AFC Rushden & Diamonds suffered a setback to their play-off hopes by losing at home to fellow top-five hopefuls Stocksbridge on Tuesday night.
Diamonds started positively and saw Shawn Richards hit an effort from outside the box straight at the away keeper before captain Richard Bunting headed a cross over the bar. The visitors, in a rich vein of form coming into the contest, soon took charge though and took the lead in the 17th minute when a corner from the left found an unmarked Matthew Reay to head home from close-range. Stocksbridge were quick to harry the hosts whenever they were in possession and were able quick to attack in plenty of numbers, and they doubled the lead in the 28th minute when Harrison Biggins won a free-kick before dispatching the kick into the bottom corner of the goal from around 25 yards out despite Matt Finlay getting a hand to it. In response Rushden saw a Ross Oulton free-kick get deflected narrowly over the bar and a Sam Brown header from a right-wing corner fall narrowly wide of the post, but in between these chances the away side could have added to their lead when Benjamin Rhodes saw a strike from distance well tipped over by Finlay and then the resultant corner saw a header deflected inches wide of the upright.
Diamonds looked to start the second half on the front foot and get a foothold in the match, but the pattern of them huffing and puffing without reward, and Stocksbridge looking dangerous on the counter-attack, was set. Away striker Scott Ruthven had an early effort go into the side-netting before the hosts started to build some pressure, with Ben Ford going closest when he had a rasping strike from long-range wwll tipped over by David Reay in the Steels goal. Top scorer Nabil Shariff then latched onto a long ball before taking a slightly heavy touch and seeing his effort blocked behind, but the Diamonds still found it difficult to break down a well-organised away backline. The Diamonds marksman looked the most likely source of a way back into the contest as he then saw a shot from the edge of the area blocked, an effort from a tightening angle parried away by the keeper and then an instinctive backheel flick just loop past the post. The viditors always represented a threat though, and Biggins almost notched his second free-kick of the contest only for Finlay to backpedal and tip the ball over the bar. Despite further Diamonds pressure, the most intense of which saw substitute Tom Lorraine have a goalbiund effort blocked from close-in before Dan Quigley scooped the rebound wide, they couldn’t find a way through, and Stocksbridge should have added to their advantage in stoppage-time when Joe Lumsden ran through before shooting wide. It didn’t matter for the visitors though as the full-time whistle was blown shortly afterwards to signal a deserved victory for the away side, and to confirm Diamonds’ drop to outside the play-off places ahead of three crucial remaining games in the regular league season.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks made four changes to the starting eleven that had dramatically beaten Leek at the weekend. Liam Dolman was ruled out through injury and Brad Harris was unavailable, meaning a reshuffle at centre-back that saw Sam Brown and Dan Quigley deputise. Ben Ford moved to left-back meaning Callum Westwood on his return from suspension slotted in at right-back. Ben Farrell came into the side to fill the midfield void left by Quigley, with Ollie Brown-Hill dropping out, and Tom Lorraine returned in place of Jack Bowen who was named amongst the substitutes.
The two teams entered onto the playing surface on a mild night in Wellingborough, and the sense of importance felt before Saturday’s game was replicated and even heightened before this contest. The hosts came into it occupying 5th, the last play-off spot, in the table one point clear of Stocksbridge in 7th, who had compiled a run of seven wins in their last ten league matches and four consecutive away wins to force themselves into the play-off reckoning. With the other teams in the top eight playing one another it was to be a crucial night for potential promotion aspirations, and referee Abbas Khan soon blew his whistle to begin the much-anticipated fixture.
The game was only in the second minute when the visitors had their first sight at goal, but after a loose ball had dropped to striker Joe Lumsden around 30 yards out, his left-footed effort was weak and easy for Diamonds keeper Matt Finlay to collect. Moments later play swung down the other end, and Shawn Richards was found on the left by a quick pass from Nabil Shariff before the winger flashed a quick shot towards goal. Visiting keeper David Reay, however, was able to confidently pat the attempt down and then collect it in his grasp.
The play was unsurprisingly tetchy and a little nervy in the opening exchanges as both sides attempted to get an early foothold in the game, but half-chances were still being created at either end. The visitors had an effort from winger Benjamin Rhodes flash wide of the target in the seventh minute, and then moments later the hosts attacked through Shariff. The Diamonds top-scorer powerfully ran down the left wing before lofting a dangerous cross towards the far post, but unfortunately for the hosts Richard Bunting was off-balance as he headed towards goal and so the effort went over the bar.
What the early stages showed was that the visitors were going to close down their opposing numbers quickly and often in groups, not allowing them time to settle on the ball or build a rhythm or tempo. One such case in the 13th minute saw a ball passed back to Finlay, but a yellow-shirt was quick to close him down and the keeper only just hit his clearance away before it could be charged down. Minutes later they won a corner on the left, the first of the game, and they had the lead. After the corner was retaken twice, firstly due to the ball not being in the quadrant and secondly due to it being blocked away for another corner by the nearby Westwood, the third attempted delivery whipped dangerously into the area and found the arriving Matthew Reay who was able to power a free header beyond Finlay and into the back of the net.
Given Stocksbridge’s strong recent away record the hosts knew they had it all to do to get back into the contest, but rather than the goal inspiring them into action, it only served in giving the visitors further belief and confidence. Diamonds struggled to maintain possession with yellow-shirts always in quick attendance, and whenever they did get a brief sight of a chance at goal they were snuffed out by the well-organised away defence. This was highlighted by Shariff almost running through on goal in the 20th minute, only for David Reay to quickly race off his line and collect the ball ahead of the striker.
The away side were linking up particularly well in midfield with many neat passing exchanges leaving the Diamonds on the back foot, and one such tidy move in the 28th minute saw them win a free-kick around 30 yards from goal after a foul by Farrell. Harrison Biggins, who had been the man fouled, picked himself up and curled a well-struck attempt up and over the four-man Diamonds wall. Though Finlay got a hand to the kick, the ball nestled in the bottom corner of the net, and Stocksbridge suddenly found themselves two goals to the good.
There was a slight sense of shock around the ground as the game got underway again, but it was no less than the visitors deserved for their enterprising and lively start to the contest. Diamonds themselves, in an attempt to respond, won a free-kick after 30 minutes when Oulton was fouled just under 30 yards from goal, and he like Biggins picked himself up to take the set-piece. His curling effort clipped the top of the wall and looped goalwards, with the keeper stranded, but it flew just over the bar and out for a corner. Ford’s delivery from the right was a low one and almost found a Rushden flick at the near post, but it was eventually cleared by the visitors.
In fact it was Stocksbridge who came the closest to extending their advantage rather than the Diamonds getting back into it. In the 34th minute Rhodes found himself with time and space to run into, and he unleashed a powerful effort from distance that Finlay did well to parry over the bar. The resultant corner found an away head at the near post, and his header bounced off a Diamonds man and could have ricocheted anywhere. Thankfully for the hosts though, the deflection carried the ball just past the post, and the next corner was easily cleared. Five minutes later a neat ball was played into the path of Ruthven with his back to goal on the left of the box, and he swivelled before hitting a shot towards the far post that Finlay dived to hold onto.
With the visitors closing down any opportunities from open-play, the Diamonds had to make their set-piece chances count when they arose, and they created two opportunities from such situations shortly before the half-time break. Firstly a deep free-kick from just in front of the dugouts found Quigley but he could only flick a header wide of the mark, and then a corner from the right reached a leaping Brown at the back post, but again the header dripped wide of the post.
After a short amount of stoppage time referee Khan blew his whistle for the end of the first half, one in which the visitors had largely dominated and fully deserved their advantage at the break.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-2 Stocksbridge Park Steels
The Diamonds players emerged from the changing rooms a couple of minutes before their opponents, and a keen sense of intrigue was felt around the ground to how the rest of the game would be played out, and whether Diamonds could make a quick riposte or not.
Khan sounded his whistle to start the second period, and even though it was the hosts who were looking to make a strong attacking start to the half, the visitors were the ones who had the first opportunity of the half. Ruthven was released by a through ball just short of the halfway line and he ran forward towards the area before striking an early effort wide of the near post. A similar pattern of play, one where Diamonds tried to force the issue and Stocksbridge looked to hit on the counter-attack, was established for the rest of the half from these early exchanges.
The home side began to get some concerted but often fruitless spells of position, with the visitors still harrying and pressuring the white-shirted players at every opportunity. Stocksbridge were still noticeably confident in possession, and one slick move on the left in the 53rd minute saw winger Brodie Litchfield get in behind Westwood in the left. He looked up and played the ball back for the unmarked Ruthven, but Brown did superbly to read the danger and clear away before the striker could hit a shot at goal. Moments later Rushden created their opening chance of the period when Ford collected the ball from Bunting just ahead of the halfway line, and with a lack of movement ahead of him he took it upon himself to have a run forwards. He skipped quickly past a couple of challenges before fizzing a fierce left-footed effort towards goal that David Reay was forced to push over the top for a corner.
The resulting corner eventually came to nothing, but the Ford effort seemed to give the Diamonds players and fans alike a boost. Three minutes later, in the 58th minute, a long ball forward looked simple for away full-back George Grayson to deal with, but the ball bounced high and Shariff terrifically stole in ahead of the defender before running through on the right. His final touch into the area, however, was slightly heavy and the Stocksbridge keeper, plus a covering defender, flew out to smother the striker’s shot out for another corner. Shortly afterwards a loose ball dropped for Lorraine on the edge of his own box, and he quickly played a pass to Richards who smartly turned and ran into the attacking half on the left. He reached the penalty area and cut back inside before crossing towards the advancing Lorraine, who was just unable to control. The loose ball dropped for Shariff, but his shot-on-the-turn was well blocked away by a visiting defender.
Stocksbridge still posed a great threat on the break, and after this period of home pressure they were able to advance forward themselves and win a free-kick on the left. Biggins stood over the set-piece and initially looked like he would curl it into the area in the hope of finding a teammate, but instead he tried to catch Finlay out by whipping an effort towards goal. The keeper though readjusted quickly and was able to tip the ball over the crossbar. The subsequent corner from the right was parried by Finlay and could have fell anywhere, but fortunately for the hosts it fell for a white-shirt to eventually clear away.
Nabil Shariff, despite persistently being surrounded by a host of Stocksbridge players whenever he was in possession, was looking dangerous for the Diamonds, and he again went close to halving the deficit in the 67th minute. Richards did well to latch onto a poor touch from an away midfielder and run forward from the halfway line, and as he approached the area he slid a pass across for the striker to run onto. However, the pass forced him slightly wider than he would have wished to have been, and so Shariff’s shot was from a tightening angle and blocked behind by the keeper. Two minutes later the two linked up again when Richards curled in a cross from the left that Shariff instinctively flicked towards goal with a backheel, but the ball looped up and went just wide of the far post.
Jack Bowen had been introduced into the game at the expense of Oulton a few minutes before these chances, and then Taylor Orosz was also summoned to replace Ford. This meant a tactical reshuffle that saw Lorraine drop into centre-half, Orosz operate from the right side and Bowen go straight up front. Despite these positive alterations Diamonds still struggled to create clear-cut chances, with the visitors defending doggedly and obdurately to limit the home attacking moves. 15 minutes of normal time remained when a ball down the right looking for Orosz in behind saw him out sufficient pressure on the covering defender to clear out for a throw-in on the right. Brown moved across to take it, and his lengthy pitch into the box saw Lorraine flick it into the six-yard box looking for Bowen, but a defender was able to stab the ball away before the Diamonds striker could latch onto it. The ball looped out to Brown who volleyed a cross back into the middle, but again Stocksbridge did well to clear the danger away.
Still Rushden pushed and put pressure on as they strove for any sign of a way back into the game, but the visitors seemed almost impregnable as a number of attacks and midfield moves were broken down at source. Bunting was booked for stopping a counter-attack as another home move broke down, and Stocksbridge continued to look comfortable and unflustered with the ball at their feet. The match ticked into the final five minutes of regulation time when another attacking move for Diamonds was snuffed, and Biggins latched onto the loose ball just ahead of the halfway line. Spotting Finlay off his line he attempted an audacious effort from far out, but the ball bounced up once and the home keeper was able to collect it with ease.
The visitors were doing well in seeing out the game and closing out the victory, and as the game moved into stoppage-time it was looking less and less likely that the Diamonds would get even one goal back. However, they did have an excellent opportunity in the 92nd minute when Bunting was tripped by Litchfield just ahead of the halfway line, and Westwood curled the ball into the box hoping for a white-shirt to get onto it. Bowen did and nodded it across goal, and after a ricochet it dropped for Lorraine eight yards out in the centre of goal. His shot towards the net was heading in until it was blocked just ahead of the line, but it still dropped for the lurking Quigley with the goalkeeper down and a gaping goal ahead of him. However it came to him quick and he was unable to readjust his feet, meaning his resulting shot was scooped wide of the target.
With that chance went any hope of a Diamonds turnaround, and there remained only time for one final chance for each side. Firstly the hosts won a throw-in on the left which Brown launched into the area, and a flick-on at the near post was dangerous but just wouldn’t fall for Shariff and Orosz, meaning the danger was able to be cleared away again by the visiting defence. Then David Reay dispatched a drop-kick deep into the Rushden half, and Lorraine missed his attempted clearance allowing Lumsden to run in behind. The striker-come-defender was quick to recover however, and Lumsden’s resulting shot was hurried and wide of the near post.
Shortly afterwards referee Khan signalled the end of the game, with Stocksbridge sealing a deserved victory and moving up into the play-off places at the expense of Diamonds who drop to sixth.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-2 Stocksbridge Park Steels
Though the Diamonds huffed, puffed and never gave up in their fight for a way back into the game, the damage had been done inside the opening half-an-hour. The visitors fully merited their success, with the way they pressured Diamonds whenever they were in possession, the pace and support to their numerous counter-attacks, and their strong organisation in defence proving too much for the hosts. Full credit must go to them for their level of performance, and Diamonds were simply beaten by the better side on the night. With their now regular centre-back pairing of Dolman and Harris being unavailable, and with the form and confidence that Stocksbridge were bringing into the contest, it was always going to be a very tough game for Rushden. The most important thing to take from the game was that their destiny and hopes to extend their season still lie in their own hands; with Lincoln defeating Newcastle and Basford drawing at Spalding, Diamonds lie on 64 points in sixth place level on points with Lincoln (7th) and Newcastle (8th), two points behind Basford in 4th with a game in hand. The first of their three remaining games of the regular season comes on Saturday (April 15th), and they don’t come much bigger in terms of the play-off push… Newcastle Town are the visitors to the Dog & Duck. It is a game of huge, season-defining proportions, but Diamonds head into it knowing exactly what they have to do; win their final three games, and they will be in the play-offs.
Diamonds Man of the Match chosen by Match Sponsors Mr & Mrs Greenway: Sam Brown
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Stocksbridge Park Steels
17. Matt Finlay
2. Callum Westwood
3. Ben Ford
4. Sam Brown
5. Dan Quigley
6. Ben Farrell
7. Shawn Richards
8. Richard Bunting (C)
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Nabil Shariff
11. Ross Oulton
12. Kyal McNulty
13. Ben Heath
14. Lewis Leslie
15. Taylor Orosz (for Ford 72)
16. Jack Bowen (for Oulton 64)
1. David Reay
2. Joshua Meade
3. George Grayson
4. Richard Stirrup
5. Liam McFayden (C)
6. Matthew Reay
7. Benjamin Rhodes
8. Harrison Biggins
9. Scott Ruthven
10. Joe Lumsden
11. Brodie Litchfield
12. Jack Poulton (for Litchfield 82)
14. Lee Thompson
15. Ryan Laight
16. Josh Hobson
Goals: M. Reay (17), Biggins (28)
Yellow Cards: Bunting (77)
Yellow Cards: M. Reay (90+2)
Referee: Abbas Khan
Assistants: Paul Whateley, Michael Scriven
Updated player profiles with appearance and goalscoring details are now available.