Diamonds earned a point in an entertaining draw at play-off chasing Alvechurch on Saturday afternoon.
The first half was highly eventful and largely action-packed with chances for both sides. Ben Heath made a good save low down to his right to parry a David Bellis effort, and then Diamonds went close when Declan Rogers’ free-kick was well saved. The play was fast-paced and at a swift tempo throughout the half, and the hosts had the better of the chances in the rest of the half. A corner from the right led to a free header that flew over the bar, Ashley Carter had a stinging half-volley brilliantly tipped over, and Heath excelled even further when he reached Andre Carvalho-Landell’s deflected effort to parry it round the post. The visitors had a few threatening moments and always looked dangerous when attacking, and so the game was perfectly poised heading into the second period.
Diamonds’ pressure intensified after the break, and led to a series of chances. Firstly a Rogers free-kick found Alex Collard with a free header inside the area, but his effort went straight to the keeper. Then Ben Farrell hit a flashing effort from around 25 yards out that flew just wide of the upright, and moments later the midfielder caught a volley perfectly only for the keeper to get across and punch away. Tom Lorraine also saw a hooked effort fly just wide before Carvalho-Landell was found by a clipped ball into the area, but Heath was out quick to smother the effort. Substitute Joe Curtis had a floating half-volley tipped over, and this came in between two loud penalty appeals for Diamonds which the referee waved away both times. Though both sides’ approach play was very good and that chances were pretty aplenty, no goal was forthcoming as Diamonds extended their unbeaten league run to four games and remained within the play-off places.
Manager Andy Peaks made two enforced changes to the starting XI that had impressively defeated Leiston the previous Saturday. Blaize Punter returned in the centre of defence to replace the unavailable Matt Berry-Hargreaves, and John Dean replaced Ben Diamond who was serving his one game suspension for his recent red card against Halesowen. They were still without Jack Ashton, Liam Dolman, Jack Westbrook and Jack Bowen, and recent signing Sam Johnson lined up amongst fellow substitutes Nathan Pickworth, Patrick Casey, Dan Clifton and Joe Curtis.
The two teams entered onto the Lye Meadow playing surface, with a highly intriguing encounter set up. Alvechurch had won back-to-back promotions to reach this level, and had acquitted themselves well so far this season as they entered the match in 5th position. Despite a good start that had seen them keep four clean sheets from their first four home league games, they had been rather inconsistent of late comprising a run of only two victories in their last eight matches. Diamonds came into the game 3rd in the table having won their last two consecutive league games, and they had only lost one of their last five away league matches along with only one of their six league games altogether. After both sets of players had shaken hands and the captains had conducted the coin-toss, referee Richard Eley blew to begin the game.
Diamonds began well with a couple of attacking breaks down the right side, one that was unfortunate not to result in a corner, but the hosts were the ones who created the first opportunity of the contest. Full-back David Bellis got into an attacking position before feeding Luke Yates in the area, and the ball broke back out to Bellis to curl a low left-footed shot towards goal that Ben Heath did excellently to get across to and parry away. Play swept down the other end, and Declan Rogers was brought down just outside the area in a right-of-centre position. The Rushden midfield man picked himself up to take the set-piece, and he whipped it towards goal only for home keeper Paul Evans to tip away down to his right.
It had been a very competitive and end-to-end beginning to the game with both sides looking threatening when attacking, both closing their opponents down swiftly and both working the ball well to get into promising positions. Alvechurch got themselves into a couple of such positions after 15 minutes but these came to nothing, and for the visitors Tom Lorraine was close to latching onto a long sweeping ball forward.
Moments later the home side fashioned a couple of openings. Firstly Zack Foster got down the left before slipping a pass into the path of Andre Carvalho-Landell, but his speculative effort from just under 30 yards out flew well wide of the far post. Then a ball forward into the Diamonds area was flicked on only for Punter to half-clear away, but Heath had also come for the ball and so was left stranded out of his goal. A home man latched onto the loose ball and drove an effort towards goal, but Sam Brown had anticipated the danger excellently and got back to block the effort close to the six-yard box. It ricocheted out to Carvalho-Landell, but his low effort from range was weak and easy for Heath to collect.
The early exchanges were played at a largely frenetic pace and at a high tempo, but with the sides largely sharing possession and control of the contest. However, the hosts began to have the better of the play from the half-hour mark. They won a corner on the right in the 31st minute, and the quick inswinging delivery found Joshua March totally free at the near post, but he somehow put his header over the bar rather than on target. A minute later a corner from the other side was initially headed away by Punter, but it only dropped for Ashley Carter to flash a half-volley towards goal from 15 yard out. It sped past a group of players and towards the roof of the net but Heath, despite not seeing the effort until very late, instinctively stuck two hands up and parried the shot over the bar.
Rushden then had a spell of pressure and possession without too much end product, and Heath was forced into a further save in the 40th minute. A careful passing interchange from the hosts saw the ball played out to Bellis, and his curling cross was flicked into the path of Carvalho-Landell just outside the area. He hit a first-time strike that took a big flick off the covering Nathan Hicks, and the deflection changed the direction of the ball. However, Heath quickly altered his position and leapt to his right to superbly tip the ball round the post.
Although Heath made a much more routine save shortly afterwards, the final few minutes of the half and stoppage-time passed without much action. The referee then called time on the opening period, one that had been highly entertaining and one that had featured several good chances, but had been denied by equally impressive saves leading to the goalless half-time score.
Half Time: Alvechurch FC 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Much of the half-time talk in the stands focused on who would be able to score the all-important first goal of the contest, and if the pacey and high-energy nature of the match would be able to be continued. Soon both sets of players returned to the field of play, one that had some moisture on it with the rain during the break, and after a quick count of both teams referee Eley blew to get the match back underway.
The half was less than a minute old when a dangerous Alvechurch run into the box was halted by a well-timed tackle by Collard, and the resultant corner caused some initial danger before being cleared away. Diamonds responded with a couple of forays forward, both that featured strong hold-up play by Lorraine, before the second one ended in a Farrell cross from the right that just passed over Dean and away from danger.
John Dean, on his first league start since the end of August, was proving a menace down the left flank with his quick and direct running, and he had an opportunity to break the deadlock. In the 51st minute he did well to chase the ball down before turning and whipping in a cross that Evans had to tip away from under his bar with Hopkins closing in nearby. Moments later the away pressure continued as Rogers picked up a loose ball on the left and crossed into the middle, and Collard was completely free to meet the cross. However, his header was straight at Evans, and a very good opportunity had slipped away.
A quieter period in comparison to the hustle-bustle nature of the opening hour occurred, with the game still very much in the balance and with both sides looking threatening. Diamonds in particular were beginning to get more and more on the front foot and to have more of the ball, and in the 62nd minute they fashioned another opening. Farrell ran forward through the centre of midfield before looking up and striking from just under 30 yards out but, with Evans rooted to the spot, his flashing effort went just wide of the left-hand post. A few Diamonds players put their hands up to their head, a sign of how close the effort had been from finding the target.
Less than five minutes later the visitors came forward again, and Dean was at the centre of the move as he drove at the defence before slipping a pass into the path of Hicks, but the midfielder’s effort went wide of the mark. Shortly afterwards Hopkins broke forward before playing a pass across to the marauding Rogers, but a home defender clipped it away from him before another Alvechurch man volleyed it forward. However, it only looped straight up to Farrell who caught his volley superbly, but Evans read it all the way and was able to punch it away to safety.
Although the hosts had rarely put consistent pressure on the Rushden backline and hadn’t forced Heath into many saves, with the scoreline the way it was all it would take is one chance. In the 73rd minute they got away down the right before a low ball across the face of the six-yard box by Bellis was excellently held by Heath, with a couple of home players waiting to meet the cross behind the Diamonds keeper. A minute later play swung down the other end as Collard won a header from a left-wing cross, and it fell for Lorraine to hook an instinctive effort that dropped narrowly wide of the far post. Straight away afterwards Sam Johnson replaced Dean in Rushden’s first substitution.
The end-to-end nature of much of the contest was exemplified by this previous couple of minutes, and by the fact the home side then created the next chance only two minutes later. A neat run by captain Jamie Willets saw him play a pass into a fellow player, and he in turn dinked a neat through ball to meet the run of Carvalho-Landell. The striker reached the ball on the stretch and shot goalwards from the right of the box, but Heath made himself big to make an important save before he collected the loose ball. Joe Curtis was then summoned by Peaks to take the place of the industrious Farrell.
Less than ten minutes remained, and it became increasingly likely that any goal now would win the contest. Diamonds won a free-kick on the left after Lorraine was felled, and Rogers’ delivery into the area looked like it may find Collard until he went down claiming his shirt had been pulled, and other Diamonds players and fans behind the goal also appealed. However the referee waved away the penalty claims, and Johnson picked up the pieces only for his attempt to be blocked and Hicks’ long drive from the loose ball be kicked away.
In the 87th minute Alvechurch broke forward only for Carter’s effort from range to fly harmlessly off target, but Diamonds launched a riposte immediately in the form of good link-up play down the left by Johnson and Hopkins. The ball was put out for a corner, and the ensuing delivery was headed out only as far as the lurking Curtis. The ball bounced up high for the substitute, but he did well to spin a half-volleyed effort from the edge of the area that looped towards goal. Evans took no chances and tipped the ball over the bar, with the following set-piece being cleared before Rogers overhit a cross.
The time ticked towards the end of the regulation 90 minutes, and there remained one final moment of drama in what had been an engrossing encounter. Diamonds built a move down the left before Hicks swung a cross in, and it was inadvertently flicked on by an Alvechurch head further into the area where it struck a home man. Loud appeals for a penalty rang out from a few nearby Diamonds players and from the fans behind the goal, but the referee again turned down the claims and the ball bounced through to Evans for him to collect.
The additional time passed without any real action of note, and the referee blew time on a game that had been pleasing on the eye and eventful with chances aplenty, with the spoils ultimately being shared.
Full Time: Alvechurch FC 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
This was a contest in which Alvechurch had the better of the first half and forced Heath into three great saves, and in which Diamonds looked the more threatening and likely in the second period coming close on a number of occasions. Though they could have won it, many associated with Rushden would have been happy with the point before kick-off, and to gain four points from two play-off teams in the form of Leiston and Alvechurch away is an excellent return. Also, the fact that six key players were missing through injury or suspension puts the achievement into perspective even more and, though they drop a place to fourth in the table, they are still terrifically placed heading towards the middle of the season. Diamonds were scheduled to play Stratford Town at home next Saturday, 15th December, but their prospective opponents have progressed through to the FA Trophy First Round being played over the course of that weekend. Therefore Diamonds have a free week coming up, and they are next back in action when they travel to Redditch United on Saturday 22 December, 3:00pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Alex Collard
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Paul Evans
2. David Bellis
3. Zack Foster
4. Kyle Morrison
5. Jamie Willets (C)
6. Ashley Carter
7. Thomas Turton
8. Mitchell Botfield
9. Andre Carvalho-Landell
10. Luke Yates
11. Joshua March
12. Kieron Cook (for Yates 63)
14. Tristan Dunkley
15. Theo Llewellyn
16. Aaron Lloyd (for Carvalho-Landell 83)
17. Ryan Winwood (for Botfield 75)
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown (C)
4. Blaize Punter
5. Alex Collard
6. Declan Rogers
7. Albie Hopkins
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. John Dean
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Dan Clifton
14. Joe Curtis (for Farrell 77)
15. Sam Johnson (for Dean 75)
16. Patrick Casey
17. Nathan Pickworth
Yellow Cards: March (65)
Yellow Cards: Dean (28)
Referee: Richard Eley
Assistants: Max Atherton, John Okole