Diamonds battled to an entertaining draw with league newcomers Ilkeston at Hayden Road.
The visitors, who had drawn three of their four matches beforehand, started well as Jamie Ward was denied twice and captain Kieren Fenton hit the upright with a curling free-kick. Rushden responded and, after striker Jack Connor fired over, they took the lead shortly before half-time when Conor Tee was found by a superb through-ball to clinically steer a shot inside the far post.
In the second half winger Connor Furlong cut inside from the right before being thwarted by a strong save, and his fizzing rebound cannoned against the underside of the crossbar. Ilkeston capitalised and found an equaliser just after the hour mark when Ward’s inviting free-kick was powerfully headed home by Montel Gibson. Two huge penalty appeals followed, one at either end, as firstly Ward’s curling attempt was blocked away on the line and Tee then seemed to be pushed over, but the referee was unmoved on both occasions. A pulsating finish saw Dean Snedker make an incredible diving save to stop Gibson, and captain Nathan Hicks almost won it on two separate occasions in stoppage-time only to be dramatically denied.
Manager Burgess made just the solitary change from the side that had been defeated at Alvechurch last time out. Lincoln City loanee Morgan Worsfold-Gregg started his first game for the club in place of Miguel Ngwa as Diamonds lined up in a flexible 4-3-3 system.
Ilkeston had been promoted as winners of the Northern Premier League Division One Midlands last season and, though they hadn’t won so far this campaign, they began the game brightly. Ex-Football League man Jamie Ward cut in from the right before having a curling effort beaten away, and skipper Kieren Fenton then bent a 35-yard free-kick that beat Snedker but clipped the outside of the post.
Rushden fought back and began to get more of a foothold in the game as they kept the ball and worked it well into dangerous positions. One such moment saw Jack Connor released on goal behind the Robins defence, but he fired over under pressure from a recovering defender. Moments later a terrific driving run by Jesse Akubuine saw him find Connor Furlong on the right, and his inviting cross towards the back post just narrowly evaded both Connor and the advancing Conor Tee.
After a busy opening, the rest of the half was quieter though there was still plenty of endeavour and pressure from both sides. Ward had a long-range strike well tipped behind by Snedker, Furlong had a dangerous attempt blocked and Connor put a difficult opportunity off-target.
Just when it looked like the deadlock wouldn’t be broken before half-time, Diamonds made the breakthrough. An excellent through-ball found Conor Tee running in on goal, and he showed tremendous composure to slot it underneath Saul Deeney and into the far corner of the net.
Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 Ilkeston Town
The visitors understandably began to up the pressure as they looked for a quick equaliser, and they almost had it when Remaye Campbell latched onto a defensive mistake only for his curling strike to be easily claimed by Snedker. Shortly afterwards Diamonds came within millimetres of doubling their advantage as Furlong demonstrated brilliant skill to get away down the right and cut inside. His first effort was well beaten away by Deeney, but he was found by Nathan Hicks on the rebound for a strike that thundered off the crossbar and away to safety.
Ilkeston seized on that let-off as, just after the hour mark, they found a leveller. A free-kick on the left was whipped in by Ward for the free Montel Gibson to bullet a header home from point-blank range.
They almost completed the turnaround immediately as another swift attack saw Ward cut in from the right and curl an effort that was blocked away by Paddy Casey. The away players and fans led loud appeals for a penalty as they claimed it was blocked by Casey’s arm, but referee Ben Cooke quickly waved it away.
Diamonds were under pressure, and they were indebted to a remarkable save from Snedker to keep the game level. A loose ball looped up for goalscorer Gibson who caught his half-volley sweetly, and it looked destined for the bottom corner until the Rushden keeper somehow got down to turn it behind.
The hosts then had huge appeals for a penalty of their own as they countered down the left and, as Tee strode into the area, it looked like he was shoved over by a covering defender. Again the referee was unmoved and play continued.
Miguel Ngwa replaced the industrious Worsfold-Gregg as Diamonds tinkered with their system, and they continued to defend well under the away pressure. Eniola Agemoh-Davies was forced to hack away from close to his own goal-line following a scramble, a few desperate clearances were made and Ilkeston did put the ball into the back of the net following a header, but a foul on Snedker had already been awarded.
Following a largely frenetic second half, Diamonds had two chances to win it in stoppage-time. Firstly a loose ball ran kindly for Hicks to strike goalwards from just outside the area, but it was straight at Deeney who parried it clear. The home captain then embarked on a lung-bursting run from deep into the box before his low effort was kicked away by the keeper.
Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-1 Ilkeston Town
Diamonds can be proud of their display that merited a point. They looked more dangerous and created more opportunities than they had done in previous games so far this campaign, they looked neat and tidy in midfield and, though Snedker was called upon to make some terrific saves, they defended well on the whole especially when Ilkeston forced the issue in the second period.
It’s a quick turnaround for their next league as they travel to third-placed St Ives Town on Bank Holiday Monday (29th August, 3.00pm kick-off).
Diamonds Player of the Match: Dean Snedker
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
Diamonds: Snedker, Casey, Hughes, Furlong, Akubuine, Connor (Cooper 56), Hicks (C), Agemoh-Davies (Lashley 90), Tee, Empochontsif, Worsfold-Gregg (Ngwa 76) (subs not used: Corden, Sutherland)
Diamonds goal: Tee (41)
Ilkeston Town: Saul Deeney, Kalern Thomas, Bill Bennett, Declan Eratt-Thompson, Marshall Willock, Kieren Fenton (C), Jamie Ward (Chris O’Grady 88), Jack Thomas, Remaye Campbell, Montel Gibson, Ollie Brown-Hill (Jared Bird 85) (subs not used: Ben Turner, Tomasz Bukowski, Charlie Wakefield)
Ilkeston Town goal: Gibson (61)