AFC Rushden & Diamonds completed their successful campaign in the EVO-STIK South, East Division with a 1-0 victory over Ashford Town. A first-half penalty from Ben Farrell decided the game, and also confirmed that Ben Farrell is the Diamonds leading goalscorer for the 2017-18 season.
Manager Andy Peaks named an unchanged starting XI to the one that had sealed promotion on Tuesday night by thrashing Aylesbury FC at Hayden Road. The only change came amongst the substitutes as Joe Curtis returned to the bench alongside Jack Ashton, Ben Ford, Tom Lorraine and Ben Diamond. Before the game began the Supporters Player of the Season was announced, with Liam Dolman in third place, Luke Fairlamb in second and Ben Farrell being named in first place to win the award; in a season of high achievement there were many candidates for the award, but with eighteen goals and countless impressive and influential performances then Farrell was a popular choice amongst many.
The two teams took to the pitch, a playing surface that had been saturated by rain prior to the game and had needed some treatment by some more sterling volunteering work in the morning to get the contest on, with a keen sense of intrigue and anticipation felt by many around the ground. Beaconsfield had defeated Egham on Thursday night meaning with one game to go they led Diamonds by a point, so Rushden knew they needed to win to keep the pressure on and hope for a Beaconsfield slip-up in their game at Marlow. Ashford sat 12th in the table coming into the fixture and were on the back of a five game winless run whilst not winning their last three away games, but they did have the best goal difference of the teams between 10th and 22nd and also were the second highest scorers of the sides between 6th and 22nd. Although they arguably had nothing to play for these stats proved they would be a danger, and so Diamonds knew there was still work to be done. After the teams had shaken hands and the two captains had conducted the coin-toss, referee Mark Howes blew his whistle to start the game.
The early exchanges saw the hosts dominate possession mainly amongst the defence and the midfield areas, and they created the first opportunity in the 7th minute. A mix-up in the away defence saw Sam Brown running from left-back latch onto a loose ball and find himself suddenly through on goal, but his effort flew over the bar from the edge of the area. Moments later Ross Oulton tigerishly broke forward before being fouled, but Fairlamb’s inswinging delivery was well headed by an Ashford defender and the danger was cleared. Rushden maintained the early pressure and the quick start, and fashioned another opening shortly afterwards. A dangerous cross in from the right by Blaize Punter saw an Ashford head inadvertently flick the ball on before it was booted up in the air by another away defender. It dropped out of the sky for Spencer Weir-Daley to control before it ran for the lurking Oulton, but his shot was dragged and it flashed well wide of the far post.
The visitors hadn’t been able to build any attacking momentum or pressure down the other end, but they were able to create a chance in the 15th minute. A ball forward down the right flank was cleverly flicked on for Samad Kazi who escaped further down the wing. He attempted to pick out the free James Cottee at the far post, but Brown had tracked the winger all the way and made a crucial interception to deflect the cross out for a corner. The resultant set-piece was cleared, but moments later Cottee was found in space around 30 yards out and was allowed to turn. He hit an effort goalwards, but it was an ambitious attempt and dribbled well wide of the target. Ashford were having a good little spell without truly threatening Ben Heath in the home goal, and this was exemplified further only a couple of minutes after Cottee’s shot. Fairlamb gave a free-kick away on the left, and Alex Fisher moved across to curl an inviting delivery into the area that ultimately passed over everybody and out for a goal-kick.
Clear-cut chances were relatively few and far between, with both sides doing well to limit the other when looking for a penetrative final pass or when looking to work a shooting opportunity. In the 23rd minute Diamonds built a move that began with Brown finding Weir-Daley with a precise pass, and the striker brought the ball down before finding his strike-partner Ryan Robbins on the left. The forward drilled in a low cross that almost found the arriving Ben Farrell but was just too far ahead of him, and a covering defender did well to clear the ball behind for a corner. The resultant delivery then ended up being crossed back into the area, but both Dolman and Farrell were denied by courageous blocks as the scoreline remained goalless.
However, that wasn’t to remain the case for long. After Ashford had threatened with an attack down the left that saw a shot hit the side-netting Robbins was found by a clever ball from Gyasi down the right, and he burst forward before cutting inside into the area and facing up away defender Mitch Gough. The defender went to ground and Robbins fell under the challenge, an action that Howes deemed to be a foul and so he quickly blew his whistle before pointing to the penalty spot. Regular penalty taker Ben Farrell stepped up to take the kick, and he placed a low effort to the right of Ashford keeper Tyler Tobin. The stopper guessed the right way, but the effort was precise as it hit the inside of the post before rolling into the back of the net. It was Farrell’s nineteenth goal of the campaign, a superb total for a midfielder, and with Beaconsfield still being held at Marlow it was a strike that put Diamonds on top of the table.
The hosts searched for another goal as the time ticked past the half-hour mark, and they got some fortune to create their next chance. An attack looked to have broken down as Ashford went to clear the ball, but Robbins did well to charge the ball down and it sat up ideally for the striker to crack an effort towards goal. However, his effort was wild and it flew well over the top of the goal. Though good chances remained in relatively short supply, Diamonds were still having the better of possession and territory, and were successfully and fairly comfortably dealing with any threat from the visitors.
The rest of the half passed without any action of note as midfield skirmishes were aplenty and scrappy and well-fought periods of play were frequent, but Diamonds deserved their advantage as referee Howes signalled the end of the opening half. Marlow and Beaconsfield were still deadlocked in their match, meaning Rushden were top of the table as they made their way to the changing rooms for the interval.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 Ashford Town (Middx)
The sides emerged from the changing rooms and re-entered onto the pitch for the second half, with a half-time announcement bringing another positive to the afternoon. The attendance was confirmed as 978, a home league record since AFC Rushden & Diamonds formed in 2011 and a season-high at Hayden Road, and was a figure that brought the average home attendances for this season over 500. After a swift count of both sets of players the referee got the contest back underway.
The visitors, who hadn’t threatened much in the first half, came out of the traps and began the second period quickly. Only a minute had elapsed when Dolman’s attempted pass out from the back was stopped and it rolled for Jack Beadle to collect. The winger took a touch and smashed an effort goalwards from around 25 yards out, but it went comfortably wide of the near post. Shortly afterwards the away man was involved again as Ashford won a free-kick, and Beadle stepped up to curl the set-piece into the area. It found the arriving Gough in acres of space, but he had to arch his back to connect with the ball and so the header floated up for Heath to easily catch.
Rushden then began to settle after the visitors’ swift start, and the hosts went close in the 53rd minute. A cross in was only cleared as far as the lurking Dolman just inside the area, but the defender’s fierce snap-shot was well blocked away by an Ashford defender. News then came through from Marlow that Beaconsfield had taken the lead, meaning that if scores stayed the same then Beaconsfield would be crowned as champions. Five minutes later Diamonds won a free-kick of their own on the right, and Fairlamb swung a dangerous cross towards the back post. It found the well-timed run of Jack Westbrook who leapt to meet the delivery, but his header was a little weak and Tobin was able to dive on the ball and collect.
Chances were still in fairly short supply just like in the opening half, but the away side were having more possession and were showing more attacking intent in this half. They came very close to an equaliser just before the hour mark when an Ashford pass was played from their left-back area into the path of a midfielder whose intended pass was partly blocked, but a well-timed sliding challenge won the ball for the visitors. The loose ball fell for Cottee who turned into space and lined up a shot from just under 30 yards from goal. The right-footed effort took a heavy deflection off Dolman and completely changed the direction of the shot as it headed towards the bottom right corner. However Heath did fantastically to quickly change his own direction and fling himself to his left, and he managed to get a crucial left hand on the ball to parry it behind for a corner. The subsequent set-piece came to nothing, with Heath having shown how and why he was a significant part of Diamonds keeping 25 clean sheets on 50 games prior to this contest.
The hour mark passed, and Beaconsfield still led Marlow by a goal to nil meaning they were on course to secure the title. Play became quite scrappy and fragmented again, with Ashford continuing to show purpose and intent without consistently threatening the Rushden backline and with the hosts struggling to trouble the visitors and looking to primarily hit on the counter-attack. The first change of the afternoon was made by Peaks when he introduced Ben Diamond at the expense of Weir-Daley as the hosts looked to find a second goal that would surely kill the contest, but no further chances were forthcoming to begin with.
Limited action was taking place on the pitch as both sides largely cancelled each other out and restricted the other in terms of attacking momentum and chances. Just under twenty minutes of normal time remained when Diamonds made their second substitution as Tom Lorraine replaced Ryan Robbins, and so it was a new-look strike-force for the hosts. They created an opportunity in the 76th minute when Fairlamb produced a tricky run down the left flank before jinking inside and being felled. Gyasi lined up the kick and hit it goalwards, but it was charged down by the defensive wall and out for a corner. The winger trotted across again to take the set-piece and to curl it into the middle where, after a brief ricochet, it bounced up for Brown to loop a header goalwards that floated just wide of the far post.
The visitors responded with a couple of half-chances of their own. Firstly Cottee picked up the ball in space, turned and hit a strike goalwards from 30 yards out that required Heath to pat down and then collect. Then moments later full-back Romario Jonas galloped down the right wing before curling a deep cross into the area that Kazi collected, cut inside and hit an effort towards the near post that Heath again saved.
A minute later the hosts made their final change as Ben Ford entered the fray to replace Gyasi, and the time continued to tick down as the end of the contest quickly approached. Still Beaconsfield led Marlow 1-0 as stoppage-time arrived, and one final moment of action presented itself. Ashford won a corner on the left, and they piled the area including goalkeeper Tobin who sprinted forward in an attempt to net a late equaliser. However, the delivery was cleared upfield by Diamonds and the ball broke towards the halfway line as Tobin still was attempting to hare back to his goal. He and Farrell challenged for the ball and, as it ricocheted away and looked like the home midfielder would latch onto the loose ball, the keeper jumped on the ball and held it to his grasp. The referee blew straight away and ran across to brandish a red card, with Tobin swiftly making his way off the pitch and captain Russell Canderton pulling on the keeper’s jersey.
Play had barely got back underway though when Howes signalled the end of the contest, and at this moment Marlow and Beaconsfield were still playing. Shortly afterwards confirmation came through that Beaconsfield had held on for the win and had thus sealed the championship title, but it refused to spoil the Diamonds’ promotion celebrations as they made their way off the pitch before returning to be presented with their medals and befittingly celebrating a superb achievement. They will play at Step Three of non-league football next season for the first time in their short history and, after two consecutive years of play-off heartbreak, made the celebrations even more prominent at having realised their hopes and ambitions at the third time of asking.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 Ashford Town (Middx)
This result rounded off a season of high achievement for the Diamonds. After a great start to the campaign, not just in the league but in the FA Cup where they came close to knocking out National League North side Alfreton Town and also in the BigFreeBet.com Challenge Cup that saw them defeat higher-league opposition in St Neots and Kettering, they built a 17 game unbeaten league run before experiencing a six game winless run that threatened to derail their promotion hopes. However, they won their final five league games to clinch promotion and, though it was a little hurtful to come so close to winning the title, the aim at the start of the season was to get promoted and that has been achieved. Credit has to go to every single player, coaching staff, volunteer and fan for being a crucial and collective part in the success, and everybody can now forward to next season playing in a new league, playing new teams, visiting new grounds and facing a new challenge. The 2017-18 season has been a long one, one full of rollercoaster emotions , but ultimately one that has been truly rewarding and that will live long in the memory of everyone involved.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ross Oulton
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Ashford Town (Middx)
13. Ben Heath
2. Blaize Punter
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Ross Oulton
7. Joel Gyasi
8. Ben Farrell
9. Ryan Robbins
10. Spencer Weir-Daley
11. Luke Fairlamb
14. Joe Curtis
15. Ben Diamond
16. Ben Ford
19. Jack Ashton
20. Tom Lorraine
1. Tyler Tobin
2. Romario Jonas
3. Alex Fisher
4. Max Webb
5. Russell Canderton (C)
6. Mitch Gough
7. Samad Kazi
8. Scott Weight
9. James Cottee
10. Tommy Brunton
11. Jack Beadle
12. Leo Decabo
14. Aaron Petch
15. Elliott Pooley
16. Nathan Pooley
17. Jake Tayler
Goals: Farrell (pen 27)
Yellow Cards: Fairlamb (50), Gyasi (83)
Yellow Cards: Gough (64)
Red Cards: None
Red Cards: Tobin (90+1)
Referee: Mark Howes
Assistants: Andrew Genders, Daniel Pattison
Updated player profiles with appearance and goalscoring details are now available.
The completed Match Stats, Player Stats and Attendance figures along with league stats are found in the First Team stats area on this website here. You can also find the completed results list in the main fixture and results grid, as well as on the Fixture News page, where there is a downloadable version.
Video highlights and post-match interviews are available here.