AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 St Ives Town

Diamonds dramatically claimed only their fourth league win of the campaign with a late winner at a buoyant Hayden Road.

In Chris Nunn’s first home game in charge, they made the perfect start when Jenson Cooper latched onto a defensive mistake to convert into an unguarded net from range. They continued to threaten as the goalscorer was denied by a last-ditch block and Miguel Ngwa almost broke clear, though Ives also caused danger in an enterprising opening period. Dean Snedker was forced into strong saves to thwart Tyrone Baker and Jonathan Edwards, but the visitors did level just before half-time when ex-Rushden man Nabil Shariff scrambled a loose ball over the line.

Play continued to swing in the second half when Peter Abimbola glanced wide for the hosts before Baker somehow flicked off-target with the goal gaping down the other end. It seemed Rushden may have to settle for a point when Conor Tee rattled the crossbar, but there was to be one last defining moment when a cross ricocheted to Ngwa who found the back of the net to scenes of pandemonium from the home faithful. Snedker made three incredible saves to deny Callum Milne, Baker and substitute Enoch Andoh to help preserve three crucial points and begin 2023 with a pivotal success.

First half

Chris Nunn made two changes to the side that had been heavily defeated at Bedford on Boxing Day. New signing Luke Massingham came into the centre of defence and Jenson Cooper replaced the departing Chris Manangu up-front. The three other signings that had been made ahead of the game were unable to registered in time as Diamonds continued with a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 system.

Rushden began the year bottom of the table having lost their last seven games, while St Ives sat 13th having lost their last two (both at home) but winning three of their previous four away from home and boasting the eighth best record on their travels.

The visitors started brightly as Nabil Shariff had a deflected effort easily held before Dylan Williams was fed through before hitting the top of the crossbar, though the offside flag had been raised. However, in their first attack, Diamonds took the lead. Swift pressure by Peter Abimbola forced visiting keeper James Goff to scuff a kick forward, and Jenson Cooper showed good awareness to sidefoot it back into the unguarded net from around 25 yards out.

Ives looked for an instant response as Jonathan Edwards had an effort on-the-turn easily held by Dean Snedker, and the home stopper made the first of several excellent saves moments later as he dived to his left to parry away a fizzing effort from winger Tyrone Baker.

The opening exchanges continued at an energetic pace as, down the other end, Courtney Lashley almost floated a cross over Goff only for the keeper to hold on the goal-line. Conor Tee then cleverly found space before his pull-back was fired goalwards by Cooper, but a last-ditch block deflected the attempt wide. Miguel Ngwa also saw a deflected shot held before being stopped by ex-Diamonds defender Paddy Casey.

In between the home opportunities, Edwards cut inside from the left to fire towards the far post but Snedker dived to push it clear. Nabil Shariff had a strike comfortably held but, three minutes before half-time, the forward did bring Ives level. Snedker could only get his fingertips to a high cross from the left, and it dropped for the Ives man at the far post to back-heel the loose ball past Lashley and over the line.

Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-1 St Ives Town

Second half

Compared to the opening 45 minutes, the start to the second half was fairly quiet with limited goalmouth action but plenty of midfield endeavour. Tee found Abimbola in behind on the right only for his low pull-back to be cleared, and then a threatening free-kick almost found Cooper and Ryan Hughes only for it to be touched behind for a corner.

That proved to be the defender’s final action as, just after the hour mark, Hughes collided with the advertising hoardings as he tried to keep an attack alive. Despite treatment he hobbled off and, in a bold move, attacker Andy Kanga was brought on in his place. This led to a tactical re-shuffle that saw the industrious Mitchell White move into defence and Abimbola drop deeper in midfield.

The substitute was quickly a threat as he skipped past his man before being brought down on the edge of the area. Tee laid it short to Kartell Dawkins whose fierce effort was charged down, but the ball was eventually played back to Tee on the right who whipped in a dangerous cross. Abimbola timed his run well but could only glance his header wide of the target.

Though it had been the hosts on top for much of the half, Ives did still look a threat on the counter-attack and when breaking forward at pace. Callum Milne had a chance when he found space just outside the box, but his flashed effort was brilliantly tipped over by Snedker. Lashley was booked soon after, and then the visitors somehow failed to take the lead. Substitute Kieran Higgs got down the left and into the box before his low ball in beat Snedker and found Baker in front of goal. However, the winger turned his close-range effort wide.

The game entered the final ten minutes with it still very much in the balance. Diamonds were millimetres away from forging ahead again when superb harassing from Cooper led to him winning the ball and striding through before having an effort blocked. It ricocheted to Kanga who also saw a strike charged down, and the loose ball span to Tee whose curling attempt beat the despairing dive of Goff. It struck the bar though and was then hacked clear.

The visitors then almost snatched the lead as Baker hit one from around 20 yards that looked like it would find the net, but Snedker make another huge save to keep the scores level.

Two minutes later, the importance of that save was exemplified. Kanga latched onto the ball just ahead of the halfway line before confidently striding forward and finding Tee on the right. The creative midfielder’s low driven cross was touched by Kanga before a defensive challenge sent the ball across the box for Miguel Ngwa. The Northampton loanee showed tremendous composure to get over the top of the ball and steer his effort past Goff into the roof of the net.

Diamonds were so close to a precious victory in their relegation battle, but Snedker was required to make his best save of the game on the stroke of full-time. Substitute Enoch Andoh strode into space before launching an effort towards the far post. It sailed towards goal and looked for all the world as if Ives had found a leveller, but the home keeper miraculously got a fingertip onto it. Even then the ball looped towards goal but, rather than drop into the net, it came back off the woodwork and bounced to safety.

Four minutes of additional time were signalled, and home hearts were in mouths in the 93rd minute when a long-throw from the left was flicked on. It squirmed around and flashed towards goal, but Snedker gratefully dropped on the loose ball.

Moments later the referee blew his full-time whistle to a thunderous roar and outpouring of euphoria from the Rushden support.

Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 St Ives Town

Although Snedker made several incredible saves, Diamonds merited their success in a performance full of spirit, character and positive mentality. They began on the front-foot, pressing their opponents high up the pitch at every opportunity, posed a persistent threat and were rewarded for their attacking alteration midway through the second period that led to a late winner that will never be forgotten.

There were performances full of heart and courage across the entire pitch, a mindset that led to the ultimate reward and lifted Diamonds off the foot of the table. They are next in action on Saturday (7 January, 3pm kick-off) when they travel to face play-off chasing Ilkeston Town.

Diamonds Player of the Match (as chosen by match sponsors Coley & Partners Estate Agents): Conor Tee

Attendance: 436

Match report by Ollie Mortimer

Diamonds: Snedker (C), Agemoh-Davies, Lashley, Dawkins, Hughes (Kanga 61), Massingham, Ngwa, White, Cooper, Tee, Abimbola (subs not used: Black, Corden, Grey, Connor)

Diamonds goals: Cooper (10), Ngwa (86)

Diamonds yellows: Lashley (71), Ngwa (85)

St Ives: James Goff, Paddy Casey, Jonathan Herd, Myles Cowling, Jordan Williams, Callum Milne, Nabil Shariff, Edmund Hottor (Charlie Johnson 88), Jonathan Edwards (Enoch Andoh 74), Dylan Williams (C) (Kieran Higgs 53), Tyrone Baker

St Ives goal: Shariff (42)

St Ives yellows: J. Williams (70)