changes to the starting XI that had drawn at play-off rivals Coalville on Saturday. All the alterations came at the top of the pitch as Lauric Diakiesse, Jack Snelus and AJ George came in for the rested Jordan Graham, Nathan Tshikuna and Connor Furlong.

This was the fourth time that the sides had met this season, with Sports emerging victorious in both league clashes and in the Southern League Challenge Cup too. Diamonds had won the Hillier Cup twice before, in 2016 and 2019, and had defeated Northampton ON Chenecks (3-0), Kettering (4-2 on pens) and Bugbrooke St Michaels (2-1) to reach this stage. They were unbeaten in their last five (W1 D4) and had only lost one of their previous nine, though that defeat had come at Sports in March. Sports themselves had reached this stage by beating Desborough 8-0, with Brackley pulling out of their planned semi-final due to injuries. They were undefeated in their last eight (W6 D2) and had won their last three to move second in the Southern Premier Central table, three places and 12 points clear of Rushden in fifth.

The early exchanges, as for most of the first half overall, was pretty low-key with both sides threatening sporadically but being let down by their end product. Sports had a looping header held from a corner, but another corner soon afterwards resulted in the best chance of the opening period. Ben Diamond did well to block a cross behind, and the subsequent delivery found defender Ryan Fryatt at the back post. His header arced over Dean Snedker but smacked off the bar and was cleared away.

Sports had a few efforts off-target, including a blocked shot from Josh McCammon, and it took Diamonds until just before the half-hour mark to fashion their first proper sight of goal. Lewis Johnson did well to find space in between the lines before dashing forward and launching a strike from 30 yards that flew just over the bar.

This signalled a good spell for Rushden as they forced their opponents back and looked the more likely. George was brought down on the right after a mazy run and, though Warburton’s inswinging delivery was cleared away, it ran to George whose deflected shot ran kindly for keeper Lewis Elsom to collect. Snelus then did excellently to spin and draw a free-kick, but George’s low effort was again held.

There was a moment of controversy from their next set-piece as a deep free-kick was headed out, but it was neatly flicked back into the danger area by Snelus. It almost ran for Paddy Casey and Diakiesse, with the striker sliding in on Elsom as he himself dived to claim the loose ball. A brief melee ensued, with the Diamonds striker being shown the first yellow card of the contest.

Sports right-back Isiah Bazeley was booked shortly afterwards for blocking Snelus, and Johnson soon jinked inside from the left before his fizzing attempt was charged down. At the other end Dan Jarvis strode forward only to loft a shot well over, and that was the final action of a tense and tight opening 45 minutes.

Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 Peterborough Sports FC

Second half

During the break the attendance was announced as 533, and the second period almost began perfectly for Diamonds. George advanced down the right before his cross in found Johnson at the far post but, after cutting in, his shot was deflected up and held by Elson close to the post. The winger almost had an even better opportunity five minutes later when Snelus broke away down the right, with Johnson totally free in the middle, but Snelus’ attempted pass was blocked and then cleared upfield.

Just before the hour mark, Burgess made a double change as Will Jones and Tshikuna replaced Diakiesse and Snelus. It was Sports though who had the next big moment as they won a penalty. An attack down the left looked to be covered, but Liam Dolman’s sliding challenge brought down Kyujon Marsh-Brown and the referee didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot. Midfielder Daniel Lawlor stepped up but, despite sending Snedker the wrong way, he also sent the kick past the upright and the scoreline remained deadlocked.

The increased action continued, with Tshikuna stepping forward and having a shot blocked before Jesse Akubuine was booked for a foul. Sports responded and almost turned a cross in from the right only for Casey to block, and Diamond hacked clear the return ball in.

Sports captain Richard Jones was booked for bringing down his namesake Will Jones, and Rushden came within millimetres of scoring from the resultant free-kick. Tshikuna hit it past the wall from around 35 yards out, and it sped towards goal only for Elsom to get the slightest of touches to tip it onto the post before it was ran out for a goal-kick.

Moments later Diamonds went mightily close again as the influential Tshikuna cleverly slid Johnson in on goal. He calmly stepped round Elsom, but a couple of Sports defenders got back to block his low strike.

These two moments proved evne more pivotal when Sports then took the lead. A minute after being introduced, Jordan Macleod reacted quickest to turn home a rebound after Snedker had somehow parried a close-range header.

Ten minutes remained as Furlong was introduced for Johnson, and Rushden again should have scored soon afterwards. A ball in from the left was flicked on by Dolman and it fell for Casey in the middle of the area, but a Sports defender chucked himself in front of the effort to deflect it over. The corner found Casey at the far post before another effort was blocked away by stoic defending.

Snedker did well to hold a curling effort from Lewis Hillard and, despite chasing the game, Sports did well to manage their lead. Four minutes of additional time was signalled and, in the third of these, Jones ran through on the left for Diamonds before being denied by a good save by Elsom at his near post.

Sports wrapped up the win as a short Rushden corner routine didn’t work, and the subsequent counter-attack resulted in Dion Sembie-Ferris rifling home a strike from 25 yards out.

Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-2 Peterborough Sports FC

Like the league game a month ago, this was a very close match that could have gone either way. The first goal in such a contest is always going to be crucial and many of the fine margins, such as Tshikuna’s strike off the post, didn’t go in Diamonds’ favour. Sports capitalised to clinically take two chances and defend well in between to seal their first Hiller Cup.

Rushden’s focus quickly switches back to the league as they welcome Bromsgrove Sporting on Saturday (16 April, 3pm kick-off) in their quest for the play-offs.

Diamonds Man of the Match: Jesse Akubuine

Attendance: 533

Match report by Ollie Mortimer

Diamonds:Snedker, Diamond, Warburton, Bell-Toxtle (C), Dolman, Casey, Johnson (Furlong 80), Akubuine, Diakiesse (Jones 58), Snelus (Tshikuna 58), George (subs not used: Chikamba, Corden)

Diamonds goals: None

Diamonds yellows: Diakiesse (37), Akubuine (68)

Peterborough Sports FC: Lewis Elsom, Isiah Bazeley, Luke Warner-Eley, Ryan Fryatt, Richard Jones (C), Daniel Lawlor, Dion Sembie-Ferris, Dan Jarvis (Mark Jones 66), Michael Gash (Lewis Hilliard 66), Joshua McCammon, Kyujon Marsh-Brown (Jordan Macleod 77) (subs not used: Brad McGowan, Jordan Nicholson)

Peterborough Sports FC goals: Macleod (78), Sembie-Ferris (90+4)

Peterborough Sports FC yellows: Bazeley (40), Marsh-Brown (49), R. Jones (71)