AFC Rushden & Diamonds sealed their place in the play-offs by emphatically defeating lowly Carlton Town on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Dog & Duck.
Any early nerves were settled by a Rushden goal after only four minutes. Nabil Shariff had a shot from just inside the box that away keeper Jack Steggles couldn’t hold, and Tom Lorraine was there to tap home the loose ball from inside the six-year box. The striker then poked a shot wide and Shariff drilled an effort past the near upright, and for the visitors Aaron Hooton saw a goalbound effort blocked by Brad Harris in a quick start to proceedings. Diamonds doubled their advantage in the 20th minute when Ollie Brown-Hill had a shot blocked and the loose ball fell for Lorraine to slide home his second of the afternoon. After a slight lull in the match the hosts powered into a 3-0 lead as Lorraine ran towards the penalty area and looked to seal his hat-trick, but away defender Lawrence Gorman nicked the ball away from him and inadvertently into the back of his own net. Brown-Hill then saw a shot saved and Shariff have an effort over the bar as Diamonds completely dominated the half, and they managed to grab another goal on the stroke of half-time. Shariff drove to the left byline before pulling it across for Lorraine to fire home his third goal and to seal his first hat-trick for Rushden.
The second half was a lot quieter in comparison to the quick and high-tempo nature of the opening period, and Carlton threatened a consolation several times. Hooton had two attempts saved by Matt Finlay, Mellors-Blair also had two shots saved and Alex Troke had a goalbound effort blocked before they did pull one back in the 66th minute. Mellors-Blair got in down the right before running into the penalty area and firing across Finlay into the far corner of the goal. Though Diamonds did take their foot off the gas in the second half, the crucial work had been done and achieved in the first 45 minutes. They went close to reassuming their four-goal advantage when Shariff had a shot blocked over the bar, but they didn’t have to wait much longer for their fifth goal. Substitute Ross Oulton won a free-kick around 25 yards out, and Shawn Richards stepped up to curl a brilliant effort against the underside of the bar before it bounced down and into the net. Fellow substitute Jack Bowen almost added a sixth in stoppage-time only for him to head wide of the target, but the full-time whistle was signalled shortly afterwards to confirm a Diamonds win in their last-ever home game at the Dog & Duck, and to confirm their play-off place where they will travel to Witton Albion on Tuesday evening for the semi-final.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks kept the same starting XI that had drawn with Stamford on Easter Monday. This meant Tom Lorraine and Nabil Shariff continued their partnership up front, and also that they’d be utilising a 4-4-2 formation for the contest. The substitutes bench was also the same as last time out, with Ben Heath, Kyal McNulty,Taylor Orosz, Jack Bowen and Ross Oulton being the options available for later in the game.
Both teams took to the Dog & Duck pitch on a bright and sunny day in Wellingborough, and a mixture of excitement and nervousness was the general feeling around the ground. After Carlton had held Basford to a goalless draw on Monday Diamonds knew they held their play-off destiny in their own hands: win, and they would be in the play-offs. However, any Rushden slip would leave the door open for Basford or Newcastle, who were playing each other, to capitalise and seal a top-five berth themselves. Carlton came into the fixture on a run of three successive away defeats and already safe from relegation, and with the fixture also being Diamonds’ final ever home match at the Dog & Duck it was always going to be a pivotal and crucial day. Before the game got underway the results for the 2016-17 Diamonds Supporters Player of the Season were announced: Sam Brown came in third, Nabil Shariff in second and Liam Dolman in first place.
After the customary handshakes had been exchanged and the coin-toss was completed, referee Mark Howes blew for the start of the match. Only three minutes had passed when there was an early scare for the Diamonds: away winger William Mellors-Blair did well to run forward and then cut in from the left, but his curling shot was straight at Matt Finlay and easy for the keeper to collect.
Less than a minute later, Rushen had the all-important early breakthrough. Shawn Richards cleverly backheeled a pass into Nabil Sharif, who in turn ran into the right of the area before hitting a shot at goal. Carlton keeper Jack Steggles initially looked like he would hold onto it, but he let it squirm from his grasp and there was Tom Lorraine to thrash home the rebound from close-range. Lorraine almost doubled his and the Diamonds’ goal tally when Shariff quickly drove to the right side before hitting it across for the goalscorer at the back post. However, the striker just couldn’t stretch his leg out far enough, and it hit the end of his boot and flew wide of the post.
The good link-up play between Shariff and Lorraine would be a major factor behind Diamonds’ strong performance in the opening half, and it was the former who was next to threaten. A neat move down the left wing saw Brown feed a sharp pass into Shariff, and he swiftly turned before moving away from his marker and hitting a near-post shot that flashed wide of the upright.
As particularly evidenced by Monday’s late equaliser for Stamford a one-goal lead is always a fragile and tenuous one, and Carlton almost proved that themselves by going close after 11 minutes. A right-wing cross dropped invitingly for striker Aaron Hooton around 10 yards from goal, and his goalbound effort looked like it would trouble Finlay or even find the back of the net. However, Brad Harris dived in in the nick of time and superbly deflected the shot away for a corner. The resulting set-piece came to nothing, but the original chance helped to highlight how the opening exchanges really had been frenetic and played at a high-tempo.
Diamonds then resumed their pressure on the away goal, and after Alex Troke for the visitors had a dangerous cross cleared away, Shawn Richards won a corner for the hosts down the other end. A succession of three corners then followed, with the last two delivered right on top of Steggles and requiring strong punches from the keeper, but the danger was eventually cleared by the visitors. More danger was forthcoming shortly afterwards, and this time it resulted in Rushden’s second goal of the afternoon. A loose ball dropped for Shariff to collect just outside the area, aided by a slip by Carlton defender Jake Carlisle, and he unselfishly played it across for Ollie Brown-Hill to run onto. He moved into the box before seeing his shot blocked, but it fell kindly for the nearby Tom Lorraine to calmly guide a shot into the back of the net.
That further eased any nerves or pressure that the Diamonds players and fans may have felt pre-match, and the home players weren’t interested in letting up the pressure. Though they didn’t create too much in the next ten minutes or so, with it being the first quiet period the match had had, they looked dangerous everytime they moved forward. They were maintaining possession well and looking especially threatening when running at the away defence, and one such case led to their third goal just past the half-hour mark. A through ball was fed for Lorraine to run onto and attempt to move away from the last defender, and as he approached the penalty area it appeared that he may get his hat-trick. However, Carlton defender Lawrence Gorman nicked the ball off his toes, but in doing so knocked the ball past his own goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net.
It was a slightly fortuitous way for the Diamonds to further extend their lead, but it nonetheless made the scoreline more comfortable and put it beyond doubt. An hour remained, plenty to time for either side to add to the scoresheet, but the home side were in complete control. The next ten minutes were again slightly quieter than the opening stages of the half had been, with Mellors-Blair the next to threaten for the visitors. He ran forward into space around 25 yards from goal, but his driven shot drifted harmlessly wide of the far post.
A minute later, in the 42nd minute, Rushden could have notched a fourth. A deep cross from the left found an unmarked Brown-Hill at the back post, and his cushioned volley bounced down into the ground before Steggles palmed it away. In the next move Shariff demonstrated superb close control to flick the ball up and over Gorman in the Carlton area, but after the ball had dropped and under intense pressure the Diamonds top-scorer could only lift his effort over the crossbar.
They didn’t have to wait long to score another though as another strike was added in the single added-on minute at the end of the half. Brown, who had got forward well, again found himself in the attacking half, and he looked up to see Shariff in space just inside the area. The ball was played into the striker, and he in turn twisted sharply before running to the left byline and playing it across goal. It missed a couple of players but not Tom Lorraine at the far post, and hee had the simple task of finding the back of the net from point-blank range. It was the striker’s first hat-trick for the club, and his 18th goal of the season in all competitions.
The contest had barely recommenced when referee Howes blew his whistle for the end of the half; one in which Diamonds had wholly controlled, one in which they held a commanding and comfortable lead, and one in which the nerves of anyone connected to the club had been thoroughly dispelled by the dominant home performance and scoreline.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 4-0 Carlton Town
The away side re-emerged from the changing rooms around five minutes before the hosts, and once both sets of players were present the whistle was signalled to begin the second period. Basford were leading Newcastle 2-0, but that result was insignificant with Diamonds more than capably taking control of their chance of finishing in the top five.
Carlton clearly had had a stern talking-to by their management staff during the half-time interval, and they began the half more on the front-foot. In the 47th minute a dangerous cross from the right dropped invitingly for Hooton, and his shot passed a couple of diving white Diamonds shirts before Finlay gratefully hung onto it. Play swung down the other end though, and Richards superbly galloped down the right wing before playing the ball back to the free Shariff lurking on the edge of the box. He hit a shot towards goal, but a superb covering challenge from Carlisle deflected the effort over the bar.
There was a worry for the hosts moments later when Dan Quigley went down after a midfield challenge, but thankfully the box-to-box midfielder was up on his feet after some treatment and was able to continue. Soon after he’d returned to the pitch Carlton had another opportunity to pull a goal back when Hooton ran forward at the home back four, but his subsequent shot was weak and easy for Finlay to collect.
Diamonds had naturally taken their foot off the gas in the early stages of the second half, and this allowed the visitors to get some foothold back in the game. Mellors-Blair had threatened in the majority of Carlton attacks forward thus far, and it was he who ran through on goal in the 58th minute. Callum Westwood couldn’t get back to make a challenge, but Finlay was able to parry the shot to his left anyway and then collect before another red-shirt could latch onto the rebound. Just after the hour mark Troke had a shot from the edge of the box well blocked away by Harris, and moments later Mellors-Blair found room for another effort only for it to be comfortable for Finlay to collect.
The drop in home tempo and pressure was noticeable, and Peaks responded by making a triple substitution after 65 minutes. Taylor Orosz, Jack Bowen and Ross Oulton all entered the fray, and hat-trick scoring Lorraine along with Shariff and Brown-Hill were the ones who made way.
Less than a minute after these alterations, however, Carlton managed to grab a goal. A neat ball down the right channel found William Mellors-Blair, and he ran into the area before firing a shot past Finlay into the far corner of the net. The visitors’ confidence clearly was up as they sensed another goal back, and a dangerous shot across goal from the right only needed a touch to divert it goalwards before it ran out for a goal-kick. The offside flag had been raised anyway, and so any effort would have been disallowed.
Diamonds hadn’t created much in the way of clear-cut opportunities in the half, but their clinical and dominating nature of their first-half performance had put the game largely beyond doubt. One long ball forward almost found substitute Orosz in behind the defence, but goalkeeper Steggles ran out to clear the ball and Richards couldn’t direct his resultant shot back towards the unguarded net. Shortly afterwards though, the winger did have his goal. Oulton did well to win a free-kick just over 25 yards from goal on the left side, and it was Shawn Richards who stepped up to whip a superb effort over the wall, off the underside of the bar and into the back of the net.
It was a superb set-piece, and an excellent way for the winger to score his first goal in his second stint for the club. The atmosphere from the home fans, which had been particularly loud and motivational in the first period, was wholly relaxed and nerve-free, with the Diamonds knowing they were minutes away from being confirmed in the play-offs. They still searched for another goal in an attempt to match the scoreline that they had defeated Northwich by three weeks ago, and an Orosz cross was missed by an away defender only for it to luckily run for another Carlton player to clear away.
To their credit the visitors still pushed themselves, and never once gave up in their attempts to make further impression on the scoresheet. After Richards had had a shot blocked for the hosts, Carlton broke down the other end and had a poked effort by Mellors-Blair again forcing a save from Finlay.
One final chance remained for either side as stoppage-time was signalled. Firstly Oulton curled a deep free-kick to the back post for Bowen to head wide of the upright, and then away substitute Kyle Stovell hit an effort towards goal that Finlay spilt but fortunately drop wide of the mark and out for a corner. The resulting set-piece was well cleared by the home defence though, and on the whole the back four had dealt well with the increased away pressure in the second period.
Moments later referee Howes blew for the end of the game. Not only did that confirm an emphatic win and a perfectly befitting send-off to Diamonds’ five-year stay at the Dog & Duck, but it also confirmed their place in the end-of-season play-offs where they will travel to second-placed Witton Albion on Tuesday evening for the semi-final.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 5-1 Carlton Town
A sense of nervousness and tension was to be expected and was undoubtedly apparent before the kick-off, but the Diamonds turned in a superb first-half performance to completely alleviate any nerves, and then did enough in the second period to comfortably see the game out. With it being their first season in the Northern Premier League First Division South expectations and hopes for the campaign before it got underway were always going to be difficult to gauge, but Rushden have done superbly well to finish in the top-five and reach the play-offs in what has been a highly competitive league this season. After a nineteen game unbeaten run earlier in the season the club suffered a few defeats between February and the start of April, but they ended the campaign strongly with only one loss in their last six games to secure the extension of their season. Crucial victories over Leek, through a 90th minute winner, and Newcastle in recent weeks helped the Diamonds eliminate two potential challengers, and fellow pursuers Lincoln and Basford were also edged out in the end. Credit must go to them for their positive seasons, but it is the Diamonds who advance into the end-of-season play-offs. As mentioned before they will travel to Cheshire to face Witton Albion on Tuesday (April 25th) in the semi-final, and though their opponents finished 25 points above them in the regular season and defeated Diamonds in both their encounters, it is a one-off game where anything is possible. Memories will naturally turn back to almost a year ago when Diamonds travelled to Royston in the Southern League Division One Central Play-Off Semi-Final after having been beaten by them twice in the regular league season, only for the underdogs to turn in one of their best-ever collective team performances to win 2-1 and secure passage to the final. The match on Tuesday will undoubtedly be one of the biggest tests the Diamonds will have faced so far in their five-year existence, but they will travel in numbers and with hope and optimism that they can reach the play-off final that will take place on next Saturday (April 29th) afternoon.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Tom Lorraine
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
17. Matt Finlay
2. Callum Westwood
3. Sam Brown
4. Brad Harris
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Ben Farrell
7. Shawn Richards
8. Dan Quigley
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Nabil Shariff
11. Ollie Brown-Hill
12. Kyal McNulty
13. Ben Heath
14. Taylor Orosz (for Lorraine 65)
15. Jack Bowen (for Shariff 65)
16. Ross Oulton (for Brown-Hill 65)
1. Jack Steggles
2. Jake Carlisle
3. Daniel Fletcher
4. Edoard Schoenecker
5. Lawrence Gorman
6. Kieran Walker (C)
7. Josh Rae
8. Alex Troke
9. Aaron Hooton
10. Brandon Mutibvu
11. William Mellors-Blair
12. Kyle Stovell (for Troke 72)
14. Matthew Newton (for Rae HT)
15. Damon Charlton
16. Joe Phillips (for Mutibvu 90)
17. Daniel Elliott
Goals: Lorraine (4, 20, 45+1), Gorman OG (31), Richards (78)
Goals: Mellor-Blair (66)
Yellow Cards: None
Yellow Cards: None
Referee: Mark Howes
Assistants: Richard Cutts, Simon Kavanagh
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