AFC Rushden & Diamonds scored a late, late winner to defeat Kettering Town and lift the NFA Hillier Senior Cup on Thursday evening at Sixfields Stadium.
In a much-changed line-up due to competition rules and ineligibility, the Diamonds took the lead in the 18th minute when lone striker Tom Liversedge advanced down the left and clipped a cross into the box for Shawn Richards to flick a header in off the far post. This came after Will Grocott, Ben Stephens and Liam Canavan had all seen efforts go off target for the Poppies, and despite ex-RDFC man Rene Howe shooting wide and then having a header saved, Rushden almost doubled their lead when Claudiu Hoban jinked inside from the right and fizzed a shot into the side-netting. Kettering were to equalise in the 33rd minute when a chipped ball to the back post by Stephens found the onrushing Pepe N’Goma and his header from point-blank range found the back of the net. Grocott, Howe, Canavan and Stephens had further efforts that failed to trouble Finlay, and the game was delicately poised at the half-time break.
Kettering continued to have the majority of the possession and territory in the second half, though the Diamonds defended strongly and resolutely against Poppies spells of pressure. Canavan had a shot saved by Matt Finlay moments after Andy Hall for Rushden had seen a near-post effort held by Craig Hill, and then Stephens saw a curling shot go wide, Ashton was required to make a fantastic block from a close-range attempt and Finlay punched a corner up in the air before it was hacked to safety. Diamonds always represented a threat on the counter-attack however, and Richards sprinted down the left channel before forcing a strong save to the goalkeeper’s left side. Dan Quigley had a 25-yard shot held, and down the other end substitute Ben Baker brought a great save from Finlay before Stephens volleyed the rebound over the bar. Four minutes was originally added on at the end of the regulatory 90, and just when it seemed the contest would have to be decided by a penalty shoot-out a Richards corner from the left in the 95th minute was met by a thunderous Jack Ashton header to seal victory and the silverware for the Diamonds.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks was forced to ring the changes due to competition rules stating that only players who had played in a previous round could take part in the final, and due to ineligibility also. Jason Lee, Connor Kennedy, Jack Bowen, Lewis Leslie and Elliot Sandy were all unavailable, so in came Luke Hipwell, Tom Manship, Tom Liversedge and Claudiu Hoban. They were to line up in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Brad Harris at right-back and Hoban in the number 10 role supporting Liversedge.
There was a loud and strong atmosphere reverberating around the home of Northampton Town as both sides entered the field of play, with Diamonds looking to end the season on a positive note after Monday’s play-off defeat and Kettering also looking to win some silverware to cap off their excellent second half of the season.
Referee Paul Evans got the game underway, with Rushden kicking towards the South Stand and away from their plentiful support in the opening period. Kettering were on the offensive immediately as Silvano Obeng found room on the edge of the box, but his drilled shot goalwards was well blocked away.
Kettering, who had fielded a near full-strength side for this final, were putting pressure on the Diamonds in the early exchanges as they searched for an early breakthrough. In the 4th minute winger Will Grocott lofted a shot over the bar from the edge of the box, and then a minute later he did well to drive to the left byline and hang up a cross for Ben Stephens to volley an effort wide of the left post.
Diamonds were however defending resolutely against the early Poppies attacks and spells of possession. All the midfield and defence were working hard to close down space for the Step 3 opposition, though one example of closing down by Manship resulted in a free-kick being awarded to Kettering out on the left wing. The resulting inswinging delivery saw Matt Finlay in the Rushden goal punch the ball up, and though it dropped for the lurking Liam Canavan, he was only able to loop an effort over the top of the goal.
The ‘home’ side then sprung onto the offensive themselves as Liversedge did excellently to intercept a pass on the half-way line, though he delayed slightly too long in releasing Andy Hall to his left meaning the winger was flagged for offside when the ball was played into his path. However, when the two linked up again moments later, it led to the opening goal of the contest. Hall fed the ball down the left channel for Liversedge to latch onto, and he powerfully strode into the area before clipping a cross for Shawn Richards to glance a header in off the right-hand post.
Kettering attempted to hit back immediately as they won a throw-in on the right wing, and the subsequent lengthy dispatch dropped invitingly for ex-RDFC man Rene Howe, though his shot was mis-hit and dropped well wide of the near post. They then won a free-kick in a similar position to the one which Canavan ended up lobbing over, but the Diamonds weren’t forced to defend it as the kick sailed over everyone and out for a goal-kick.
Two minutes after this, in the 23rd minute, Rushden came close to doubling their advantage. Liversedge, who had an excellent game throughout, did well to feed Hoban down the right flank, and he faced up the defender, quickly did a step-over, cut inside and then flashed a left-footed shot into the near side netting. It initially appeared to the Diamonds support down the other end that the ball had gone in the net, but Hoban putting his hands on his head quickly signalled that it had actually gone narrowly wide.
Poppies were still having more of the possession and territory in the opening half, with quick and intricate play around the edge of the Diamonds’ area causing trouble for the ‘hosts’. One case of this led to left-back James Brighton floating a cross to the back post where Howe got the run on Hipwell, but thankfully for the Diamonds his header was straight at Finlay who easily caught it.
Liversedge then did brilliantly to turn away from a challenge on the half-way line, but with limited options ahead of him a Kettering defender was able to get back and slide in to win back possession. They quickly moved up into an attacking position, but two dangerous crosses from either wing were both powerfully headed away. Brighton and Herve Pepe N’Goma then linked with a one-two down the left wing, but the former’s stubbed cross rolled into the side-netting.
Moments later though, in the 33rd minute, the Poppies found a leveller. The ball was worked forward to Obeng, and he showed good awareness to backheel the ball to the nearby Stephens. He looked up and clipped a cross to the back post where Herve Pepe N’Goma stole a march on Harris and powerfully headed the ball through Finlay’s legs into the back of the net.
It was now the Diamonds’ turn to try and find a goal in response immediately, and Manship moved down the left-wing before flashing a low cross across the six-yard box that no Diamonds player was able to reach. Play moved back into the Rushden half, and after Grocott drilled a half-volley over the crossbar from 25 yards out, the first corner of the match found Howe in space at the far post, though his header drifted wife of the near post.
There were to be two final opportunities in this quick-paced opening period, and they both fell to the Poppies. Canavan was involved in both, with him first flashing a volley over after a loose ball had dropped to him on the edge of the box, and then he inadvertently blocked Stephens’ shot, though the number 10 was able to have another effort that bobbled harmlessly wide of Finlay’s goal.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-1 Kettering Town
Talk at the half-time break centered around the game still very much being in the balance despite Kettering shading the opening period, and the need for Diamonds to get numbers and support around Liversedge when they were attacking. The two sides re-entered the pitch, and with a short blast of the referee’s whistle the second half got underway.
Poppies started the half similarly to the way they ended the previous one, with them trying to force Diamonds onto the back foot and attempting to make a bright start to the second period. Stephens found a yard of space to get a shot away, but his effort weakly dribbled wide of the right post.
Andy Hall had been diligent for the Diamonds in his defensive work whenever Kettering broke forward, but he got a chance to break forward at the Poppies back-four in the 50th minute. He advanced on Brighton as he moved towards the right corner of the box, and he decided to hit an early shot that Craig Hill managed to get down to hold at his near post.
The Poppies were closing down their opposing numbers well and not allowing them much time on the ball, evidenced by persistent harrying by Obeng winning the ball from Manship on the halfway line. He broke forward and fed the nearby Canavan who set himself up for a shot from the edge of the area which Finlay initially spilt, but then was able to hold. Shortly afterwards the ball dropped for Stephens in the Diamonds box, and he did well to generate room to curl a shot towards the far corner, though it ended up going wide of the goal.
This signalled a period of strong and building pressure from Kettering that required the Diamonds to work immensely and tirelessly to limit the threat. One brilliant header away from in the six-yard box dropped on the edge of the area, and the resulting shot was also well defended and blocked away. Numerous crosses and searching balls into the Diamonds area came from the Poppies who sensed victory, and after Ashton made a great block to stop a shot from the right of the box, the subsequent corner saw Finlay punch the ball up, with the danger being hacked to safety close to the goal-line.
Rushden, and the pace of Richards especially, still threatened whenever they stole forward though, and in the 63rd minute Richards was able to flick the ball on on the halfway line for him to chase down the left wing. He showed electrifying pace to reach the loose ball and gallop into the penalty area, and with no supporting players close to him he curled a shot at goal that required Hill to parry the ball to his left-hand side.
Quigley was then shown a yellow card two minutes later as he brought down Howe who was about to advance on the Diamonds back-four. The Poppies maintained their forward momentum and monopolisation of possession, though they were still often restricted to half-opportunities such as Canavan attempting an inventive lob that dropped onto the roof of the net.
The partnership of Manship and Quigley had worked effectively throughout, with Quigley re-assuming the deep-lying midfield role that had seen him dictate the midfield areas on Monday afternoon, and both were quick to try and stem the flow of the Poppies tide of pressure by keeping calm in possession. The former picked up the ball just ahead of the halfway line, and his chipped ball over the top just dropped out of the reach of Liversedge. Richards then moved in from the left, fed Hoban and he in turn slipped the ball to Quigley. Despite Hall being available on his right a gap opened up for the midfielder to shoot and his 25-yard effort was well held by Hill.
Diamonds were now beginning to show their attacking hand again in response to Kettering’s efforts early in the half, and after Howe had been booked for dissent, a ball out to the left in Richards saw the winger stretch to keep the ball in play and do well to cross the ball in, though Hill did well to grasp the ball with Liversedge waiting for the ball to be spilt.
A minute later Liam Dolman did excellently to step across and intercept a potentially threatening pass into the Diamonds area, and this was indicative of Rushden’s concentration and reading of the danger when the Poppies did press forward. Manship, having not started a game since the Arlesey defeat in early April, then went down with a spot of cramp which allowed both sets of players to take on water and refreshments, much-needed with the swift tempo and rhythm set in the second half.
A yellow card was then awarded to players from either side, Manship for the Diamonds after a foul in midfield and Grocott for dissent towards referee Evans. Immediately before the Kettering booking Richards again did well to get to the left byline, and his hanging cross found Liversedge to crane his neck muscles and float a header over the goal.
The affair ticked past the 80 minute mark, with both sides still pressing for a winning goal that would eliminate the need for a penalty shoot-out. Peaks decided to introduce some fresh legs into the Diamonds team, with Robbie Parsons replacing Manship and to support Liversedge, with Hoban dropping back into central midfield.
Kettering were the next to threaten though as they won a free-kick just outside the area on the right byline, but it was headed up and out for a corner. The resultant kick was initially cleared but then worked to substitute Ben Baker on the right whose flashing effort was palmed away by Finlay to Stephens, but his rebound was volleyed into the empty stand behind the goal. Stephens then had another opportunity two minutes from the end of the 90 with a driving shot, but Finlay was again able to drop on the ball after an initial parry.
The Diamonds were naturally starting to tire due to the sheer amount of ground covered and hard-work off the ball, but Harris showed good speed to keep up with the charging Brighton and slide the ball out for a corner. Rushden fans down the other end were understandably nervy and tetchy as the left-wing delivery came in, and hearts were further in mouths when it appeared a Poppies player had a run on his marker, but the ball looped off him and into Finlay’s grasp.
Four minutes of added-on time were initially signalled by the fourth official, and in the second of these a pinpoint diagonal ball out to the right wing and Hall saw the winger bring the ball down well. He quickly got the ball out of his feet and floated a cross in that went over Hill but over the crossbar also as it dropped onto the roof of the goal.
The final looked to heading to penalties, with competition rules stating no extra-time in the event of a draw, when the Diamonds mounted one last charge. A ball into the heart of the Kettering area, looking for Liversedge, was headed away, but only as far as the aware Richards who seized onto possession. He chested the ball down, and as space opened up for him whilst he traversed the area he hit a goalbound effort that was blocked up into the air, with the ball dropping for Liversedge to direct a header at goal that was deflected and then tipped round the post for a corner.
And then it happened. Richards moved across to take the inswinging delivery, and much like his set-piece for Diamonds’ goal on Monday, the kick was of real quality as it whipped into the middle of the six-yard box. Suddenly Jack Ashton was there, and suddenly the ball was in the net; his perfectly-timed run having left him unmarked and free to slam a header past the helpless Hill. Cue delirium. All the Diamonds players wheeled away to the left corner flag in jubilant and memorable scenes, and the reaction to the header behind the goal was of equal jubilation, chaos and eruption.
Despite this strike coming in the 95th minute, there was still time for Kettering to kick off and pump one last ball into the Diamonds area. However, an initial header was won and then Harris showed tremendous calmness under pressure to nod the ball back into the welcome arms of Matt Finlay. The goalkeeper dispatched the ball upfield, and before it had even landed the referee signalled the end of the match, confirming Diamonds as the 2015/16 Hillier Senior Cup Winners.
Every single Rushden player was straight down to the end where their fans were situated, and it was obvious to see how much the victory meant to both players and supporters. After the shaking of hands with their opposing numbers and further celebrations, the presentation began which saw the man-of-the-moment Jack Ashton named as the Man of the Match, and then it was up the stairs of Sixfields’ main stand that the Diamonds players almost leapt up to receive the trophy, with Liam Dolman lifting it towards the Rushden fans to huge cheers and loud celebrations.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 Kettering Town
There couldn’t have been a better way to sign off the season than in the manner the Diamonds did here. Credit must go to Kettering who played a significant part in the final by having more opportunities and more possession in the match, but Diamonds defended brilliantly when required and showed highly commendable work-ethic and commitment to the cause. Rushden could easily have had their heads down and still have been suffering from Monday’s defeat, but if they were it certainly wasn’t on display in this contest. The way in which Hipwell, Manship and Liversedge, considering this was the first game each had started for a while, especially played and contributed to the victory made it seem like a Diamonds team who weren’t bereft by ineligibility and injuries, though this is to take nothing away from the rest of the team who all played important parts in the success. Diamonds end the 2015/16 season as Hillier Cup winners and minutes away from Step 3 football next season, which has to be regarded as a highly successful season in all. Ashton’s winner was fittingly the last, and arguably the best, memory in a roller-coaster and rewarding season that will last long in the memory.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Jack Ashton
Attendance: 1322 (585 Diamonds)
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
17. Matt Finlay
2. Brad Harris
3. Luke Hipwell
4. Jack Ashton
5. Liam Dolman
6. Tom Manship
7. Shawn Richards
8. Dan Quigley
9. Tom Liversedge
10. Claudiu Hoban
11. Andy Hall
13. Alex Vitue
14. Robbie Parsons (for Manship 84)
15. Charlie Butt
16. Joe Ackroyd
18. James Harvey
1. Craig Hill
2. Liam Bateman
3. James Brighton
4. Brett Solkhon
5. Dominic Langdon
6. Herve Pepe N’Goma
7. Will Grocott
8. Liam Canavan
9. Rene Howe
10. Ben Stephens
11. Silvano Obeng
12. Ben Baker (for Obeng 60)
14. Ben Bradshaw
15. Bleu McNeil (for Bateman 54)
16. Peter Sweeney
17. Paul Walker
Goals: Richards (18), Ashton (90+5)
Goals: Pepe N’Goma (33)
Yellow Cards: Quigley (65), Manship (78)
Yellow Cards: Howe (72), Grocott (79)
Referee: Paul Evans
Assistants: Sam Brough, Abdul Kadir
Media related items for this game were limited – see here.
Updated player profiles with appearance and goalscoring details are now available.