Diamonds played well but were edged out by runaway leaders Banbury in front of 1,055 fans on Saturday afternoon.
In a largely even contest that ebbed and flowed throughout, Rushden came close early on when Ty Deacon met an inswinging cross only for his header to be deflected narrowly wide of the far post. After ex-Diamonds men Chris Wreh and Morgan Roberts came close down the other end, the visitors won a penalty when AJ George was brought down. However, Nathan Tshikuna’s spot-kick went wide of the post. In response home captain Giorgio Rasulo had a curling free-kick parried, Roberts had a shot deflect off the bar and Ben Acquaye headed over when well placed, but the half ended with the scoreline still goalless.
A promising start to the second half from Rushden saw George mishit from close-range and Tshikuna have the latest in a number of powerful strikes blocked. Banbury broke and took the lead when Rasulo’s free-kick found Wreh who headed down and into the roof of the net. Snedker made a big save from Roberts to keep Diamonds in it, and they came so close to an equaliser when substitute Ravi Shamsi struck millimetres wide of the upright. The contest was sealed three minutes from time though when Roberts’ corner was headed into his own net by Liam Dolman.
Manager Peaks made two changes to the side that had comprehensively swept aside St Ives in their last game two weeks ago. Captain Alex Collard returned to the defence and Connor Furlong replaced the unavailable Ben Diamond, meaning Jesse Akubuine dropped deeper to partner Fernando Bell-Toxtle. There was also a welcome return to the squad for Ravi Shamsi who lined up amongst the substitutes.
Both sides came into the contest in terrific form, with it being a match between the first and second form teams for the last ten matches. Diamonds had won their last three on the road, and had also emerged victorious in six of their last seven and eight out of their last ten. Banbury sat 16 points clear at the top of the table having won their last eight consecutive games, and they were unbeaten at the Banbury Plant Hire Community Stadium so far this campaign.
There was a strong sense of anticipation and a cracking atmosphere as the contest got underway, and it was the Diamonds who settled the quicker. In the third minute Nathan Tshikuna, who would prove a constant threat, curled in a cross from the left that Ty Deacon flicked on, but former Rushden great Sam Brown made a key interception and the danger was cleared. Sam Warburton then saw a cross just flicked away, and that led to the hosts breaking before Morgan Roberts had an effort blocked following a corner.
Rushden came mightily close to breaking the deadlock when Furlong got down the right before cutting inside and whipping in a dangerous cross. Deacon timed his run well to get across the defender and flick a header goalwards, but it dropped agonisingly wide of the far post via a deflection with home keeper Jack Harding rooted to the spot. The resulting corner almost found the towering Collard, but Harding just about parried it away before the danger was cleared.
Tshikuna looked particularly dangerous when receiving the ball in between the hosts’ defence and midfield, and one such occasion after 15 minutes led to him turning before having a fierce 25-yard strike charged down. Banbury swept down the other end and, after Paddy Casey received the game’s first booking for bringing down Ben Acquaye, Chris Wreh flicked the subsequent free-kick towards goal only for Dean Snedker to hold. In their next attack Roberts struck goalwards only for it to be deflected behind, though the corner amounted to nothing.
Undoubtedly the best chance of the game arrived in the 24th minute when Diamonds won a penalty. Tshikuna’s neat clipped ball in behind found AJ George whose first touch took him past Jay Williams, and the ex-Rushden man brought the attacker down which left referee Ben Cooke in no doubt to award a spot-kick. Following the last game in which he missed and then scored one, Tshikuna again assumed responsibility. His low strike to the keeper’s right beat the diving Harding, but it ran just past the post much to the delight of the home faithful.
The home side looked to punish that miss as, only two minutes later, they won a free-kick on the edge of the box when Liam Dolman felled Wreh. Captain Giorgio Rasulo curled his attempt over the ball only for Snedker to dive to his left and tip it away. A minute later Roberts cut in from the right onto his favoured left foot before his effort was deflected up and over the Diamonds keeper. However, it hit the top of the crossbar and went behind.
Banbury continued their pressure as Wreh shot narrowly wide, Rasulo shot into the side-netting and Lewis Johnson was denied by a terrific Collard block. Rasulo also had another set-piece opportunity, but this time his curling attempt went harmlessly over. The visitors were still looking dangerous though, especially when running directly at the hosts with pace, and twice Tshikuna embarked on driving runs away from several home players before having strikes well blocked.
There was one final chance before half-time when Johnson got down the right for Banbury before delivering towards the far post. Acquaye got the run on Casey and won the aerial duel, but from an inviting position the winger could only head over.
Half time: Banbury United 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Like in the opening period, Diamonds started on the front foot as an early attack led to a low ball in for George who miskicked at the vital moment. Casey’s low ball in was then only partially cleared as far as Tshikuna, but his powerful strike was charged down.
However, in their first attack of the half, Banbury took the lead. Dolman was adjudged to have fouled Roberts around 25 yards out, and Rasulo’s pinpoint delivery to the back post found Chris Wreh who headed into the roof of the net.
It was the first time in eight matches that Diamonds had conceded the first goal, and the hosts sensed more. Acquaye reached a cross from the right only for his header to drop wide, and Wreh was then brought down by Dolman as he advanced on goal – though the home fans bade for a red card, the referee issued a yellow one. Roberts lined up the free-kick and drilled it goalwards, but it flew wide.
Diamonds regrouped and, on the hour mark, the overlapping Casey was brought down by Acquaye who was booked. Tshikuna played the set-piece short to the edge of the area where Akubuine was lurking in space, but he was quickly closed down and his resulting effort flew out of the ground. Casey threatened again soon afterwards when he was almost released through on goal, but it was just cleared away from the marauding full-back.
Peaks made his first substitution halfway through the half when Shamsi replaced Furlong in a like-for-like swap. It was Banbury who came close next though when a lucky ricochet dropped in the area for Roberts, and his poked effort was superbly blocked by Snedker to keep Rushden in the contest. Wreh then thrashed a shot wide from the edge of the area.
With just over ten minutes remaining, Rushden went unbelievably close to drawing level. A low ball into the edge of the area found sub Will Jones, who had come on for George moments before, and he played it further right to Shamsi. His first touch was perfect to take it on the outside of his marker and into the area before his low strike across goal beat Harding. However, it flashed millimetres wide of the far post when most in the ground expected the net to bulge.
Their final change saw Slinn come on for the industrious Akubuine but, soon after that, the home side sealed the game. They won a corner on the right which Roberts swung into the six-yard box, and Liam Dolman could only head into the back of his own net.
Five minutes of additional time was signalled, and Banbury came close to extending their lead further which would have been incredibly harsh on Diamonds. Acquaye was denied by Snedker, substitute Aidan Howtin hit a stunner from range that the Rushden keeper somehow pawed away, and Wreh smacked an effort off the upright from the edge of the box.
Referee Cooke then blew the full-time whistle to signal the end of the entertaining clash.
Full time: Banbury United 2-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Fine margins often define big and close games like this, and so it proved with two set-pieces proving the difference between the sides. Though Diamonds had to understandably deal with pressure at different periods, they were never overawed at any stage and created some good opportunities themselves. If Tshikuna’s first-half penalty or Shamsi’s second-half strike had found the net then it could have been a different outcome, but nevertheless they can take great heart from their level of performance against the table-toppers.
They are quickly back in league action again when they return to Hayden Road to take on Needham Market on Tuesday (18 January) evening, 7.45pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Fernando Bell-Toxtle
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
Banbury: Jack Harding, Sam Brown, Jay Williams, Giorgio Rasulo (C), Chris Wreh, Morgan Roberts, Ben Acquaye, Lewis Johnson (Jack Finch 68), James Golding, Harry Reilly (Aidan Howtin 82), Alexander Babos (subs not used: Jediael Abbey, Victor Sodeinde, Ben Taylor)
Banbury goals: Wreh (49), Dolman OG (87)
Banbury yellows: Acquaye (60)
Diamonds: Snedker, Casey, Warburton, Bell-Toxtle, Dolman, Collard (C), Tshikuna, Akubuine (Slinn 81), Deacon, George (Jones 76), Furlong (Shamsi 68) (subs not used: Garwood, Hughes)
Diamonds yellows: Casey (18), Furlong (41), Dolman (55)