Diamonds recorded their fourth straight victory, and continued their perfect start to the calendar year, by defeating lowly Stratford on Saturday afternoon.
The opening twenty minutes were relatively quiet and lacking in real quality, which was to be expected given the bobbly nature of the Hayden Road pitch. The first meaningful chance of the game resulted in a goal for Diamonds as Jesse Akubuine fired home from inside the area after his initial effort was blocked. Diamonds doubled their lead moments afterwards when Greg Kaziboni latched onto a defensive mistake and unselfishly squared it to Ben Acquaye who tapped home from close-range. The game had really livened up, and Stratford soon had a goal back. Dan Sweeney was brought down in the area, and the striker picked himself up to strike the penalty past Ben Heath.
The game was in the balance when the second half began, but Rushden began the half well and had some chances including a Nabil Shariff effort that was saved. They extended their lead in the 63rd minute when a Sam Brown throw from the right was flicked on by Liam Dolman at the near post and into the far corner of the net for his third goal in four games. Brown was forced into a goal-line block moments later, and that proved vital when Ben Farrell notched a goal moments after replacing Nathan Hicks. Shariff’s shot was well saved, but the substitute was first to the loose ball to sweep home the rebound. There was still time for Sweeney to score his second of the match for a Stratford consolation when he curled home from inside the area, but that didn’t stop Diamonds from continuing their excellent recent run and to complete their fifth straight home league success.
Manager Peaks stuck with the same starting XI that had dramatically defeated Leiston last Saturday to maintain Diamonds’ 100% in the calendar year. The four substitutes also remained, a consistency that was testament to Rushden’s recent form which had seen them win their last three games, their last four home league matches, and they had only lost one of their last eight in the league. This left them in eighth place in the table, only three points off the play-off places.
Contrastingly, lowly Stratford sat 18th in the league standings and, though they had beaten Redditch away last time out to register their first league away win of the campaign, they had lost seven straight games prior to that and hadn’t won in eleven away league games before the midweek success. Therefore, Rushden came into the contest in better form and more fancied to emerge victorious, but it would still prove to be a tough test. After the pre-match formalities were completed, and the teams switched ends (meaning Diamonds would attack the Peter de Banke terrace in the second half), referee Andrew Ellis got the game underway.
Full credit went to the groundstaff and volunteers who helped to make the pitch playable, though it was naturally a bobbly surface and not one that was conducive for a free-flowing match. The opening twenty minutes were uneventful, with plenty of midfield skirmishes and both sides looking to build some possession and pressure to gain a foothold in the contest. Away midfielder Javia Roberts hit an effort into the side-netting, and Rushden had a number of crosses into the area that were well dealt with by the Stratford defence.
The first real chance of the game, in the 24th minute, resulted in the first goal of the game for the hosts. Patrick Casey did well to trick his way down the right before his low cross was slashed up in the air by an away man. The clearing header dropped for Jesse Akubuine on the edge of the area and, though his initial shot was blocked, he latched onto the loose ball and drove a firm effort past the helpless James Pardington and into the back of the net. It was the midfielder’s second goal in as many home games, and it would prove to be a crucial breakthrough.
Five minutes later, Diamonds doubled their lead. Their front three were all involved as Nabil Shariff turned and tried to play in Greg Kaziboni down the right. The covering away defender looked for all the world as it he would latch onto the pass, but Kaziboni did superbly to nick the ball. He looked up and unselfishly squared it to the free Ben Acquaye, and the winger poked it under the keeper as it rolled into the net. It was his first goal since the end of November, and helped to give the home side some breathing space.
After the quiet opening to the game, there was now a lot of action as Stratford won a penalty moments later. Dan Sweeney cut in from the right and was tripped by Akubuine, and the referee showed no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. The striker picked himself up and just squeezed his effort past Heath to the keeper’s right to give the visitors a lifeline.
Akubuine was then booked for a high foot a minute afterwards, but Diamonds began to reassume their control that they had held before the Stratford goal. A series of corners just before the half-time break threatened, and then a Matthew Slinn cross found Sam Brown at the near post only for the full-back to knee an attempt over the bar.
That proved to be the final action of the half as the referee blew his whistle to signal half-time. It had been a half that had took a while to get going, but a burst of action had left the game still very much in the balance ahead of the second period.
Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 Stratford Town
The attendance at Hayden Road was announced as 417, and then Ellis got the match underway again.
The final chance of the first half, which saw Brown almost score from a Slinn delivery, was replicated at the beginning of the second half. The midfielder’s delivery was punched away by Pardington, but it fell to Brown whose hooked effort over his shoulder floated harmlessly over the bar. Moments later, Kaaziboni did well to win the ball in midfield and he sprinted forward before feeding Shariff on his right. The striker attempted a strike across goal, but Pardington was able to pat the effort down before collecting the loose ball.
Though Stratford hadn’t threatened in the second period, the scoreline was still precarious. That all changed in the 63rd minute when Rushden doubled their advantage. They won a throw-in on the right, and Brown moved across to dispatch a trademark delivery towards the near post. Liam Dolman won the header, and his terrific back-header looped up and over the keeper and a defender on the line to nestle in the back of the net. It was the defender’s third goal in four games in 2020, and it allowed Diamonds some comfort.
However, that comfort was almost disrupted immediately as Stratford came within inches of pulling a goal back. An attack appeared to break down, but Akubuine’s clearance cannoned off Nathan Hicks and ricocheted through for Sweeney. Heath flew out of his goal to block the striker’s attempt, but the loose ball broke to Roberts who shot towards the unguarded net. It looked like it was heading in, but Brown heroically got back to block the effort on the line and the danger was cleared.
That goal-saving block proved even more vital when Rushden soon added a fourth. Only a minute after he had replaced Hicks, Ben Farrell got in on the act following a superb jinking run by Acquaye down the right. He slipped it through to Shariff whose shot across goal was parried, but Farrell timed his run perfectly to tuck home the loose ball into the empty net for his first goal of the season.
That effectively put the game beyond doubt, and Peaks reacted by making his final two substitutions as Tom Lorraine and Nat Gosnal-Tyler came on to replace Kaziboni and Akubuine. The away side soon got a consolation though when a cross from the left was headed away by Jack Ashton, but it fell straight for Dan Sweeney who curled a sumptuous strike into the far corner of the net for his second of the match.
Rather than Stratford being invigorated and motivated by that strike, it spurred Diamonds on to see out the game effectively and to come close to notching a fifth on a couple of occasions. Shariff latched onto an Acquaye cross only for his strike to be deflected behind, and Ashton scissor-kicked an attempt into the side-netting following a deep free-kick. However, it mattered little as the full-time whistle was soon blown to confirm Rushden’s victory.
Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 4-2 Stratford Town
It wasn’t a classic contest by any means, but that didn’t matter as Diamonds deservedly emerged victorious. They looked dangerous everytime they went forward and scored four well-taken goals to continue their 2020 record of scoring at least three goals in each game. Peaks will be slightly frustrated at giving away two goals, but credit must go to Stratford at the same time for their application and for never giving in. The result keeps Rushden in eighth place, and they remain close by in what is proving to be a close and tight race for the play-offs. Their next match sees them take on another play-off hopeful, Hednesford Town, who sit one place and one point below Diamonds with a game in hand. This match will take place on Tuesday evening, 21 January, at Hayden Road (7.45pm kick-off).
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ben Acquaye
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
13. Ben Heath
2. Patrick Casey
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Ashton
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Jesse Akubuine
7. Ben Acquaye
8. Matthew Slinn
9. Nabil Shariff
10. Greg Kaziboni
11. Nathan Hicks
14. Ben Farrell (for Hicks 68)
15. Tom Lorraine (for Kaziboni 74)
16. Ryan Dove
17. Nat Gosnal-Tyler (for Akubuine 74)
1. James Pardington
2. Daniel Vann
3. Kynan Isaac
4. Courtney Richards
5. Daniel Alessi
6. Kyle Rowley
7. Lewis Wilson
8. Muhammad Sebbeh-Njie
9. Daniel Sweeney
11. Javia Roberts
20. Reece Flanagan
12. Kai Woollard-Innocent (for Sweeney 86)
14. Kyle Ambris
15. Charles Ten-Grotenhuis (for Rowley 76)
16. Gedeon Okito (for Flanagan 79)
18. David Neligwa
Goals: Akubuine (24), Acquaye (29), Dolman (63), Farrell (69)
Goals: Sweeney (pen 36, 77)
Yellow cards: Akubuine (38), Ashton (73), Slinn (90+1)
Yellow cards: None
Referee: Andrew Ellis
Assistants: Steven Bayliss, David Barrett