Diamonds fought to a draw against a fellow play-off contender in Alvechurch FC on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts got off to the best possible start by taking the lead in only the second minute. Tom Lorraine flicked a pass into the path of the onrushing Sam Johnson, and the winger ran into the area before slotting a calm finish past the keeper and into the far corner of the net. It was hoped Diamomds would kick on from there, but instead it was the visitors who responded and had the better of the half. David Bellis had a shot from the edge of the area that was straight at Ben Heath, and then one effort rolled wide before another flashed over the bar. Alvechurch didn’t initially create a huge amount in the way of clear-cut opportunities, but they regularly threatened with pacey attacks and neat link-up play. In the 34th minute a cut-back from Joshua Ezewele found Kieron Cook close to goal, and his sliding effort beat Heath only for Jack Westbrook to make a terrific block on the line before it was cleared away. The dangerous Cook then got away from Jack Ashton on the halfway line before running at Liam Dolman, and he skipped into the area before seeing a low left-footed effort well parried away by Heath down to his left. Cook had another attempt saved by Heath, though the offside flag was raised, and Diamonds were penalised with four yellow cards in the last ten minutes of the half.
The pattern of play continued at the beginning of the second half, with the visitors pressing their opponents and having the better of possession and territory. Despite that, Diamonds threatened when Ben Diamond saw a half-volley blocked and Nathan Hicks saw an effort flash narrowly wide of the post with the keeper rooted to the spot. Alvechurch deservedly levelled in the 64th minute when full-back Zack Foster jinked inside on the left before feeding it back to Cook, and he curled a pinpoint effort in off the far post. Away striker Joshua March then had a low shot well saved by Heath to his left, and Alvechurch were threatening to dominate the remainder of the game and were looking the more likely. However, a tactical switch that saw Sam Brown come on and Diamond move up front alongside Tom Lorraine in a 4-4-2 formation changed things and gave Rushden more of a foothold. Almost immediately Hicks latched onto a ball from Ashton down the left channel before superbly skipping inside and seeing a shot well punched away by the keeper. The away side were still dangerous though, and Cook went close to a winner when played a swift one-two on the edge of the area to get through on goal, but Heath came out to save at his feet. There was some late controversy when a ball in behind the away defence saw a break-down in communication between the keeper and a defender, and Diamond nipped in only to seemingly be brought down inside the area. However, the referee waved away the strong appeals and meant that the game finished all-square as Diamonds extend their unbeaten league run to nine games.
Manager Peaks named the same starting XI that had defeated Halesowen last time out and that, as a result, had moved into the play-off places. This meant that Jack Ashton continued at left-back, and that Sam Johnson also remained in a supporting role of Tom Lorraine. The only alteration came amongst the substitutes as Sam Brown returned to the bench alongside Joe Curtis, Ben Farrell, Ben Acquaye and Jack Bowen.
The two teams stepped out onto a damp Hayden Road playing surface with a keen breeze swirling around, and with much anticipation also. Diamonds came into the contest fourth in the table and were unbeaten in their last eight league matches. They had only been defeated once in their last fifteen games, and they had only lost one home league game all season. Alvechurch were just outside the play-off positions in sixth place, one point behind their opponents albeit with a game in hand. They had lost three of their last five away league games, but their home form of late had been superb having been unbeaten in their last five (four wins, one draw). The reverse fixture between the sides in December had finished 0-0 in what was a close and very even encounter and, with this being both clubs’ first season at this level, many regarded this as the battle of the season’s surprise packages. Much was at stake with only ten games remaining after this one and so, after the pre-match formalities had been completed, there was an expectant buzz as the referee began the game.
Less than two minutes had been played when Rushden forged ahead. A ball was played into the feet of Lorraine on the right, and he flicked a pass that fortunately ricocheted off David Bellis and into the path of Sam Johnson. He sprinted towards the area, got past a defender and, just as he entered the box, he slotted a low finish past ex-RDFC keeper Dan Crane and into the far corner of the net. It was a terrific run and finish by the winger for his third goal of the campaign, and it gave the hosts the perfect start.
Any game-plan that the visitors had perhaps been altered by the early strike, but they looked to launch an immediate riposte. Moments later midfielder Bellis latched onto the ball just outside the area and hit a shot towards goal, but it was straight at Ben Heath who caught the effort easily. Following that a throw-in on the right was worked to striker Aaron Lloyd, but his swift turn was only followed by a weak effort that rolled comfortably wide of the near post.
Alvechurch were pressing Diamonds all over the pitch and forcing the home side to play a number of long balls forward, most of which were coming back and allowing the visitors to enjoy more territory and possession. However, in the 15th minute the hosts had a half-chance when a loose ball broke to Lorraine around 30 yards out, but his half-volley was deflected and ran through for Crane to easily pick up. Play was down the other end soon afterwards, and Alvechurch won a free-kick halfway inside their attacking half. As with many other set-pieces, they took the kick swiftly, and it allowed Mitchell Botfield the opportunity to hit an effort from range. The shot went comfortably over the bar though, and Diamonds still led.
The early exchanges were being played at a quick and often frenetic pace, with possession regularly being turned over and both sides looking dangerous down the flanks. The visitors, who had shown flashes of danger before, stepped up their pressure in the 25th minute and built a move that forced Diamonds back. A couple of threatening crosses were played in, but they were both cleared by strong headers. The second clearance fell for an Alvechurch man just outside the area, but his snatched effort flew harmlessly over the goal.
The hosts broke down the other end and, after Ben Diamond had got down the left and fed it inside to Nathan Hicks, the midfielder played a neat pass into the path of Declan Rogers on the left of the box. He span and ran towards the byline before firing a cross in towards the six-yard box, but Crane confidently dived to claim and hold it close to his body. Alvechurch then won a free-kick on the left, and the inswinging delivery was excellently headed away by firstly Jack Westbrook and then cleared by Lorraine.
For all their endeavour, threat and swift attacks, the away side had not truly threatened Heath or created a clear goalscoring chance. This all changed, however, in the 34th minute when they came inches away from levelling. Right-back Joshua Ezewele, who was a threat all afternoon with his overlapping runs and willingness to get forward, got into the area and cut it back invitingly to the free Kieron Cook around 10 yards out. He slid an effort towards goal that beat Heath and looked for all the world that it would go in, but Westbrook had anticipated the situation perfectly and made a vital goalline block before the danger was cleared away.
The midfielder was then booked moments later for an aerial clash near the halfway line. From the free-kick Zack Foster got into the left side of the area for the visitors, but his flashed cross had too much on it and went over the bar. Alvechurch continued to force Diamonds back though and sustained their pressure, nd they went close again in the 40th minute. A long ball towards the halfway line saw Cook control expertly in sprinting forward and leaving Ashton in his wake. He ran towards the area and the back-pedalling Liam Dolman, and he jinked onto his favoured left foot before skidding an effort towards goal. Heath got down to his left to importantly parry the attempt, and the ball was cleared away upfield. Ashton had attempted to bring down the winger as he sped past him, and the referee issued a yellow card to the defender.
Cook was proving to be a livewire and a threat to the Diamonds backline, and he almost got in again just before half-time. Joshua March lifted an impudent pass over the home defence and into the onrushing path of the number 11, but Heath rushed out to stop his stabbed effort. The offside flag had been raised anyway, and so the attempt would not have counted.
This proved to be the final action of the half as the referee soon blew the whistle for half-time. Diamonds had made a blistering start in taking an early lead and they were the ones who held the half-time lead, but Alvechurch had shown plenty of threat and had come very close to equalising on a couple of occasions.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 Alvechurch FC
The sides returned from the changing rooms, with much of the half-time talk amongst fans contemplating how Diamonds would approach the second period, if Alvechurch would be able to sustain their pressure and who would be able to score the next goal of the contest. After a swift count of the 22 players, the referee got play back underway.
Rushden began on the front foot and created a brief moment of danger straight away. A cross from the right was flicked away but only as far as the lurking Diamond, and his shot looked threatening until it was charged down and then cleared away. Soon Alvechurch were back into the rhythm of dictating much of the tempo, territory and pressure, but Diamonds were holding firm and staying strong and structured in their positioning within their own half. They were finding some opportunities yo break away, and one such moment in the 53rd minute created an opening. Johnson did excellently to win a throw-in on the left, and the throw was worked into the area before it dropped for Hicks around 20 yards out. He quickly hit a first-time strike towards goal, and Crane was rooted to the spot as it rolled past him but also narrowly past the post.
Alvechurch received their first yellow card of the game soon afterwards when Botfield brought down the advancing Zack Reynolds, but they continued to harry and press Diamonds all over the pitch and were forcing the hosts further and further back. The time ticked past the hour mark, and in their next attack the visitors found an equaliser. The ball was worked down the left, and Foster skipped inside a challenge before cutting it back to Kieron Cook just outside the area. He bent a precise first-time curling shot towards the far corner of the net and Heath was rooted to the spot as the effort flicked off the post before nestling into the net to give the visitors a deserved leveller.
Any thoughts that Diamonds would try and hold onto their lead like they had done against King’s Lynn three weeks previously had been dashed, and Alvechurch had all the momentum as they looked to take the lead. Their high-press led to a misplaced pass halfway inside the Diamonds half, and Botfield latched onto the loose ball before running towards the area and firing a shot that went comfortably wide of the upright. Moments later another loose ball fell for March just under 30 yards from goal, and he hit an instant effort that required Heath to get down smartly to his left to parry before he was able to collect the ball on the rebound.
The hosts were relying on long balls up to the isolated Lorraine, but Alvechurch’s strong defensive pair were winning a lot against the striker and getting their team back on the ball quickly. Less than 20 minutes remained when Alvechurch got away down the right, and a low cross was fired across the six-yard box that forced Alex Collard to importantly intercept and then Ashton to clear out for a throw-in.
Shortly afterwards there was a break in play as Westbrook was brought down in an aerial duel, and this gave both managers the opportunity to have a word with several of their players as a crucial 15 minutes lie in wait. Peaks decided it was time for a change shortly after this discussion as Sam Brown replaced Rogers. This led to a change in formation to a 4-4-2 system, with the substitute going out to the left wing and Diamond coming inside to directly partner Lorraine.
Rushden immediately looked different in their style and play, and they were able to sustain possession for longer periods whilst looking more of a threat with support closer to Lorraine. Less than a minute after the change, they came so close to restoring the lead when Ashton played a long ball into the left channel, and Hicks made a great run to get onto it. He did superbly to cut inside March to face up Crane from an angle, but his sidefooted effort towards the far corner was well read by the keeper who punched the effort away to safety.
Hicks was involved again moments later when the hosts won a corner on the left with only ten minutes remaining. His inswinging delivery was cleared however, and so was his resultant cross. Play swung down the other end, and Thomas Turton saw a goalbound shot well blocked away before the rebound was also charged down. There were some appeals for handball from the away fans behind the goal, but these were swiftly waved away by the referee and play continued.
Shortly afterwards Diamonds made their second alteration as Ben Farrell came on in place of goalscorer Johnson, but the visitors were the ones who created the next good opportunity. Cook found space on the edge of the area to slip a pass into the path of March, and his impudent flick released Cook through on goal. Heath came out quickly to rush the Alvechurch man, and he made a crucial save at his feet before gratefully diving onto the loose ball.
The time ticked down towards the end of the regulation 90 minutes, but there was still time for a final piece of big drama. Rushden won a throw-in on the left just ahead of the halfway line, and Brown took it quickly into the chest of Lorraine down the line. The striker brought it down and then flicked a pass back into the path of Brown before he in turn played it into the area in behind Ashley Carter for Diamond to run onto. Crane came out looking as if he would collect, but Carter took a touch leaving the keeper stranded on the floor. The defender went down himself, and Diamond attempted to get onto the loose ball. However, Carter put his body over the ball to stop the home striker getting onto it, and Diamond went down as he tripped over Carter’s leg and body. There were arguments for a foul, obstruction and even handball, and loud protestations rang out for a penalty. The referee was perfectly positioned to view the incident, but the emphatically waved his arms in a sweeping motion and turned down the appeals.
Aside from the man of the match award being announced as Alex Collard for the second game running, this was the final action of note as the remaining minutes passed without incident. The referee signalled the end of the game to call time on an interesting encounter, and one that ended in a fair result.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-1 Alvechurch FC
This represented an entertaining draw that, despite the visitors enjoying the better of possession and territory for much of the contest, saw a fair point to either side. Diamonds got off to a fantastic start with the early Johnson goal, but they struggled to create much afterwards with Alvechurch getting a justified equaliser halfway through the second period. A change in formation towards the end of the game saw Rushden almost grab a winner and be denied a penalty, but the result maintains both sides’ play-off hopes entering the final ten games of the season. Diamonds remain fourth in the table and are now unbeaten in their last eleven home league matches, and have only lost one of their last 17 league fixtures altogether. Their next match is another crucial one, as they all are from now on in, as they travel to take on sixth-placed Stratford Town on Saturday 9 March (3.00pm kick-off) who are level on points with Diamonds.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Alex Collard
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Alex Collard
7. Sam Johnson
8. Declan Rogers
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Ben Farrell (for Johnson 82)
14. Ben Acquaye
15. Joe Curtis
16. Jack Bowen (for Lorraine 87)
17. Sam Brown (for Rogers 77)
1. Daniel Crane
2. Joshua Ezewele
3. Zack Foster
4. Thomas Turton
5. Jamie Willets (C)
6. Ashley Carter
7. David Bellis
8. Mitchell Botfield
9. Aaron Lloyd
10. Joshua March
11. Kieron Cook
12. Andre Carvalho-Landell (for March 82)
13. Charles Price
14. Rahis Nabi (for Cook 89)
15. Thomas Tonks
16. Kyle Morrison
Goals: Johnson (2)
Goals: Cook (64)
Yellow cards: Westbrook (36), Ashton (40), Diamond (42), Dolman (45)
Yellow cards: Botfield (57)
Referee: Ruebyn Ricardo
Assistants: Mehul Karia, Georgios Markou-Nikandrou