Manager Andy Peaks made just the solitary change to the starting XI that had earned a crucial victory over Cambridge City on Saturday afternoon. Joe Curtis was unavailable so Ross Oulton took his place in the team, and a strong-looking bench consisted of Jack Ashton, Callum Westwood, Ben Ford, Tom Lorraine and Ben Diamond. There was a brief delay to the two teams entering onto the pitch after Aylesbury’s manager got stuck in Buckinghamshire with his side’s kit, and so the away side only had a shortened warm-up before taking to the pitch wearing Rushden & Higham’s under-18’s kit. There was a great sense of anticipation ahead of the contest as the hosts came into the fixture top of the table and knowing they would mathematically be promoted if they bettered Hartley Wintney’s result or, due to their superior goal difference, be effectively promoted if they matched their result. The visitors sat in 20th place, third bottom of the division, and though they were in no danger of relegation, they still aimed and wanted to prove a point in their final away league game of the season. Rain had fallen before the contest, and would continue to do so for much of the encounter, as both sets of players shook hands before the two captains stepped forward to conduct the coin-toss. After it had referee Elliott Kaye blew to signal the start of the game.
Diamonds were full of confidence on the back of three consecutive victories and with them being on the verge of promotion, and they made a quick start to proceedings. Only three minutes had elapsed when Spencer Weir-Daley collected a pass on the left wing before cleverly feeding the overlapping Luke Fairlamb. The pacey winger took a touch forward before looking up and whipping a dangerous low delivery across the face of goal, but it just ran past the lurking Ryan Robbins at the back post and away to safety. A minute later the first yellow card of the match was issued as away man Derek Feyi was penalised for pulling back Robbins, and then the home striker was threatening again shortly afterwards. Oulton made a good interception in midfield before spotting the run of Robbins and playing the ball through, but Aylesbury defender Kris Clark did well to spot the danger and put it out for a corner-kick. The set-piece ultimately came to nothing, but it was evident that Rushden had begun wholly determined and intent to make an early breakthrough.
They didn’t have to wait much longer to do so as they forged into the lead in the 15th minute. Jack Westbrook played the ball back to captain Liam Dolman who in turn fed it across to Sam Brown, and he played it further on to Fairlamb down the left wing. The wide-man faced up his marker before he skipped past the flailing challenge, and the referee played a key advantage as Fairlamb sped into the area. He had plenty of options available to him, and he flashed a low ball across for the perfectly timed run of Ben Farrell. The midfielder stuck out a foot and diverted it goalwards, with the effort flying high into the roof of the net and leaving away keeper Ashley Jenkins with no chance.
The goal calmed any semblance of nerves or tension that may have been felt, and Diamonds now began to express themselves even more. A few minutes after their opener they won a corner on the right, and Fairlamb trotted across before curling a dangerous delivery into the area. It looked like the rising Westbrook may get his head to the ball, but it flashed past him for Brown at the far post. Although he mishit his initial effort he was able to have another go, and Jenkins was forced to make a superb block at his near post to stop the lead being doubled. However, he wasn’t able to stop this occurring soon afterwards. The home side won a free-kick on the left close to the touchline, and Joel Gyasi stood over the ball. The winger moved up to the ball to swing a delivery into the area, and it passed over everybody, including the diving Jenkins, as it found the far corner of the net. It was unsure whether he had meant it or not, but either way his 14th goal of the season, and his second in two games, gave the hosts a cushion and moved them one step further to sealing promotion.
Rushden now sensed blood and came close to extending their lead on a number of occasions in the next few minutes. Firstly Brown got the ball on the halfway line before jinking forward on a mazy run past a number of away men, but unfortunately for the hosts his resulting shot was blocked and the danger was cleared. Then in the 25th minute Robbins made a swift break forward, but his neat pass forwards towards Gyasi was just intercepted, and a minute later his strike-partner was involved. Weir-Daley latched onto a heavy touch by an Aylesbury defender halfway inside the away defensive half to skip away from a challenge and to run towards the area. His second touch was slightly too heavy as he ran into the box, but he still managed to get a cross-shot in that forced a covering defender to head away from close to the goal-line out for a corner. That set-piece was cleared, but one from the other side moments later caused concern for Aylesbury. Gyasi swung it in to the near post and Dolman met it with a flicked header that left Jenkins rooted to his spot, but luckily for the visitors it flew just over the crossbar and into the Peter de Banke terrace behind.
For all of the home pressure and chances in the previous fifteen minutes, Aylesbury were the ones to score the next goal. Brown’s pass was intercepted in the left-back area and Anthony Ball latched onto possession before playing it inside to Kieran Schmidt. The away number 9 cleverly flicked it around Westbrook before poking it into the path of the onrushing Davide Pobbe, and he side-footed an effort through Heath’s legs and into the back of the net.
The match had been fairly whirlwind and played at an often frenetic pace since Diamonds’ first goal, but the next few minutes were pretty quiet as the time ticked past 40 minutes and towards the half-time break. Going into the interval only one goal to the good would have been a tenuous advantage and may have caused some nerves and pressure, but they avoided any chance of this by restoring their two-goal lead in the 42nd minute. A loose ball dropped on the halfway line for Oulton to half-volley a precise through-ball to Robbins in the right channel, and the striker put his head down before powerfully running away from a recovering defender and into the area. He poked an attempt towards the far post with his preferred left foot and, though Jenkins did well to parry the shot away, it ran perfectly for Ben Farrell to easily tap home his second goal of the evening.
As if that wasn’t cause enough to celebrate news came through shortly afterwards that Kempston had taken the lead at home to Hartley Wintney through ex-Diamonds man Jake Newman, and as things stood Rushden were on course for promotion come the end of the evening. There was still work to be done though, and they seeked another goal before half-time. It almost arrived on the stroke of the break when a Brown long-throw from the left near the corner flag was flicked on by Dolman at the near post, but it ran past everyone and out for Robbins to collect. He chipped a cross into the area that was headed away only as far as Oulton and, though his first effort was blocked, it ricocheted back for him to hit a sweet volley that forced Jenkins to smartly jump to his left to push the ball away.
Shortly afterwards the whistle was blown to signal the end of the half, one which Diamonds had bossed, aside from the brief moment where Aylesbury scored, and one in which they had shown a clinical touch to put themselves in the driving seat heading into the second period.
Half Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 3-1 Aylesbury FC
During the interval the attendance was confirmed as 546, and shortly afterwards both sets of players emerged from the changing rooms ready for the second 45 minutes. Most thoughts during the break had centred around if Diamonds could push on to score more goals, if and how Aylesbury would respond to being two goals behind, and also if Hartley would be able to get back into their game at Kempston. After referee Kaye had quickly counted the players in both teams, he blew the whistle to begin the second period.
Less than five minutes had passed in the half when the visitors had a chance to reduce the arrears. Schmidt latched onto a loose ball just inside the Rushden half before cleverly flicking it over Dolman and running round the defender to meet the flick. He then played a neat ball through into the path of Pobbe who ran into the area to meet it, though the angle was narrow when he took the strike and so Heath was able to make a fairly routine save at his near post. Moments later midfielder Nathan Neale was booked for a shirt-pull, and following on from this the hosts created a brilliant opportunity. Farrell played a pass out to Fairlamb on the right, and he sped down the right towards the byline before cutting back onto his left foot. He whipped a cross to the far post which zipped over Robbins and an away defender, and found Weir-Daley around six yards out with a free header. However, he seemed slightly surprised that the cross had reached him, and so his resulting header from point-blank range beat the keeper but also beat the far post as it went wide for a goal-kick.
Diamonds still remained on top as they dominated possession and territory, and everytime they went forward they looked capable of scoring. The hour mark ticked past, but no sooner had it done than the hosts extended their advantage even further. Heath launched a long kick forwards that was well controlled by Robbins, and he was given time to turn around 30 yards from goal and drill a left-footed effort goalwards. The ball moved in the air and bounced just before Jenkins, and so he was only able to parry the ball to his left. There was the onrushing Ben Farrell arriving in perfect time to latch onto the rebound and gleefully tap home from four yards out to seal his hat-trick, to net his 18th goal of the season, and to seal the game and Diamonds’ promotion beyond any doubt.
The only doubt that remained would be if the hosts’ promotion would be mathematically confirmed or if it would only effectively be guaranteed, but Kempston still led Hartley 1-0 as Rushden pushed for more goals. They only had to wait another two minutes after Farrell’s third strike to extend the lead. After Robbins had fired wide after being fed through on goal by Weir-Daley, they won a corner on the right side. Fairlamb stepped up to whip an inviting delivery into the middle, and Liam Dolman anticipated more than most where the ball would reach before meeting the ball with a firm header that powered into the back of the net despite a covering Aylesbury man on the goal-line.
The promotion party really was now in full swing as Rushden’s confidence grew with every passing minute, and the visitors were powerless to stop the continuous wave of hosts’ pressure. Aylesbury made a couple of substitutions, but the tide wasn’t stemmed as demonstrated by Fairlamb hitting a stinging shot narrowly wide straight after the changes. Peaks then made a couple of alterations of his own by completely changing his front-line and introducing Diamond and Lorraine at the expense of Weir-Daley and Robbins. They had barely been on the pitch for a few minutes when the hosts added another goal. Brown received the ball in the left-back area before delicately chipping a ball over the top of the away defence for Ben Diamond to latch onto. The substitute controlled well with his chest, a touch that took the advancing Jenkins out of the picture, and then rolled a low finish into the back of the unguarded net from just inside the area. After his recent injury lay-off his first goal since the end of January was befitting on a night of celebration, and the hosts now had a 6-1 lead.
A minute later Farrell, who was named man of the match soon afterwards, was replaced to rapturous applause as Ben Ford took to the field in his place. Though Aylesbury were still working hard their heads had evidently dropped, and it was now a case of how many for the Diamonds. In the 79th minute they scored their seventh when Oulton played a pass into Lorraine, and the substitute looked up before playing the ball through for fellow striker Ben Diamond. The front-man had timed his run on the shoulder of the defender to perfection, and he showed calmness to run into the area and clinically dispatch a left-footed finish across Jenkins and into the far corner of the goal.
The time ticked into the final ten minutes of regulation time, and Hartley still trailed Kempston by one goal to nil. Although the game as a contest was long over Rushden still pushed forward as they sensed even more goals, and they came close to achieving such a feat on a few occasions. Firstly they won a corner, and Gyasi curled in a sumptuous delivery for Lorraine to power a low header towards goal that was cleared off the line. Shortly after Fairlamb whipped a low cross into the area that seemed odds-on to find the free Lorraine, but a covering defender did excellently to just intercept and put the ball out for a corner. Finally, Dolman’s cross from the right was only cleared as far as Ford to poke back into the middle, and it ran for Diamond to drill a half-volley that was goalbound until it was blocked away by an Aylesbury defender.
Seven was more than enough though, and after a couple of minutes of added-time Kaye blew the whistle to signal the end of the game. Kempston vs Hartley was still being played when full-time was blown for at Hayden Road and, whilst players, staff and fans were celebrating alike that promotion had been effectively confirmed, the full-time whistle was blown at Kempston to signal Hartley’s loss, and to definitely confirm Diamonds’ promotion to step three of non-league football for next season.
Full Time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 7-1 Aylesbury FC
After two narrow, gutting and heart-breaking misses in the play-offs in the last two seasons, this really has been a case of third time of asking for Diamonds. They have led the way in the Southern League Division One East for much of the year, helped by a 17 game unbeaten run from the end of October to February, and despite a six-game winless run that threatened to derail their promotion dreams, they bounced back superbly in recent weeks to register four crucial successive wins to help see them over the line. The fact that this is their third promotion in only six seasons as a senior club really is a huge testament to every single player, staff member, fan and volunteer that has been involved with AFC Rushden & Diamonds this season, and the celebrations at the end showed hwo much it meant to everyone linked to the club. The heavy victory in this match was the perfect way to confirm promotion, and they remain two points clear of Beaconsfield, who defeated AFC Dunstable this evening and who still have a game in hand, in first place, meaning that the race for the title will go to the final game of the season. Whatever happens it has been a season of huge achievement both on and off the pitch, and one that will undoubtedly stick long in the memory of everyone connected with the club. Their final match is at home to Ashford Town (Middx) on Saturday (April 28th), a 3pm kick-off and a match that has been designated as a “Pay What You Want” fixture.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ben Farrell
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. Ben Farrell
9. Ryan Robbins
10. Spencer Weir-Daley
11. Luke Fairlamb
12. Callum Westwood
14. Tom Lorraine (for Robbins 70)
15. Ben Ford (for Farrell 76)
16. Ben Diamond (for Weir-Daley 70)
19. Jack Ashton
1. Ashley Jenkins (C)
2. Rayon Haye
3. Paul Brown
4. Antony Njogu
5. Kris Clark
6. Derek Feyi
7. Anthony Ball
8. Nathan Neale
9. Kieran Schmidt
10. Alfie Touceda
11. Davide Pobbe
12. Alex Woodfine (for Touceda 71)
14. Harry Scott (for Neale 65)
15. Cian Banert
16. Dan Ball
17. Francis Ashley
Goals: Farrell (15, 42, 61), Gyasi (20), Dolman (63), Diamond (73, 79)
Goals: Pobbe (35)
Yellow Cards: None
Yellow Cards: Feyi (5), Neale (49), Pobbe (75)
Referee: Elliott Kaye
Assistants: Ruebyn Ricardo, Jacob Lehane
Updated player profiles with appearance and goalscoring details are now available.