Diamonds returned to winning ways and moved one step closer to promotion by defeating midtable Aylesbury United at Hayden Road on Saturday afternoon.
The first half hour of the contest was cagey, competitive and keenly-contested with little in the way of goalmouth action. Diamonds were often guilty of trying to get the ball forward too quickly and rushing a lot of their attacks, and the visitors arguably had the better of the ball and the overall play. In the 3rd minute a dangerous driven cross across the face of goal was just unable to find a visiting player, and later on Matt Peake-Pijnen found space on the left of the box to cut in and hit a shot that was straight at Ben Heath in the Diamonds goal. The hosts, bar a couple of corners and free-kicks, struggled to seriously test the opposing defence, but that all changed in the 34th minute when they took the lead. There looked little on when a long ball forward dropped for the returning Ryan Robbins, but he quickly span and smacked a 30-yard thunderbolt that flew theough the air and past the despairing dive of the keeper before hitting the back of the net. This seemed to relieve a lot of the nerves and tension that had been evident before the strike, and confidence naturally grew from there on in. After Robbins hit the outside of the post, Diamonds doubled the lead two minutes before half-time when Robbins flicked onto Spencer Weir-Daley who touched the ball away from the last defender, ran into the area and then nicked the ball over the advancing keeper. The touch made him go quite wide and narrowed the angle, but it didn’t matter as the striker clinically found the far corner of the net. They almost made it three on the stroke of the interval when Robbins powered through on goal from the halfway line, but his shot was saved by the keeper.
The early stages of the second period were also high on endeavour but low on quality as the visitors looked to get back into the contest, and Diamonds looked to put the game to bed. The home side had two chances in as many minutes when firstly Fairlamb cut in from the left before seeing his bobbling shot unconvincingly parried away by the keeper, and then Weir-Daley saw a left-footed curler also nervously parried away after the striker had cut in from the right. Aylesbury United then responded by Greg Williams heading over when a corner had been crossed back in, and also seeing a free-kick well held by Heath. Moments later though they had a goal back when Dolman played a back-pass to the Diamonds keeper, but Heath inexplicably missed the ball and it topped agonisingly into the back of the net. The away side’s tails were naturally now up as they sensed an equaliser, and only two minutes after their first goal Peake-Pijnen met a cutback to see a shot brilliantly parried away by Heath. The next goal was always going to be crucial, and it was the Diamonds who got it in the 75th minute. Fairlamb reached a cross on the right before jinking away from a defender and crossing into the middle. It looked a simple catch for the keeper but he dropped it, and Joe Curtis ran in to place the loose ball into the corner of the net to give the hosts some breathing space. After Ross Oulton hit an effort over and Fairlamb saw a shot go wide, Diamonds put gloss on the scoreline in the 90th minute when one substitute, Ben Farrell, fed another, Tom Lorraine, and the striker placed a shot under the keeper and into the back of the net. There was still time for Aylebsury United defender Callum Mapley to hit his own crossbar when trying to clear a Joel Gyasi cross, but Diamonds had ultimately done enough and remain two points clear in the race for automatic promotion.
Manager Andy Peaks made just the solitary change to the starting XI that had begun the midweek draw at home to Bedford Town. Ryan Robbins came in to replace Tom Lorraine, with the Diamonds record goalscorer joining John Dean, Ben Ford, and the returning Ben Farrell and Jack Ashton, on the substitutes bench. This meant that a 3-5-2 system would again be deployed after a 4-4-2 had been used in some recent games, and as the two teams made their way out to the Hayden Road surface bathed in sunshine an intriguing clash was in store. After Beaconsfield’s comprehensive win at Hanwell on Thursday night Diamonds found themselves heading into the contest in second place, and were looking to arrest a run that had seen them not win any of their last three home league games, draw their last four consecutive fixtures and not be victorious in six straight league matches. Though the visitors came into the contest in midtable and on the back of two consecutive away league defeats, prior to that they had won five out of six away league games whilst keeping a clean-sheet in each. Diamonds knew they were in for a tough test therefore, and after both sets of players had shaken hands and the coin-toss had been conducted, referee Gareth Davies got the game underway.
The visitors, nicknamed The Ducks, made a swift start as they settled quickly and created an opportunity inside the first three minutes. A move down the left saw the winger run close to the byline until drilling a dangerous low ball across the face of goal, but fortunately for the hosts there was no yellow shirt to meet the cross and so the threat went. Rushden tried to respond by Ross Oulton chipped a ball into the box only for it to be easily cleared, and then Jack Westbrook to meet a Joel Gyasi free-kick only for the ball to skim off the midfielder’s head through to the keeper. Aside from these brief flickers of action though the early exchanges were fairly quiet, with Diamonds especially guilty of rushing attacks and trying to force things too much.
Aylesbury were arguably using the ball better than the home side were as they were regularly first to loose balls and proving a threat when finding space in between the Diamonds’ defence and midfield. After Ryan Robbins and an away defender clashed heads but thankfully were both fine to continue, the visitors created another chance in the 20th minute. Winger Matt Peake-Pijnen moved forward before cutting in from the left and finding room for a shot, but his right-footed effort was straight at Ben Heath who collected.
The hosts hadn’t been able to create any clear-cut opportunities so far as the visitors had defended well from the front, and Diamonds hadn’t been able to settle into a passing rhythm or cohesion that would inspire attacking momentum and pressure. As a result they switched to a 4-4-2 formation, with Westbrook dropping to right-back and Joe Curtis and Ross Oulton making up the midfield two. They had an opportunity in the 26th minute when Gyasi won a free-kick in a threatening position and Curtis whipped in an inviting delivery, but Sam Brown was unable to make anything of it and any semblance of a chance was gone. A minute later they won their first corner of the game, but again the chance passed when the delivery just went over Liam Dolman’s head and was eventually cleared by the visitors.
Although The Ducks had used the ball pretty well and were showing a threat when attacking, Heath hadn’t been tested much in the Diamonds goal. In the 32nd minute though, he was required. They won a free-kick on the right, and the resultant delivery bounced just in front of the home keeper. As a result Heath spilt the ball, but fortunately for him and for the hosts the loose ball fell for Westbrook to hammer away upfield.
This stroke of fortune bore even more resonance two minutes later when the hosts took the lead. A long ball by Heath saw Ryan Robbins and an away defender challenge for the ball, and it slightly fortuitously fell for the Diamonds striker. There still appeared to be little on as he latched onto the loose ball and took a couple of touches, but what he did next was truly breathtaking. He looked up before smashing a 30-yard howitzer towards goal, and it flew past the despairing dive of Jack Hopwood as he dived to his left and into the top corner of the net. It was a strike similar to one the home number 9 had scored earlier in the season at home to Kempston Rovers, and his 17th goal of the season really was a crucial one in settling any nerves and tension that may have been present before the goal.
It could be seen immediately from the kick-off that Diamonds tails were up and that any pressure had evidently been lifted from their shoulders, and they were now able to truly and naturally express themselves. A minute after his first strike Robbins came close to meeting a cross from the left, and then shortly afterwards he came even closer to doubling his tally and the Diamonds’ advantage. After a short corner routine Gyasi crossed from the right, and as an attempted clearance went more up than away the ball fell for Dolman to cutely flick into the path of the free Robbins on his left. The striker took a touch and needed no invitation to slam an effort goalwards, but it cannoned off the outside of the near post and behind into the Peter de Banke terrace for a goal-kick.
Moments later though, in the 43rd minute, the hosts did extend their lead. Robbins played a key part in the goal again as he met a long ball to flick it on into the path of strike-partner Spencer Weir-Daley, and he crucially reached the ball just ahead of Ducks defender Jack Wood. He nicked the ball past the away man and ran to meet the loose ball as it ran towards the penalty area, and he reached the ball just before the onrushing Hopwood before lobbing it over the keeper. Though the chip seemed to force him wide and to narrow his angle as he ran onto it close to the left byline in the area, it didn’t matter as he hooked a left-footed shot that beat the covering defender on the line and slammed into the far corner of the net.
There was still time for Rushden to extend their lead even further as their confidence soared even more after their second strike, and it was no surprise that the irrepressible Robbins was at the heart of the move again. A pass was played to him just short of the halfway line, and the striker turned before putting his head down and powering through a number of attempted Aylesbury defensive challenges. He ran towards the area and through on goal, and like earlier it appeared that a carbon-copy of one of his strikes against Kempston earlier in the season would be replicated. This time however, his attempted low strike across goal was initially saved by Hopwood, and the ball luckily deflected back into his grateful clutch.
Moments later referee Davies blew the whistle for half-time, a 45 minutes that had seen Diamonds initially struggle before clinically turning on the style and displaying a confidence-filled and pressure-free style of play that helped put them in a strong position come the interval.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-0 Aylesbury United
The two teams emerged from the changing rooms ready for the second half, with most thoughts during the break centring on how important the next goal would be, and how the visitors would respond to being two goals behind. After a quick count of both sets of players, the referee signalled for the beginning of the second 45 minutes.
Just like in the opening half, the Ducks began brightly and created a chance three minutes in. They earnt a corner on the left, and the subsequent delivery ran all the way through before being back chipped back into the area. Midfielder Greg Williams met it with a firm diving header, but the effort flew over the crossbar. Diamonds quickly responded however, and Weir-Daley met a ball in behind on the left channel before playing it back to the supporting Fairlamb. He jinked inside onto his right foot and hit a bobbling effort goalwards that Hopwood fortuitously and awkwardly parried with his chest before a nearby defender was able to clear the ball upfield.
Only a minute later the hosts had another chance as they pushed for a clinching third goal. The chance was very similar to Fairlamb’s except that it occurred on the right, not the left, as Weir-Daley was found by a precise ball over the top of the away defence. He ran onto the ball and checked inside before having a curling left-footed effort again awkwardly parried away by the keeper before he was able to collect it at the second attempt.
The early stages of the second period were end-to-end as both sides pushed to score the next goal for differing reasons, and so to fit in with this pattern of play Aylesbury had the next opportunity. Westbrook lost the ball which resulted in Peak-Pijnen running through from just inside the Diamonds half, but fortunately for the hosts the winger’s shot at the end of his run drifted wide of the far post. Compared to much of the opening half, this half saw plenty of opportunities early on and was full of goalmouth action. In the 56th minute the visitors won a free-kick just outside the area on the left, and undoubtedly in a dangerous position. Ollie Hogg sized up the kick before hitting a curling effort towards the near post, but Heath did really well to move to his right and hold the shot above his head.
A minute later play swung down the other end, and Robbins and Weir-Daley linked up well again as the former flicked on for the latter to run through on goal and, although he netted, the offside flag had long been raised against the striker. The time ticked past the hour mark with both teams still threatening adding to the score-sheet, and in the 63rd minute the visitors did just that as they got back into the game. There seemed no danger whatsoever as Curtis won a tigerish challenge halfway inside his own half, and the ball ran for Liam Dolman to play back to Heath. The keeper went to kick it first-time, but it took a big bobble and looped over his swinging foot before agonisingly trickling into the back of the net.
The Ducks were naturally energised and buoyed by the slice of fortune, and they came close to equalising only two minutes after the own-goal. A diagonal ball from the left was perfectly flighted for the right winger Jamie Keen to meet in behind Brown and he ran forward before pulling the ball across the area. Though Ben Seaton missed his attempted shot it ran through ideally for the onrushing Peake-Pijnen to strike from just inside the area, but Heath dived to his right to make a critical save.
The first substitutions of the contest were then made, as firstly the visitors replaced Keen with Majic Tajs and then Ben Farrell, who had been unavailable for recent games, made a very welcome return as he came on for Weir-Daley. This signalled another change in system for the home side as they went to a 4-3-3 formation, with Fairlamb and Gyasi pushing slightly further forward to support Robbins. Shortly after the striker was booked as Diamonds’ frustrations got the better of them for a brief moment, and nerves were understandably on edge amongst both players and fans following the own-goal as a big 20 minutes remained. These fears were allayed though in the 75th minute when Diamonds re-established their two-goal advantage. Gyasi led a counter-attack with a typically strong and purposeful run down the left, and he cut inside before drilling a diagonal ball across the pitch towards his fellow winger Fairlamb. The pass was slightly overhit as the Diamonds number 11 had to chase the ball towards the touchline, but he showed impudent footwork and superb skill to quickly trick past his marker and cross into the box. It looked like Hopwood would collect the cross, but he spilt the delivery and Joe Curtis arrived just in the nick of time to stab the loose ball past a covering defender and into the far corner of the net.
The midfielder’s first goal of the season gave Rushden some much-needed breathing space and made proceedings much more comfortable, and they were able to play with much more freedom again. Three minutes after Curtis’ strike Robbins headed down a chipped ball forward for Fairlamb on the right, and he in turn played it inside to the free Oulton. He took an initial touch before taking another one to step away from a defender before lashing a strike just over from the edge of the area. That was the industrious midfielder’s final action of the contest as he was replaced by Ben Ford, and this meant another tactical reshuffle as the substitute went to right-back and Westbrook moved back into midfield. A minute later Peaks made his final alteration as Robbins left the pitch to rapturous applause from the home faithful to be replaced by Tom Lorraine.
The game was winding down slightly as the visitors began to realise that the game may be beyond them, and Diamonds continued to push for further goals. Ford received the ball on the right before playing a pass inside for Fairlamb, and he cut inside before hitting a left-footed strike towards the near post that flew past the upright. The time was almost on 90 minutes when the hosts were able to score again. Farrell latched onto a loose ball halfway inside the away half before running forward and slipping a neat pass through for Tom Lorraine. The substitute reached the ball in the left side of the area just ahead of the onrushing Hopwood, and he calmly rolled a finish through the keeper’s legs and just inside the near post.
As the contest entered stoppage-time there still remained one further chance for the Diamonds to add another goal to their tally. Farrell again began the move as he played Gyasi in down the right wing, and he ran towards the byline before firing the ball across the face of goal for the waiting Lorraine. Covering away defender Callum Mapley managed to get back to try and clear the ball, but he volleyed it towards his own goal from close-range and he was fortunate to see the ball cannon back into play off the crossbar.
Moments later the referee did signal the end of the contest, one that had seen Diamonds be on edge before their first goal and after Aylesbury’s strike, but one in which they had taken their chances and recorded a full-deserved and much-needed success.
Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 4-1 Aylesbury United
This was a crucial result for Diamonds after their recent six-game winless run, and one that re-instilled a lot of confidence and importantly kept their promotion hopes in their own hands. They looked nervy prior to taking the lead, and were perhaps trying too hard and not playing naturally, but once they had scored they mightily grew in confidence and clinically put the game beyond the visitors despite some brief moments of worry after Aylesbury had pulled one back. Beaconsfield won their game at Moneyfields to remain one point clear of Diamonds with a game in hand, and Hayes & Yeading and Hartley Wintney also emerged victorious to leave things as you were at the top of the table. The most important thing is if Diamonds win their four remaining games then they will be promoted regardless of other results, and that must be paramount in Diamonds’ minds as they move forward. Their next game is against one of their promotion rivals AFC Dunstable, who conceded a last-minute equaliser to fellow hopefuls Cambridge City, at Hayden Road on Tuesday evening (April 17th), with a 19:45pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Luke Fairlamb
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
13. Ben Heath
2. Blaize Punter
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Ross Oulton
7. Joel Gyasi
8. Joe Curtis
9. Ryan Robbins
10. Spencer Weir-Daley
11. Luke Fairlamb
12. John Dean
14. Ben Farrell (for Weir-Daley 69)
15. Ben Ford (for Oulton 82)
16. Tom Lorraine (for Robbins 83)
19. Jack Ashton
1. Jack Hopwood
2. Ollie Stanbridge
3. Jake Bewley
4. Jack Wood (C)
5. Callum Mapley
6. Ollie Hogg
7. Jamie Keen
8. Greg Williams
9. Harry Jones
10. Ben Seaton
11. Matt Peake-Pijnen
12. Majic Tajs (for Keen 67)
14. Jonny Miller (for Jones 78)
15. Ben Williams
16. Archie Davis
Goals: Robbins (34), Weir-Daley (43), Curtis (75), Lorraine (88)
Goals: Dolman og (63)
Yellow Cards: Robbins (69)
Yellow Cards: Wood (41), Tajs (76), Bewley (90)
Referee: Gareth Davies
Assistants: Robert Cairns, Simon Fradley