Diamonds continued their excellent recent form by recording a superb victory over free-scoring Ashford Town (Middx) at Short Lane on Saturday afternoon.
With the hosts being the joint highest scorers in the division and having only lost once at home before kick-off, Rushden knew they were in for a tough test. However, they swept into the lead as early as the fifth minute when Tom Lorraine latched onto a long ball over the home defence, held off a defender and powered a shot inside the near post. The home side responded with an effort from the edge of the area the Ben Heath held well and another attempt that flew over the crossbar, but then the Diamonds forged further ahead. Lorraine’s strike-partner Ryan Robbins drove into the box from the left and found space to calmly slot an effort past the keeper, again inside the near post, to double their advantage. Robbins almost doubled his personal tally shortly afterwards when meeting a precise through-ball, but his shot was blocked away. Ashford looked for a swift way back into the contest before the interval, with Dan Fleming hitting a lob that went over Heath but also went over the bar, and then hitting an effort towards goal that required a strong save from the Diamonds stopper. The play swung back down the other end, and Lorraine found himself one-on-one with Tyler Tobin only for his effort to be denied by the keeper’s legs. Robbins himself found himself through on goal moments later, but his attempted pass across to Lorraine was intercepted and cleared away, and this proved the final action of an entertaining and absorbing opening half.
Rushden almost made grabbed a goal in the opening moments of the second half just like they had done in the first, but after a great move that saw Lorraine feed Ben Farrell the midfielder’s shot was well saved by Tobin. The two were involved again in another good opportunity shortly afterwards, one that may well have put the contest beyond any doubt. The ever-dangerous Luke Fairlamb crossed for Lorraine to power an effort goalwards that drew a superb point-blank save from the keeper, but the rebound fell for Farrell only for him to blast a shot over the bar. The pattern of the second half was set, with Ashford having lots of possession and territory but Diamonds defending resolutely and breaking with pace and menace. Despite all of the home side’s monopolisation of the ball though they struggled to create much in the way of clear-cut opportunities, with the closest they came to a goal back being a free-kick chance on the edge of the box that was ultimately wasted, and then a header from a corner that sailed over the goal. The Diamonds continued to be stoic and resolute in the face of repeated Ashford attempts to find any way back into the game, and they also managed the game well to see the result out to full-time, and to secure their fourth consecutive league victory along with progression up to second place in the table.
Manager Andy Peaks made only the solitary change from the starting XI that had defeated Northwood at Hayden Road last time out. Cameron Gilchrist replaced Joel Gyasi as Diamonds persisted with the 3-5-2 formation that had served them very well in recent weeks. Captain Richard Bunting, Joe Curtis and Ben Farrell again made up the central midfield three, and Tom Lorraine and Ryan Robbins continued their partnership up front, one that had brought four goals in the club’s last away league match at Uxbridge.
The two teams entered the field of play on an initially sunny but ultimately chilly afternoon in Middlesex. Ashford had been in and around the play-off places until a run of injuries to key players led them to being winless in their last six games in all competitions, and consequently they came into the contest in 10th place in the table. However, they still had games in hand on all of the teams above them, they had only lost one league home game all season, and had also scored in every home match so far in the campaign. Also, they welcomed back five key first-team players from injury straight into their starting line-up for this contest, and so Diamonds knew they had a tough proposition ahead of them. The visitors themselves entered the match third in the table, one point off an automatic promotion place, and were unbeaten in their last five league games along with only being defeated once in their last ten games in all competitions. Therefore an intriguing affair was ahead for the 203 supporters in attendance, and as soon as both sets of players had shook hands and the coin-toss had been made, referee Jamaal Horne got the match underway.
The first few minutes were scrappy and lacking in action as both teams sought to play their way into the game. The hosts went close in the first couple of minutes when a lofted ball up in the air and into the area by full-back Alex Fisher saw Sam Brown attempt to clear the ball on the volley, but it inadvertently shot towards his own goal. Thankfully for him though Ben Heath was alert and dived to his right to hold the ball. Moments later, the first chance on goal for Diamonds resulted in a goal. A loose ball dropped for Ben Farrell just short of the halfway line, and he half-volleyed a pass forward and in behind the high Ashford defensive line for Tom Lorraine to run onto. He reached the ball ahead of Samad Kazi, pushed it forward whilst using his strength to hold off the challenging defender, and then calmly rolled a shot past home keeper Tyler Tobin and inside the near post. It was the striker’s seventh goal of the season, with five of them coming away from home, and gave the visitors exactly the start they were looking for. The hosts looked for an immediate response, and three minutes after the Rushden goal they generated an opportunity after a poor Heath kick fell for Kameron English on the right. The winger cut inside and curled a shot towards the far corner, but Heath atoned for his previous error by confidently holding the effort.
The early exchanges were well-contested and saw both sides show dangerous attacking intent especially when countering the other. This was exemplified in the tenth minute when a Diamonds attack broke down and Ashford swiftly countered, with winger Jack Beadle latching onto a ball down the left channel. He reached the byline and lofted a cross-shot towards goal, but Heath was alert to backpedal and tip the effort safely over the bar. The match was also quite physical with numerous challenges occurring all over the pitch, but an overzealous one by Fisher resulted in a yellow card for the home defender. Shortly afterwards, in the 21st minute, Diamonds’ next opportunity resulted in another goal. After the hosts lost the ball in midfield, Farrell ran forward before slipping a well-weighted pass into the path of Ryan Robbins on the left. He ran away from Kazi and powered into the area before coolly slotting a finish past the stranded Tobin into the back of the net. It was the front-man’s sixth goal in only his sixth game for the club, and the last six goals that Diamonds had scored in away league games had all been scored by either Lorraine or Robbins, a stat that is testament to the effective partnership that the two have struck up in recent weeks.
Ashford were evidently shocked at the scoreline and the clinical nature of Diamonds’ attacks so far, but before they could attempt to mount a response the visitors went close to extending their lead even further. Curtis slipped a pinpoint pass through to the onrushing Robbins, but his shot was well blocked away by a home defender. The time ticked past the half-hour mark as the hosts did collect themselves again and mounted a couple of key attacks on the Diamonds goal. In the first of these one of the returning players from injury, striker Dan Fleming, was found by a lobbed through-ball by English, and he managed to get ahead of Gilchrist to lob an effort goalwards. However, though it passed over Heath it also passed over the bar and out for a goal-kick. Moments later Fleming was involved again, as this time he challenged for a header with Blaize Punter after a cross in from the left by Fisher. The ball dropped favourably for the striker and he poked an effort towards goal from close-range, but Heath did well to make the save and to keep the Diamonds’ two-goal advantage intact. In between the two home opportunities Rushden had a chance of their own after winning a corner on the left, and the inswinging delivery reached Lorraine who beat the out-rushing keeper to the ball. He was under close attention by a home defender though, and so his flicked header went over the crossbar.
Another feature of the opening half was the largely end-to-end nature of the action, and to highlight this Diamonds quickly advanced up the other end to create an inviting chance. Lorraine again was played in behind the Ashford back-four, but after running into the area his left-footed shot cannoned off Tobin’s legs and away to safety. The striker was involved again moments later, in stoppage-time at the end of the half, when Robbins found himself through on the right side of the box, but his attempted pass across to his fellow front-man was just collected by Tobin. The half had flown by very quickly, and after a couple more minutes of additional time the whistle was sounded by referee Horne to signal the conclusion of the first forty-five minutes. It had been a half in which Diamonds had clinically established a two-goal lead, and ultimately could have added to, whilst defending strongly down the other end to limit Ashford to little in the way of clear-cut opportunities.
Half Time: Ashford Town (Middx) 0-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The two teams re-entered the field of play after the half-time interval, with a keen sense of intrigue felt by all those present as to how Ashford would respond to their half-time team-talk, how Diamonds would approach the second half and who, if anybody, would be able to score the important next goal of the contest. The referee blew to commence the second period, and just like in the opening half Diamonds created a chance within five minutes. Lorraine seized onto a loose ball before flicking a neat ball into the path of Farrell to run onto, but the midfielder’s effort from just inside the area was well saved by Tobin.
The pattern of most of the second period was established early in the half, with Ashford having plenty of possession but struggling to create many chances, and Diamonds looking to hit their opponents on the counter-attack with quick and pacey forward moves. From one of these Luke Fairlamb, who proved a threat to the home backline all afternoon, dashed away from English on the left before delivering a pinpoint cross into the area for Lorraine. The forward met the delivery inside the six-yard box with a diving header, but Tobin somehow saved the effort with his legs as he jumped up. The rebound ricocheted out invitingly for Farrell, only for the midfielder to fire over the bar from just outside the box.
Any thoughts that Diamonds may come to rue these two missed opportunities were partially banished when an Ashford attack appeared dangerous, but a number of crucial blocks by Diamonds men preserved the two-goal lead and their clean-sheet. Both sides then made a substitution, with Jabir Laraba replacing Fleming for the hosts and Ben Diamond replacing Robbins for the visitors, and the Ashford sub had an opportunity almost immediately. Home midfielder Max Webb neatly turned away from a couple of challenges in midfield before curling a cross in for Laraba, but after showing neat chest-control his shot was relatively weak and easy for Heath to collect. As the game entered the final twenty minutes of regulation time Ashford, through no lack of trying, still were unable to find a way through Rushden’s tight-knit and well-organised defence. The visitors were also managing the game superbly well, with Fairlamb in particular drawing a number of fouls to relieve the pressure on his side and to allow the time to tick closer towards the end of the match.
Clear-cut chances were very much at a premium as the hosts continued to monopolise the ball, but in response Diamonds continued to keep their shape, to make important tackles, interceptions and clearances when required and also to remain a threat on the break. The time continued to ebb away as Ashford began to lose hope of a comeback more rapidly, though they had a couple of final chances to get on the scoresheet as the match entered stoppage time. Firstly they won a free-kick just outside the area before the opportunity was wasted, and then moments later a swinging corner was met by a home head, but the effort flew over the top of Heath’s goal.
After three minutes of added-on time the referee signalled the end of the match, one which Diamonds managed to forge into an early lead, extend it and then stoically defend their advantage in limiting a previously free-scoring team in front of goal, ultimately leading to an eighth league clean-sheet of the season. The win also made it three consecutive wins in the league, extended their unbeaten league run to five matches and meant they had lost only one of their last eleven games in all competitions.
Full Time: Ashford Town (Middx) 0-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The result represented a brilliant triumph for the Diamonds as they inflicted only the second home league defeat of the season on their opponents. Their game-plan worked a treat, with the early goals backed up by a strong and resolute defence, which in turn was combined with purposeful counter-attacks that regularly threatened and always allowed an out-ball for the team, especially in the second half. Despite large amounts of Ashford possession and pressure in the second period Rushden defended brilliantly throughout, and thoroughly deserved their clean-sheet along with the tag of becoming the first side to stop the Middlesex outfit from scoring at home in the league this season. The 3-5-2 formation again proved an effective and highly fluid system, one that efficiently balances pacey and direct attacks with defensive protection and security, and one that the Diamonds players look very comfortable playing in. Credit has to go to the hosts for their never-say-die attitude in what is the latest instalment in their recent winless run, but with their key players now back from injury and with games still remaining in hand, things could quickly turn around. Ultimately though it is Diamonds who emerged victorious and, combined with Cambridge City and Moneyfields drawing 1-1 in their top-of-the-table clash, sees them move up to second in the table, with them now only being three points behind Moneyfields in first place. They are back in league action on Tuesday night (November 28th, 19:45pm kick-off) as they face Cambridge at Hayden Road, with the two sides only being separated by a point ahead of the important contest.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Luke Fairlamb
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
Ashford Town (Middx)
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Tyler Tobin
2. Romario Jonas
3. Alex Fisher
4. Max Webb
5. Russell Canderton (C)
6. Samad Kazi
7. Kameron English
8. Tommy Brunton
9. Daniel Fleming
10. James Cottee
11. Jack Beadle
12. Will Boye
14. Nathan Pooley
15. Elliott Pooley
16. Yahya El-Kabouche
17. Jabir Laraba (for Fleming 65)
13. Ben Heath
2. Cameron Gilchrist
3. Sam Brown
4. Blaize Punter
5. Liam Dolman
6. Ben Farrell
7. Joe Curtis
8. Richard Bunting (C)
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ryan Robbins
11. Luke Fairlamb
12. Ben Ford
14. Ben Diamond (for Robbins 71)
15. Darryl Smith
16. Chief Boateng
18. Rhys Kelly
Goals: Lorraine (5), Robbins (21)
Yellow Cards: Fisher (15)
Yellow Cards: Farrell, Curtis
Referee: Jamaal Horne
Assistants: Turan Yesilyurt, James Amadori
Match Gallery courtesy of Matt Hawkins. Copyright HawkinsImages ©2017