Diamonds secured an important comeback victory to breathe fresh life into their play-off hopes and to get their first victory in four games as they defeated midtable Needham Market at Hayden Road.
The hosts had the better of possession in the opening exchanges, and they came close to taking the lead when Jack Westbrook hit a fierce effort from the edge of the area after being fed by Declan Rogers, but it flew narrowly over the bar. In one of their first forays forward, Needham opened the scoring in the 19th minute. They won a free-kick around 25 yards from goal, and striker Jamie Griffiths stepped up to whip a superb left-footed strike over the wall and past the despairing dive of Ben Heath into the roof of the net. Diamonds responded by levelling only three minutes later. A Sam Brown long throw from the left was flicked on by Alex Collard at the near post, and it ran for Rogers to thunder home a right-footed effort from just inside the area. They almost took the lead only a minute later when Ben Farrell was denied from close range, but Needham then threatened when Joseph Marsden was slipped through on goal only for Heath to come out and smother the ball. The game then settled again, and it appeared the game would be level at the break. However, Rushden forged ahead three minutes before the interval. A free-kick by Heath was inadvertently flicked on by a Needham man and, assisted by the strong wind, it ran for Jack Bowen to drift a header over the keeper and into the back of the net.
The second half was very bitty and short on goalmouth action. Needham began to have more possession, but struggled to make any inroads into a strong Diamonds defence well marshalled by Collard and Liam Dolman. The wind continued to have a serious impact on the game, and it played a part in a Rogers free-kick being carried towards goal only for the keeper to awkwardly parry it away. Collard made a superb and potentially goal-saving header away when it appeared Griffiths would have a free header from a right-wing cross, and another away attack saw Dolman and then Collard crucially head away. The closest the visitors came to an equaliser was when Dolman attempted a header back to Heath, but the wind accelerated the ball and made it race past Heath only for it to run just wide of the post. Aside from this, the Diamonds keeper had very little to do in the second half, and the hosts saw out the game to claim a vital three points and to move back into the play-off places.
Manager Peaks made just the solitary change from the starting XI that had been defeated by Rushall on Monday night. Declan Rogers returned to the side to replace Jack Ashton, and a 4-4-2 system would see Nathan Hicks at right-back, Rogers on the left wing and Ben Diamond supporting Jack Bowen up front. A four-man bench was made up of Ashton, Joe Curtis, Ben Acquaye and Tom Lorraine.
The two teams stepped out on a very windy day in Northamptonshire, and an important clash lie in wait. Diamonds hadn’t won any of their last three games and entered the contest sixth in the table, with Alvechurch in the last play-off spot above them being two points clear and having two matches in hand. Their home form had been excellent though, with only one defeat at Hayden Road all season and having not been defeated on home soil in their last 11 encounters. Needham came into the match 12th in the table having lost their last four consecutive matches and winning only one of their last nine. The reverse fixture between the sides back in October had finished 5-1 to Rushden, and they knew it was crucial to get another win here to get their play-off hopes back on track. After the pre-match formalities had been completed, referee Martin Fryer got the action underway.
The hosts began on the front foot with some early pressure and possession. A couple of dangerous crosses in were well dealt with by the away defence, and the first chance of the contest was fashioned in the 10th minute. Sam Johnson embarked on a superb and direct run down the right, and his cross in looked really threatening until it went just over the rising Bowen. It ran for Rogers though, and he cleverly laid a pass back into the path of the free Jack Westbrook. The midfielder had never scored for the club, but his fierce effort from the edge of the area came very close as it flew just over the crossbar.
Rushden continued to press as they attacked with a quick tempo, but not many chances were forthcoming. Needham were able to clear the danger of one attack and spring on the counter, and a dangerous run forward was halted by Westbrook as he brought down an advancing man around 25 yards out. Striker Jamie Griffiths stepped forward, and his left-footed curling strike flashed around the wall and over the despairing dive of Ben Heath on its way into the roof of the net. The goal was largely against the run of play, but it was a sumptuous effort from the forward.
Any thought that the home side would let that negatively affect them were dismissed as they equalised within three minutes. They won a long throw on the left, and Sam Brown moved forward to dispatch one of his trademark deliveries into the area. Alex Collard flicked it on at the near post, and it ran across the box for Declan Rogers to emphatically thump home an unerring right-footed shot from around 12 yards out. It was only his third home goal of the campaign, and it was undoubtedly an important time to get it.
The match had really taken off in the last few minutes, and it continued. Immediately after the goal Rushden could have completed the turnaround as Ben Farrell was fed in space on the right of the area, but his effort goalwards was stopped by a good save from keeper Jake Jessup. Play swing swiftly down the other end, and a neat move resulted in Joseph Marsden being fed through on goal only for Heath to come out and just deny the midfielder.
The match then settled down for the next 10 minutes as both sides tried to battle with the almost gale-force winds that were blowing onto the pitch. In the 35th minute Diamonds got away down the right through Johnson, and his cross in almost found the arriving Rogers only for it to just run away from the goalscorer. It had taken a deflection though, and the resulting corner was flicked on at the near post only for it to be just hacked away.
It had been a keenly-contested affair, and one such moment saw a fifty-fifty challenge result in away midfielder Luke Ingram going down. After some attempted treatment, he hobbled off to be replaced by Regan Pelling. Only one minute after this, Diamonds took the lead. A long-free kick by Heath was inadvertently flicked on by a Needham defender, and it looked up into the area for Jack Bowen to float a header up and over Jessup into the back of the net. It was the striker’s first goal since the beginning of January, and his twelfth strike of the season thus far.
That proved to be the final action of the first half, one that had seen a few quiet moments interspersed with goalmouth action, entertainment and three goals as Diamonds held the slender advantage.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 Needham Market
The attendance was announced as 410 moments before the two sides returned to the pitch from the changing rooms. The wind had picked up even more over the interval, and so many thoughts had centred around how much it would impact on the rest of the game. After a quick count of sets of players, the referee got the match back underway.
It was immediately evident that the weather would massively dictate the half, and Diamonds were kicking into it meaning any long ball was more often than not held up and sometimes blown back towards them. In the 49th minute the ever-dangerous Johnson got away down the right, but his ball in was well dealt with and cleared away by the Needham defence.
The hosts broke forward again two minutes later, and Bowen brilliantly turned and ran away from a challenge down the right wing. His cross towards the back post looked threatening, but it just ran away from Rogers. Jessup launched a quick ball downfield, and the wind carried it forward down the left. Marsden reached it ahead of the onrushing Heath, but the midfielder was facing towards the byline when he turned and curled a shot towards the unguarded net. The effort lacked power, and Collard was able to get back to clear it away.
Marsden and the Diamonds defender were involved again moments later. The Needham man escaped down the right, and he was able to whip a cross towards the far post. It looked on a proverbial sixpence for the waiting Griffiths, but Collard crucially headed away in what could have been a goal-saving clearance.
Johnson was proving to be a real handful down the right with his fleet-of-foot, his direct running and his constant high workrate. Shortly after Collard’s vital interception, the winger won a free-kick down the right after he was hauled back by Callum Sturgess, an offence that resulted in the first yellow card of the game. Rogers moved across to take the kick, and his whipping effort towards the near post forced Jessup into an awkward punch away. Hicks latched onto the loose ball before driving forward and attempting a cross, but it was blocked away.
Marsden was then booked just before the hour mark, and just after Collard had flicked a Brown long throw straight into the arms of Jessup. The visitors were still seeking an equaliser, and they had a chance when they won a free-kick around 30 yards out in a similar position to the one they had scored from in the opening half. Again Griffiths moved across to take it, but this time his curling effort flashed well over the crossbar and the Peter de Banke terrace.
Two minutes later Needham won another set-piece opportunity, and this one was played short. Sturgess lined up a cross and, though his initial one was charged down, the loose ball ran back into his path for him to cross in again. It looked up towards the far post, and it glanced off the top of the bar on its way out for a goal-kick.
Bowen received Diamonds’ first yellow card of the game moments later, and then their first substitution saw Lorraine enter the fray for Diamond. The club’s top goalscorer was immediately into the action as he drew a free-kick, but Rogers’ ensuing delivery went just over Collard and out of play. The home side were working incredibly hard to shut down the space for Needham and to put them under pressure, and two cases in point saw Johnson and then Lorraine win throw-ins down the left. Both times Brown dispatched deliveries into the area, but both times these were cleared away.
The visitors hadn’t truly threatened in the second half and hadn’t been able to build any consistent pressure or momentum in their search for a leveller. It appeared that, if they were to find one, that it would come through a mistake or a moment affected by the weather conditions. After Griffiths hooked an effort wide of goal, this almost proved to be the case. A long ball forward looked like it would be a simple header back to Heath by Liam Dolman but, assisted by the wind, the header raced past Heath and towards the vacant goal. Fortunately for the Diamonds, it ran just wide of the post and out for a corner. This was cleared away, and an ensuing strike from the edge of the box was charged down.
Needham made an attacking change in the 85th minute as Nicholas Ingram was summoned, and then moments later Johnson was announced as the Sponsor’s Man of the Match for his busy and all-action display.
The visitors were still trying to work an opening, but time was ticking away as the match entered into the 87th minute. An attack saw a few claims for a foul as a Needham man was challenged, but these were quickly dismissed by the referee. Marsden was then able to look an effort goalwards in the next phase of play, but this represented an easy save for Heath as he gratefully gathered.
Just before the end of the regulation 90 minutes, Curtis came on for Lorraine who had landed awkwardly in an aerial duel. Needham then launched a couple of crosses into the area, one which was vitally headed away by Dolman and then the next one by Collard. Westbrook also made a wholehearted block in the midst of the attack, a sign of how much the Diamonds players wanted the victory.
Four minutes of additional time were signalled, but these were played out with relatively little action. One away cross from the right did appear dangerous until it sailed onto the roof of the net, but that was it as the referee soon signalled the end of the contest.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 Needham Market
This was a crucial win for the Diamonds to, in many ways, keep their play-off hopes alive. Anything less than a win wouldn’t have ended the dreams, but would have seriously dented them. They began the game well in tough conditions, but fell behind to a brilliant strike. They reacted excellently though to forge ahead by half-time and, coupled with a battling and hardworking display in the second half, they saw the victory out in worsening winds. Credit must go to the visitors not just for Griffith’s terrific free-kick, but also for pushing right to the very end. It was to no avail in the end though as Diamonds emerged victorious to win their first game of the month, and to move back into the play-off places. Their next match sees then travel to Leicestershire to take on Barwell, scene of that infamous FA Cup match back in October 2015, on Saturday 23 March, 3.00pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Sam Johnson
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
13. Ben Heath
2. Nathan Hicks
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Alex Collard
7. Sam Johnson
8. Ben Farrell
9. Jack Bowen
10. Ben Diamond
11. Declan Rogers
12. Joe Curtis (for Lorraine 89)
14. Ben Acquaye
15. Tom Lorraine (for Diamond 68)
16. Jack Ashton
1. Jake Jessup
2. Jake Dye
3. Callum Sturgess
4. Samuel Squire
5. Keiran Morphew
6. James Baker
7. Luke Ingram
8. Gareth Heath (C)
9. Jamie Griffiths
10. Jeremiah Kamanzi
11. Joseph Marsden
12. Regan Pelling (for Ingram 42)
14. Nicholas Ingram (for Dye 85)
15. Ethan Abrahams
16. Bradley Cook
Goals: Rogers (22), Bowen (43)
Goals: Griffiths (19)
Yellow cards: Bowen (67)
Yellow cards: Sturgess (57)
Referee: Martyn Fryer
Assistants: Kevin Guise, Paul Buck