Diamonds recorded a pivotal and potentially season-defining victory over promotion rivals AFC Dunstable at Hayden Road on Tuesday evening.
The early stages, with so much at stake for both sides, were understandably cagey and tense, and clear-cut chances were largely at a premium. Set-pieces were one of the chief outlets for opportunities, with one Diamonds free-kick being met by the head of Jack Westbrook only for the loose ball to drop narrowly away from a few home players, and then Christian Tavernier’s kick for the visitors that dangerously flashed through the Rushden box before being cleared. The match was really competitive and keenly-fought especially in the midfield areas as neither side really gave the other much, though Diamonds did have a penalty appeal when Ryan Robbins thought his shot was blocked by an away hand, but the referee was having none of it and waved away the shouts. Drew Roberts then saw a free-kick in a threatening area charged down before Diamonds had the best two chances of the half. Firstly Liam Dolman headed down for Westbrook to thump an effort over the bar from close-range and then, after scoring his first goal of the campaign on Saturday, Joe Curtis almost made it two in two games when Spencer Weir-Daley picked the midfielder out with a cross, but his close-range header was superbly tipped over the bar by the keeper. That was the final action of the half, with the game very much on a knife-edge heading into the second period.
After not really forcing Heath into much action in the opening half, Dunstable created an opportunity within minutes of the second half. Newman Carney wriggled into some space in the box before hitting an effort goalwards that forced Heath to tip over the goal. A succession of yellow cards then followed as the tackles continued to fly in and the nature of the match continued to be competitive, and the longer the game went on the more the tension built for both sides. Peaks made a couple of changes as Ben Farrell and Tom Lorraine came on, but it was the visitors who went inches to taking the lead shortly after. A deep free-kick found the free Leon Cashman and he stuck out his right foot to direct the ball goalwards, but Heath produced a miraculous fingertip save to flick it up and onto the roof of the net. That save felt crucial at the time and, after Robbins had latched onto a Lorraine flick-on before seeing his parried behind, it proved even more vital when the host won a penalty. Farrell did well to latch onto a loose ball before powering into the area only to be brought down by Roberts, and the referee showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Farrell picked himself up and kept his calm remarkably well to place the kick straight down the middle beyond the keeper’s despairing dive and into the back of the net. Despite time remaining Diamonds did brilliantly well to manage the rest of the game and close out the victory, one that returns them to the top of the table and moves them one step closer to potential promotion.
Manager Andy Peaks named an unchanged starting XI from the side that importantly defeated Aylesbury United on Saturday. The only alteration came amongst the substitutes as Ben Diamond made a welcome return to the squad after his injury lay-off, and he joined Jack Ashton, Ben Ford, Ben Farrell and Tom Lorraine on a strong-looking bench. Both sets of players took to the pitch with rain and wind in the air, but more importantly a strong sense of intrigue and anticipation was in the air. Rushden came into the contest in second place, one point off leaders Beaconsfield who had a game in hand, and two points clear of third-placed Hayes & Yeading with two games in hand, one of them being this game. Contrastingly AFC Dunstable entered the match occupying the final play-off position and having only conceded the second lowest amount of goals in the league, and so everything truly was to play for in the upcoming game. After the players had shook hands and the two captains had conducted the coin-toss, referee Robbie Dadley got the contest underway.
With so much at stake for both teams, not just today but for the rest of their respective seasons, it was no surprise that the game began tetchily. Neither side were really able to build a period of pressure and tempo to gain an early advantage, and instead midfield skirmishes were aplenty and the nature of the play was fairly scrappy. In the 10th minute Diamonds won a corner, and Gyasi’s delivery was dangerous as it met the run of Liam Dolman at the front post. The defender flicked on in the hope of finding a fellow white shirt, but an away defender was able to clear behind for another corner which ultimately came to nothing. Gyasi was involved again moments later as held up the ball well before feeding the overlapping Blaize Punter. However, the ball took a bobble before he crossed it and so the delivery flew harmlessly out of play for a goal-kick.
The play continued to be well-fought and keenly-contested as both teams probed for an opening without giving an inch to their opponents, and so the match was incredibly tight as a result. In the 21st minute the hosts won a free-kick just ahead of the halfway line, and Punter lofted a delivery towards the back post. It was won by a Diamonds head and found Spencer Weir-Daley who quickly got the ball out of his feet before feeding Robbins on the right of the area. The powerful striker collected before hitting an effort that was deflected by both a defender and the keeper Jamie Head before it dropped towards the lurking Dolman. However, a combination of a covering defender and the keeper stopped any attempted effort, and the first sign of a chance in the game had passed.
The first yellow card of the game came shortly afterwards when Dunstable man Bill Morgan fouled Luke Fairlamb after tricky play from the winger. The visitors hadn’t created anything in the way of chances and hadn’t looked like threatening Ben Heath in the Diamonds goal, despite looking threatening up into the final third, but that almost changed just before the half-hour mark. Just as the home side had come close to scoring from a set-piece Dunstable did the same when they won a free-kick, and Christian Tavernier’s subsequent delivery flashed past a number of players before Fairlamb was able to clear the danger away. Two minutes later the home wide-man was doing good work down the other end when he broke from deep and ran forward powerfully before attempting to find Weir-Daley, but it took an unfortunate deflection away from the striker and took the pass straight through to the keeper.
The match passed thirty minutes with still much of the play being contested in the middle third, and with neither keeper really being tested. Set-pieces appeared one of the main ways of creating opportunities, and another one led to a further chance in the 37th minute. The away side won a free-kick out on the right, and the resultant inswinging delivery found the leaping Leon Cashman who had got up above Westbrook. However, his header looped high up into the air and was dropping comfortably wide before Heath jumped to collect the ball in his grasp. Three minutes later the home side created a good opportunity. Fairlamb collected a pass on the left before measuring a cross into the area and, though it was initially headed away, it was returned with interest by Brown’s head. It reached Dolman who headed down to the nearby and free Westbrook, but the midfielder leaned back and his volley cleared the goal and the Peter de Banke terrace behind.
Rushden were ending the half on the front foot as they began to put consistent pressure on the away defence, and two minutes before the end of the regulation forty-five minutes they created the best opening of the game so far. A long ball forward bounced up highly and over the Dunstable backline before Weir-Daley did well to collect and then look for support. He faced up a defender on the right of the box before twisting away from goal to begin with, but then he swiftly turned to cross into the middle. It met the perfectly-timed run of the onrushing Curtis who hit a sweetly struck effort from close-range, but Head did brilliantly to tip the ball over the bar and keep the score at 0-0 heading towards half-time.
That proved to be the final action of the half as shortly afterwards, with not much added-on time, the referee blew his whistle for the interval. It had been a half which had been short on real goalmouth action but which had been high on energy, commitment and application, with the contest poised on the proverbial knife-edge as the two teams made their way to the changing rooms.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 AFC Dunstable
Both sets of players returned to the field of play after the half-time break, with any sense of nerves or tension that had been felt before the game being even more prevalent now. Most thoughts during the interval turned to if the match would be more open in the second half, and to how crucial the first goal may prove to be. The attendance was confirmed as 452 during the break, and after a quick head-count referee Dadley got the contest back underway.
The half was less than five minutes old when the visitors moved forward and created a decent opening. Newman Carney latched onto a loose ball on the left to run inside into the area, and he faced up Punter before moving away from him and hitting a strike towards goal. It flashed towards goal but Heath did well to jump up and tip the ball over for a corner. The subsequent set-piece came to nothing, though the attack had been a warning sign to the Diamonds.
Shortly afterwards Dunstable received two yellow cards, a sign of how competitive the contest still was and confirmation of tackles still flying in. One was given to Moses Olaleye for an accumulation of fouls and Bernard Christie also received one for a late challenge on Gyasi. A Robbins flick-on towards Weir-Daley was then just collected by the away keeper just ahead of the front-man as Rushden threatened, and a minute later Ross Oulton was cautioned for a late tackle on Ryan Frater. This was to be the midfielder’s final action of the game as, after the hour mark had passed and after the Diamonds number 6 went down, he was replaced by Ben Farrell. Tom Lorraine was also introduced for Weir-Daley as Peaks decided to switch things up in an attempt to get a firmer foothold in the match, and to try and gain an all-important advantage.
This idea was almost shattered within a minute after the switches as the visitors came mightily close to taking the lead. They won a free-kick around 5 yards ahead of the halfway line, and Carney curled his delivery deep into the area and towards the back post. Cashman gained a march on Westbrook as he ran to meet the kick, and he threw out his right foot to connect and loop the ball towards goal. With the effort being from close-range, and with Heath a few yards off his line, it seemed inevitable that it go over the keeper and into the net, but Heath showed incredible spring and athleticism to somehow leap and finger-tip the shot over the bar and onto the roof of the net. The reaction of a couple of Dunstable players in throwing their hands to their heads and Punter, who immediately ran up to hug the keeper, showed how fantastic the save was, and how crucial it might prove to be.
The next ten minutes were fairly cagey as the tension built even more the longer the game went on, and goalmouth action and clear-cut chances still were in fairly short supply. It was still making for entertaining viewing though with how much was at stake for both sides, and this was exemplified even further by another heavy fifty-fifty challenge, this time involving Lorraine and Cashman. Both men received treatment and, though the Diamonds man was able to continue, the Dunstable player looked groggy after the coming-together and as a result walked off to be substituted. As mentioned Lorraine was back into the action, and soon after he played a key part in a good chance. A ball forward saw the striker flick on into the path of his striker-partner, and Robbins powerfully ran into the right side of the area away from a covering defender before hitting a strike towards the near post that Head tipped into the side-netting.
The time moved into the final ten minutes of regulation time, and the match couldn’t be any closer. A minute after the visitors made a second change a long ball forward towards Fairlamb saw the winger and away defender Terry Griffiths challenge in the air. The loose ball ran across the face of the area, and it appeared Drew Roberts would pick up possession and clear upfield. However Ben Farrell did superbly to make up the yards, nip in in front of the Dunstable man and drive into the area. In an attempt to make up for his mistake Roberts put his hands on the back of the Diamonds substitute, and Farrell went down. The referee was nearby, and showed no hesitation in running across and pointing to the penalty spot. Rushden had missed their last penalty, which itself was a crucial one, at Beaconsfield, but this felt even more vital as usual penalty-taker Farrell picked himself up before placing the ball down ready for the kick. After a moment, and no doubt a collective deep breath from all Diamonds players, staff and supporters, he stepped up to place an effort down the middle of the goal. Head dived to his right and tried to save the effort with his trailing legs, but it went past him and into the back of the net. The celebrations rang out loud and true, with the strike being Farrell’s fifteenth goal of the season, and undoubtedly his most important.
However, time still remained and so the job wasn’t completely done. Some frustration began to show amongst the visitors, something which led to a yellow card for Roberts for pulling back Fairlamb, and Diamonds did an excellent job of managing the time and nullifying any sign of a threat from Dunstable. Robbins seemingly picked up an injury in the 87th minute, and so no risks were taken given the state of the game and the time on the clock. He hobbled off to be replaced by Ben Diamond, and the time continued to be wittled down towards the end of the contest.
Minute after minute passed, and the match reached additional time with the away side not really threatening and Diamonds managing to keep the ball away from their opponents. Stoppage time also passed without any further action, and soon referee Dadley blew for full-time to signal a massively important victory for Rushden, one that keeps their promotion hopes in their own hands with three games remaining.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 AFC Dunstable
In a game of few clear-cut chances and one that was short on true quality whilst being high on quantity of midfield battles, strong challenges and competitiveness, Diamonds found the edge. They defended well in limiting Dunstable to only one clear opening, and Heath’s save from this chance really could prove one of the most important moments of the season come the end of the campaign. Though the hosts didn’t create many opportunities themselves, they struck at a crucial time to seal the contest. After six games without a win they have now registered crucial back-to-back victories, something that moves them back to the top of the table two points clear of Beaconsfield who have two games in hand. More importantly they have won one of their games in hand on third-placed Hayes & Yeading, and they take one more crucial step towards promotion. However there is still plenty of work to be done, evidenced none more so than by their next game which sees them make their final trip for an away match this season as they travel to now fifth-placed Cambridge City on Saturday (April 21st), 3pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ben Farrell
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
13. Ben Heath
2. Blaize Punter
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Ross Oulton
7. Joel Gyasi
8. Joe Curtis
9. Ryan Robbins
10. Spencer Weir-Daley
11. Luke Fairlamb
12. Ben Ford
14. Ben Farrell (for Oulton 63)
15. Tom Lorraine (for Weir-Daley 63)
16. Ben Diamond (for Robbins 87)
19. Jack Ashton
1. Jamie Head
2. Terry Griffiths
3. Newman Carney
5. Leon Cashman
6. Christian Tavernier
7. Louis Bircham
8. Moses Olaleye (C)
9. Bernard Christie
10. Drew Roberts
11. Nathan Frater
14. Bill Morgan
4. Ryan Frater
12. Danny Murphy (for Cashman 77)
15. Jermaine Hall (for Christie 81)
16. Matthew Langston
Goals: Farrell (pen 83)
Yellow Cards: Oulton (57)
Yellow Cards: Morgan (24), Olaleye (51), Christie (54), Roberts (85)
Referee: Robbie Dadley
Assistants: Joe Clarke, Thomas Kidd