Diamonds slipped to a second consecutive narrow away defeat, despite a valiant second half effort at fellow play-off hopefuls Banbury on Saturday afternoon.
Rushden, with two debutants in their side, began brightly and threatened twice within the opening ten minutes. Firstly Tom Lorraine had a header tipped onto the roof of the net, and from the resulting corner Jack Ashton flashed a header just wide of the far post. Banbury had the majority of the ball and territory in the opening half hour but, aside from a Luke Fairlamb strike that went wide of the far post and a Greg Kaziboni effort that was saved by Coventry loanee Cian Tyler, they didn’t create many clear-cut chances. That changed when they broke the deadlock just after the half-hour mark, an inviting cross from the right found striker Ricky Johnson who flicked a header into the far corner of the net. Soon afterwards, Ravin Shamsi doubled the lead when he stepped into space and unleashed a stunning 30-yard strike into the top corner. Diamonds were well and truly up against it, and things were made even more difficult when Nabil Shariff was shown a straight red card on the stroke of half-time for an elbow on ex-Diamomds man Jack Westbrook.
Despite being two goals behind and a man down, Diamonds came out with terrific spirit and togetherness in the second half. Joel Gyasi, making his debut in his third spell at the club, came on at the interval and made a real difference with his direct running and willingness to take opposing players on, and he helped to win a series of set-pieces which helped to build the Diamonds pressure. From one of these, Rushden were awarded a penalty after a handball at the near post, but Lorraine’s penalty was brilliantly saved. It seemed that may be Diamonds’ final opportunity to get back into the match, but they didn’t let their heads drop and pulled one back with five minutes to go. Lorraine flicked a pass round the corner for Gyasi, and the winger took the ball round the keeper before clinically dispatching a strike inside the near post. They almost found a leveller when Nathan Hicks scooped a shot over when in space, and they came within centimetres of a dramatic last-gasp equaliser when Sam Brown pitched in a long throw from the right. The keeper flapped at it, and it dropped towards the unguarded net only for a covering defender to get back and hack it off the line. That proved to be Rushden’s last chance to get a point, though it wasn’t for a lack of effort or passion shown in the second half.
Manager Andy Peaks made three changes to the starting XI that had been defeated in their last match at Coalville two weeks ago. Coventry City loanee Cian Tyler, only 17 years old, was handed his debut with Ben Heath on the substitutes bench, and Oxford United loanee Fabio Sole also made his debut for the club at the expense of Jesse Akubuine who was suspended. Ben Acquaye made a welcome return after his own recent suspension, and he replaced the injured Fabio Lopes. Joel Gyasi was named on the bench for the first time following his recent return to the club, and Ben Farrell also took a place amongst the substitutes after missing the last match.
Like the Coalville game, this was a clash between two play-off hopefuls with lots at stake. Diamonds came into the contest ninth in the table, only four points off the top five with games in hand, and they had only lost two of their last ten league matches. Prior to that defeat at Coalville last time out, they had won all of their away games in the calendar year. The hosts, nicknamed The Puritans, were eighth level on points with Rushden having played two games more. They had won their last two home league matches and held the fourth best home record in the division, though they had only won one game in 2020 before their last two home successes. With over 600 fans in attendance, the match was highly anticipated as referee Alan Cox got proceedings underway.
Diamonds, in their yellow away strip, began the game well and created a number of chances from set-pieces. Only three minutes had elapsed when they won a free-kick just ahead of the halfway line, and Matt Slinn’s deep delivery found Jack Ashton who headed it across goal. Nabil Shariff looked like he might get onto it in the six-yard box, but home keeper Jack Harding reacted quickly to parry the danger away and the ball was cleared. Moments later, the visitors won a corner on the left that Slinn delivered towards the near post. Sam Brown timed his run well to flick it on, and it looped up for Tom Lorraine whose floated header was well tipped onto the roof of the net. From the resultant corner, Ashton flicked a header goalwards that went narrowly wide of the far post.
Banbury soon settled, and they began to build possession and territory. In the 11th minute a neat ball by Giorgio Rasulo out to the left side found the galloping ex-Diamonds man Luke Fairlamb. He took on Liam Dolman and jinked back onto his right foot before hitting a low effort wide of the far post. Shortly afterwards another ex-Rushden man, Greg Kaziboni, skilfully got into space on the right, but his low attempt was easily held by Tyler.
The hosts were having more of the ball, but Rushden were the ones who were arguably creating the clearer chances. Just before the half-hour mark a long Brown throw from the left was headed clear, but straight to Nathan Hicks on the edge of the area. He took a touch before striking an effort goalwards, and Dolman got a touch on it. It pinballed around before Shariff turned and shot, but Harding was able to drop onto the shot and hold it in his grasp.
However, despite Diamonds looking more dangerous in terms of end product, it was Banbury who took the lead. They won a corner on the right, and the inswinging delivery was initially cleared away. Rasulo played it back out to the original corner taker Ravin Shamsi on the right, and his dangerous cross in found captain Ricky Johnson who had got across Dolman to plant a header into the far corner of the net.
The opening goal in such games is always important but, before Diamonds could fully regroup, the lead was doubled. A long ball forward was headed away by Brown, but home full-back Charles Hawtin got onto the loose ball before finding Ravin Shamsi. The creative midfielder turned into space, took a few steps forward, and then unleashed a terrific strike from around 30 yards out that flew into the top corner past the despairing dive of Tyler.
Though not much could have been done to stop the superb individual goal, it was still a body blow for Diamonds a few minutes before half-time. One minute of additional time was signalled, but things were to get even worse for the visitors seconds before the half-time whistle. A looped ball forward by Sole went over everybody and bounced through to Harding, but Shariff had turned to try and reach the ball and had raised his elbow to ex-Diamonds man Jack Westbrook in doing so. The home defender went down, and Cox showed no hesitation in showing the Rushden striker a straight red card.
No sooner had Harding taken the resulting free-kick than Cox blew the half-time whistle. It had been a half that had been pretty even for the opening half hour, with Rushden looking the more threatening, but the final 15 minutes couldn’t have gone much worse for the away side and left Banbury in complete ascendancy.
Half time: Banbury United 2-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Against a side with a strong home record like Banbury’s, Diamonds really did have a tough task ahead of them in the second period to try and get anything from the game. In an attempt to turn the tide, Peaks introduced Gyasi at the expense of Sole as he went to a 4-4-1 formation. Cox then got the match back underway.
The hosts won a couple of early corners, with Shamsi dangerously breaking into the area from the first one before seeing a threatening low cross blocked behind by Lorraine. However, Rushden soon began to dictate and control proceedings. After Acquaye had gone down in the area, with Cox showing no interest in awarding a penalty, Hicks then picked up possession on the right before his low cross was almost turned into his own net by the sliding Westbrook. Moments later, Hicks was involved again as he got down the right and played a low cross into the area. Gyasi cleverly left it for Lorraine, and the striker turned well before having a goalbound strike blocked behind for a corner.
Though Diamonds weren’t forcing Harding into lots of action, they were certainly the ones applying the pressure and calling the shots as Banbury seemed happy to sit back and try to hit on the counter-attack. Kaziboni went down following an increasingly sporadic home attack, and he was unable to continue as he was replaced by Amer Awadh.
Still Diamonds continued to push and probe, with Gyasi at the heart of much of their attacking play with a number of positive runs down the right, and with less than fifteen minutes to play they won a penalty. A corner from the left by Slinn saw Westbrook and Lorraine challenge at the near post, and the ball bounced off Gyasi and behind. Cox initially signalled for a goal kick, but a number of loud Diamonds appeals led to him going across to the linesman to check for a handball against the home defender. After a brief chat, the referee pointed for a penalty and Rushden had a chance to get back into the match. Having missed a penalty last time out at Coalville, and having failed to score four other penalties in league matches this season, Lorraine assumed responsibility for the kick. He stepped up and drilled his effort down the middle, but Harding flung up his right leg to deflect the ball wide of the post.
It appeared that might have been Rushden’s last hope of getting something from the contest, but they refused to give in and continued to search for a goal. After Awadh had a shot well parried behind by Tyler down the other end, Diamonds were rewarded for their second half efforts in the 85th minute. Brown played a pass forward and Lorraine neatly flicked it around the corner for Joel Gyasi to run onto. He got to it just ahead of the oncoming Harding, and he skipped round the keeper before calmly slotting a precise strike inside the near post past a couple of covering Banbury defenders.
The goal was the very least Rushden deserved for their second half performance given the circumstances, and they sensed a point in the final few moments. They won a couple of corners and a few long-throw in opportunities, and one of these led to a good chance for Hicks. Brown pitched in a trademark delivery from the left and, though it was initially cleared, substitute Leon Chambers-Parillon headed it back into the area. It was cleared again but only as far as Hicks who had time and space on the edge of the box. However, the midfielder’s lofted effort sailed over the bar.
Diamonds weren’t done and, in the third additional minute of four, they came agonisingly close to forcing a dramatic equaliser. Brown launched in a long-throw from the right, and Harding came out to collect. However, the keeper flapped at it and the loose ball bobbled towards the empty net. It could have dropped for a yellow shirt to fire home, it could have rolled in, but a home defender got back to clear it off the line.
Less than a minute later, Cox blew to signal the end of the match.
Full time: Banbury United 2-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Given they were two goals behind and a man down against a side with a very good home record, Diamonds showed tremendous resilience and heart to get back into the match and so nearly grab a point that seemed a world away at the half-time interval. The final 15 minutes of the half proved to be vital, with two well-worked home goals and Shariff’s red card leaving Rushden very much up against it for the second half. This side never give in though, no matter the circumstances, though they will be gutted to have come so close to a leveller at the death and to ultimately emerge from the game pointless.
However, that character will certainly stand them in good stead for the rest of the campaign. Despite losing their last two matches against fellow play-off chasing sides, Diamonds still have games in hand on some teams above them and have a number of matches still to play against sides in the top ten. There will be a number of twists and turns before the season is out, and Rushden still have a chance of reaching the top five. Their next game will see them make the long journey to Needham Market next Saturday 14th March, 3pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Jack Ashton
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Jack Harding
2. Connor Roberts
3. Jake Walker
6. Jack Westbrook
7. Charles Hawtin
8. Giorgio Rasulo
9. Ricky Johnson (C)
11. Claudio Dias
15. Luke Fairlamb
18. Ravin Shamsi
20. Greg Kaziboni
4. Eddie Odihambo
5. Lewis Wilson (for Dias 88)
12. Amer Awadh (for Kaziboni 67)
15. Lee Henderson (for Shamsi 81)
17. Cian Tyler
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Ashton
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Fabio Sole
7. Ben Acquaye
8. Matt Slinn
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Nabil Shariff
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Patrick Casey
13. Ben Heath
14. Ben Farrell
15. Leon Chambers-Parillon (for Acquaye 84)
16. Joel Gyasi (for Sole HT)
Goals: Johnson (31), Shamsi (39)
Goals: Gyasi (85)
Yellow cards: None
Yellow cards: None
Red cards: None
Red cards: Shariff (45+1)
Referee: Alan Cox
Assistants: Simon Kavanagh, Mitchell Cartwright