Diamonds won their fourth consecutive home game as they defeated ten-man St Neots at Hayden Road on Boxing Day.
The opening half was relatively quiet with both sides struggling for consistent possession and pressure, and clear-cut opportunities were in short supply as a result. For the visitors Jordan Norville-Williams fired just over from range in the very first minute, and Diamonds responded with Ben Diamond’s header flashing across the box and an Alex Collard lob dropping onto the roof of the net. St Neots should have led in the 20th minute when Taylor Parr crossed from the right for ex-Diamonds man Nabil Shariff to head goalwards from close range, but it went over the bar. Diamond then had a header comfortably saved down the other end before away defender Ryan Hughes saw the same outcome moments later. A number of half chances were being created with Diamond then seeing a goalbound volley blocked, Albie Hopkins being denied by another block and St Neots’ striker Dylan Williams also having an attempt charged down from inside the area. All the action was saved for the final five minutes of the half though as, firstly, Diamonds took the lead when Tom Lorraine impudently flicked home from close range, and a minute later Saints midfielder Tom Wood was shown a red card for a studs-up challenge on Ben Farrell.
Diamonds used this numerical advantage to control proceedings in the second period. They came mightily close to extending their advantage in the 51st minute when a Declan Rogers free-kick beat the keeper but smacked off the crossbar, and in their next attack Sam Brown saw a free header go wide of the post. However, they did add a second in the 69th minute when Nathan Hicks’ cross from the right found Rogers, his header was partially blocked and, though Diamond was unable to turn the loose ball home, Lorraine was perfectly positioned to slam home his second of the afternoon. The final twenty minutes were comfortable, with Diamonds coming close to adding to the scoreline when Collard had a goal ruled out for a push on a defender, and the visitors battled gamely in their search for a consolation but only came close when a corner landed on the roof of the net. This win moved Diamonds up to fourth in the table, and extended their unbeaten league run to six games.
Manager Andy Peaks named the same starting XI that had began the draw at Redditch four days previously. This meant Liam Dolman, Jack Ashton and Jack Bowen were still not available from injury, and the only change came amongst the substitutes as Matt Berry-Hargreaves returned to take his place on the bench alongside John Dean, Joe Curtis, Jack Westbrook, and Sam Johnson.
The two teams entered onto the Hayden Road playing surface with an intriguing clash ahead. Diamonds had emerged victorious in the reverse fixture earlier in the season to record their first away victory at this level, and they entered this match 6th in the table level on points with the play-offs. They had won their last three home league matches and had only lost one home league game since late March. On the other hand, St Neots came into the contest in 20th place and in the relegation zone. They boasted ex-Diamonds man Nabil Shariff amongst their ranks, but they had lost five of their last six league matches and had not won any of their last three away league encounters. After both sets of players had shaken hands and the coin-toss had been conducted by the two captains, referee Scott Tallis got the match underway.
The visitors began brightly and fashioned an opportunity in the very first minute. Left full-back Jordan Norville-Williams latched onto a loose ball and strode forward before unleashing a rising drive from around 30 yards out, and the strike went just over Ben Heath’s crossbar. Aside from that the first ten minutes were relatively quiet as both teams looked to gain a foothold and to assert their authority in the match. Rushden created their first chance in the 12th minute when Declan Rogers curled a cross in from the left towards the back post, and Ben Diamond did well to get up above Norville-Williams only for his header to drift across the box and be cleared away.
Rogers was involved again two minutes later when he hit a deep free-kick into the Saints’ area, and keeper Finley Iron came out to collect. However, he dropped the ball and it ran loose for the lurking Alex Collard, but his attempted lob over a group of players between him and the unguarded net landed onto the roof of the Peter de Banke terrace behind the goal.
The play was a little disjointed as the final ball often let both sides down, and there were quite a few misplaced passes and midfield skirmishes throughout the early exchanges. There hadn’t been a lot of goalmouth action, but St Neots created the best opportunity so far in the 20th minute. Taylor Parr’s excellent run forward was found by a good ball down the right, and his pinpoint cross into the middle found the free Shariff six yards out. Diamonds fans had seen the striker normally bury chances like these when he had played for Rushden, but this time he flashed his header over the crossbar.
This was a big let-off for the hosts, and they responded by building a move down the other end that saw Zack Reynolds get away down the right. His inviting cross towards the far post was perfect for the run of Diamond, but his downward header lacked a little pace and it bounced through for Iron to easily collect. Moments later Nathan Hicks found space in midfield to run forward and measure up a shot from distance, but the 30-yard effort flew well over the goal. Then Diamond did well down the left to jink away from the full-back and lay a pass inside into the path of Ben Farrell, but his strike flashed comfortably wide of the post.
Though Diamonds weren’t creating lots of clear-cut chances and weren’t working Iron too much, they had responded well to Shariff’s miss and were beginning to assert more and more of an authority in the game. The visitors still posed a threat though, and on the half-hour mark a long throw on the left was inadvertently flicked on by a Diamonds head for it to reach defender Ryan Hughes. However, his header goalwards well held low down by Heath. Again Rushden responded, and only a couple of minutes later good link-up play between Tom Lorraine and Albie Hopkins saw the latter cross from the right, and it reached Diamond at the far post. The frontman’s volley was goalbound, but was well blocked away by a covering away defender.
Play was pretty end-to-end now as both sides looked to score the all-important first goal of the contest. In the 34th minute the away side won a free-kick in a central position around 35 yards out, and striker Dylan Williams lined up the set-piece. He stepped up and hit a fierce attempt, but it was always rising and flashed over the goal. Chances were traded again as Diamonds were the next to threaten three minutes later. Hopkins powered away down the right before cutting inside but his final shot was blocked away, and St Neots broke immediately to fashion an opportunity for Williams in the box. However, his attempt suffered the same fate as Hopkins and it was charged down.
Soon afterwards, Diamonds took the lead. They won a corner on the left, and Rogers’ drilled delivery found Hopkins whose downwards header ran towards goal. It bounced off a St Neots man and ran for Diamond to nudge it across to Sam Brown on the right of the box. He fired it across, and there was Tom Lorraine a few yards out to impudently flick an effort past Norville-Williams on the line and into the back of the net. It was the striker’s twelfth goal of the season, and came at a crucial time just before the half-time interval.
A minute later it got even better for Diamonds as the visitors were reduced to ten men. A long ball towards the Diamonds left-back area was headed away, but Tom Wood nipped ahead of Farrell to get onto the loose ball. His touch was slightly heavy though and he slid in on Hicks to win the ball, but his studs were raised in the challenge. The referee blew immediately and, after a few moments of deliberation, brandished the red card in Woods’ direction.
That proved to be the final action of the half as Tallis blew the half-time whistle. It had been a 45 minutes that had began slowly but that had seen more chances and action as play wore on, and one that saw Diamonds hold the all-important lead and numerical advantage heading into the second period.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 St Neots Town
The two teams emerged from the changing rooms ready for the second half, with most thoughts during the interval focusing on how St Neots would approach the half being a goal and a man down, and if Diamonds would be able to build on their lead. After a swift count of the players, the referee got the game back underway. The hosts had made a substitution at the break as Jack Westbrook replaced Farrell, who had been booked in the opening half.
Rushden started the half on the front foot as they looked to quickly add a second goal. They won a throw-in on the right, and Brown came across to launch a trademark delivery into the area. It was initially cleared away but it fell for Lorraine to head back into the area, and Blaize Punter skilfully controlled it on his chest before launching an overhead kick that went over the bar. Moments later they were inches away from doubling the lead. Hopkins won a free-kick just under 30 yards out from goal in a central area, and Rogers seized responsibility for the kick. He stepped up and curled an effort up and over the wall but, with the keeper not getting to the attempt, it smacked off the crossbar and back into play. It dropped for Hopkins, but he wasn’t able to fashion space and a shot for himself, and the danger was cleared.
The hosts were, perhaps understandably, controlling possession and dictating the tempo of the game. One such example of a good period of possession just after the hour mark saw Brown measure one cross in from the left that just missed the run of Lorraine, and it ran out for Hopkins on the right who kept the ball in play and dinked another cross into the middle that again just missed the leap of the striker.
The advantage was still only one goal though, and that narrow lead meant that St Neots were still very much in the game. In the 65th minute they created their first chance of the half as Williams ran forward and had time to shoot at goal from range, but it flew over the bar. Diamonds were quickly back on the offensive though, and Diamond latched onto a flick-on on the left wing. He powered forward before jinking inside and fizzing an effort towards the far corner, but it flashed wide.
However, Rushden didn’t have to wait much longer to add to their lead. Hopkins received the ball on the right before cleverly playing a ball inside to the onrushing Hicks in the area. He dinked a cross to the back post where Rogers beat a defender and headed it towards goal. Tom Lorraine attempted to control it, but it bounced off him to Diamond whose shot was deflected. It ran perfectly into the path of Lorraine, and he emphatically slammed the ball home from close-range to notch his second of the match and to give the hosts some breathing space.
That goal effectively sealed the result, but Diamonds still looked to add further goals. Four minutes after the second goal they won a free-kick on the right, and Rogers bent a dangerous delivery towards the back post. Collard got up well and headed down and into the far corner of the net, but the referee had blown his whistle to signal for a push on a Saints defender and so the goal was ruled out. Peaks then made his final two substitutions as firstly Matt Berry-Hargreaves replaced the impressive Reynolds, and then a few minutes later Joe Curtis came on for Hicks.
The closing stages were played at a calm pace as St Neots knew they had been consigned to defeat, but they still looked to find a way back into the game. Five minutes before the end of normal time they attacked and won a corner on the left, and the delivery looked threatening before it landed onto the roof of the net. Diamonds had looked dangerous moments before that when Curtis crossed for Hopkins at the back post, and he tried to feed an overlapping run only for the pass to run out of play.
There was no more real action of note and, after a couple of minutes of additional time, the referee signalled the end of the game to confirm another Diamonds home league victory.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-0 St Neots Town
This represented a rather comfortable win for Diamonds in the end, but before they scored their opening goal they had struggled to break down the away defence. In fact the Sainst created the best opportunity of the opening exchanges through Shariff and, if that had gone in, then the game may have taken on a completely different complexion. However, once Lorraine had scored his first and St Neots had been reduced to ten men, Diamonds controlled the second half and added a second before seeing the game out. Credit must go to the visitors for never letting their heads drop and for giving it their all right to the very end despite the numerical disadvantage, but for Diamonds it is their fourth consecutive home league victory and they have now lost only one of their last nine league matches. It also extends their unbeaten Boxing Day record since reforming (they have now won four and drawn one), and they move back into the play-off places. Their next match sees them take on fellow play-off hopefuls Biggleswade Town at Hayden Road on Saturday 29 December, 3:00pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Tom Lorraine
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
St Neots Town
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown (C)
4. Blaize Punter
5. Alex Collard
6. Declan Rogers
7. Albie Hopkins
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. John Dean
14. Joe Curtis (for Hicks 82)
15. Jack Westbrook (for Farrell HT)
16. Matt Berry-Hargreaves (for Reynolds 75)
17. Sam Johnson
1. Finley Iron
2. Ryan Hughes
3. Jordan Norville-Williams
4. Luke Knight (C)
5. Russell Short
6. Taylor Parr
7. Matty Miles
8. Tom Wood
9. Nabil Shariff
10. Dylan Williams
11. Jack Daldy
12. Johnny Herd
14. Gary Wharton (for Shariff 66)
15. Andre Borg (for Williams 74)
16. Devante Stanley (for Miles 63)
17. Jorginho Gomes
Goals: Lorraine (40, 69)
Yellow cards: Farrell (29), Westbrook (90)
Yellow cards: Stanley (78), Knight (89)
Red cards: None
Red cards: Wood (41)
Referee: Scott Tallis
Assistants: Ian Croston, Thomas Durno
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