AFC Rushden & Diamonds 3-3 Leiston FC

Diamonds were held by a late Leiston penalty in a rollercoaster encounter at Hayden Road.

The visitors started the brighter and were ahead inside 14 minutes when Jake Hutchings bundled in a free-kick. Rushden improved as the half wore on though and, shortly before the break, striker Jordan Graham scored his first goal for the club with a terrific scissor-kick that the keeper tipped onto the post before it rolled into the far corner.

A pulsating second half began with Leiston re-establishing their lead as Hutchings poked in following a corner from the left. Another corner led to a powerful header that Fernando Bell-Toxtle cleared off the line, and that proved crucial as Diamonds completely turned the game on its head in the space of two minutes. Firstly Nathan Tshikuna slotted home a penalty after Shane Bush was pulled back, and then Jesse Akubuine thumped home a rebound despite the best efforts of a defender on the line. There was to be late drama though as the away side won a penalty of their own five minutes from time, and William Davies rolled it past Dean Snedker to ensure a share of the spoils.

First half

Interim manager Burgess made three alterations to the side that had drawn at Biggleswade Town on Tuesday evening. Captain Alex Collard had been ruled out for the rest of the season and, with Ryan Hughes still injured, Shane Bush partnered Liam Dolman in defence. There were also starts for Will Jones and Jordan Graham up front as Diamonds returned to a 4-4-2 formation.

They entered the contest still occupying the final play-off spot, seven points clear of nearest challengers Alvechurch, and they were unbeaten in their last five at Hayden Road (W4 D1). The visitors sat two places but eleven points behind the hosts and, though they had lost five of their last six away from home, the solitary win in that sequence had come at third-placed Rushall which had also seen them keep their only away league clean sheet so far this season.

It was Leiston, nicknamed The Blues, who started more assuredly as they keep the ball well and looked threatening when finding space in between Rushden’s defence and midfield. Dean Snedker was forced to make a strong save to tip over a header following the first corner of the match, and he then collected the resulting set-piece when it looked like it would fall for an away attacker.

Diamonds responded as Jesse Akubuine, who had scored last week at Redditch and won Man of the Match on Tuesday, powered forward past a couple of challenges before forcing away keeper Samuel Donkin to parry away at his near post. A few minutes later Jones went down just before the halfway line and, despite some initial treatment, he was unable to continue and was replaced by Lauric Diakiesse.

Before this though, Leiston took the lead. A free-kick from the left ran past a host of players before Jake Hutchings tapped home at the far post, despite Snedker’s best efforts.

The hosts struggled to string a series of passes and pressure together, but they did come close in the 24th minute when Furlong’s low corner from the right found the stretching Bush, but his effort hit the side-netting rather than the back of the net. After a deep away free-kick was headed harmlessly wide, Rushden did level following another cross from the right. This time it was Diakiesse with a hopeful ball into the middle, and there looked to be little danger with Jordan Graham surrounded by defenders. However, the home debutant launched himself into a scissor-kick that saw Donkin dive and tip it onto his right post, but it rolled across the line and into the net to give the striker a memorable first Diamonds goal.

Akubuine was shown a yellow card immediately following the goal, and Graham was clearly buoyed that strike as he cut inside from the left before having a shot blocked away. Then, in the first of three minutes added on, Furlong got in down the right only for Donkin to rush out and clear just ahead of the winger.

Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-1 Leiston FC

Second half

Only four minutes had elapsed after the interval when the visitors went back into the lead. A corner from the left ran for Jake Hutchings in space, and he poked home for his and Leiston’s second of the afternoon.

Shortly afterwards another away corner, this time from the other side, saw a towering leap and header towards goal that beat Snedker, but stand-in captain Fernando Bell-Toxtle was perfectly placed to clear the effort off the line. That narrow escape seemed to galvanise Rushden who started to force the issue, with Graham rounding Donkin but just failing to keep the ball in play and Diakiesse having an attempt charged down. There was also loud appeals for a penalty when Furlong got in behind on the right and went down, but referee Sam Weeson was unmoved.

Weeson did award a spot-kick soon afterwards though to give Diamonds the chance to level. A loose ball was headed back into the area by Furlong, and Bush looked like he would latch onto it before being pulled back. Nathan Tshikuna stepped up and calmly sent Donkin the wrong way for his tenth goal of the season.

It got even better for the hosts two minutes mater as they forged ahead. Tshikuna latched onto the ball inside the area following a Sam Warburton long-throw, but his low bobbling attempt looked like it would easy for Donkin to hold. However, the keeper spilt it and, though Graham couldn’t latch onto the rebound, Jesse Akubuine did to lash a strike home from close-range, despite a defender on the line almost blocking it away.

Bush was forced off a few minutes later, with the returning Ben Diamond coming on which meant goalscorer Akubuine moving to right-back and Paddy Casey inside to centre-half. Tshikuna almost put the game beyond the visitors when he launched an effort from over 30 yards out, but his strike dipped just over at the final moment.

Leiston had a couple of headers off-target, but they were generally struggling to create any clear-cut opportunities or to really threaten the home backline. Just when it looked like Diamonds may hold on for the three points, Tshikuna was adjudged to have committed a foul when trying to clear a bouncing ball away, and suddenly the visitors had a penalty. William Davies confidently placed the kick past Snedker to level the contest.

There remained a couple of Diamonds chances to snatch a late winner as, firstly, Tshikuna’s free-kick on the left was dropped by Donkin, but he was fortunate to be able to collect it at the second attempt. Diamond then met a last-gasp corner, but he couldn’t generate enough pace on the header and so his effort drifted wide.

Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 3-3 Leiston FC

Diamonds will be highly disappointed to concede the late goal, but they responded well to going behind twice to take the lead and almost hold on for the victory. Despite a number of injuries before the game, and then Jones and Bush having to go off during the 90 minutes, they looked a threat in the second half and also defended well to limit the visitors.

Alvechurch’s win at Stourbridge moves them five points behind Rushden with four to play, but it’s Diamonds who are still in the ascendancy to seal a play-off berth. Their next match sees them travel to second-placed Coalville on Saturday 9 April, 3pm kick-off, for another crucial clash.

Diamonds Man of the Match: Jesse Akubuine

Attendance: 712

Match report by Ollie Mortimer

Diamonds: Snedker, Casey, Warburton, Bell-Toxtle (C), Dolman, Bush (Diamond 72), Tshikuna, Akubuine, Jones (Diakiesse 14), Graham (George 75), Furlong (subs not used: Snelus, Johnson)

Diamonds goals: Graham (38), Tshikuna (pen 66), Akubuine (68)

Diamonds yellows: Akubuine (38)

Leiston FC: Samuel Donkin, Oluwasijuola Odelusi, Sebastian Dunbar (C), Joseph Marsden, Adam Bailey-Dennis, Jake Hutchings, Finlay Barnes, George Quantrell, William Davies, Brendan Ocran, Baris Altintrop (subs not used: Oliver Saunders, Iuri Fernandes, Adam Mills, Sonny Wright)

Leiston FC goals: Hutchings (13, 49), Davies (pen 85)

Leiston FC yellows: None