Diamonds began the 2019/20 campaign with a victory following a professional display at Barwell.
The blustery and persistent wind had an effect on the whole match, and the first half was a largely even affair. Diamonds created the opening chance of the game when Ben Acquaye’s goalbound effort following swift footwork was blocked away, and the hosts responded with a deflected shot inside the area that Ben Heath was able to collect. Alex Collard then had a shot charged down, and this led to huge appeals for a handball and a penalty only for the referee to wave away the calls. Both defences were on top in the opening period, and neither side were able to build a concerted amount of pressure to truly threaten. Good chances were exchanged towards the end of the half when, firstly, Barwell hit the post through Eliot Putman following a free-kick that had dropped loose in the area, and Jack Bowen then had a header cleared off the line down the other end. The home keeper fouled the Diamonds striker in doing so leading to a free-kick just outside the area, but this was charged down and the half ended goalless.
The second half began in similar vein, but this all changed in the 58th minute when Diamonds forged ahead. A long-throw from the left by Sam Brown was inadvertently flicked on to Liam Dolman at the far post, and he calmly sidefooted home to break the deadlock. Heath made a superb save shortly afterwards from a close-range header to preserve the lead, and this proved vital as Rushden soon doubled their advantage. Bowen had a shot tipped behind for a corner, and the resulting delivery found Jack Ashton at the near post to flick a header into the far corner of the net. Aside from Collard being forced to clear off the line moments later, Diamonds were able to see out the contest comfortably to secure a perfect start to the new season.
Manager Peaks named a 3-5-2 formation for this opening match with two new signings named in the starting line-up. Nat Gosnal-Tyler was named at right wing-back, and Matthew Slinn began in the centre of midfield. Last season’s top scorer and player of the season Tom Lorraine was partnered by Jack Bowen, and Ben Acquaye was to be in close support as an attacking new midfielder. Four other new summer additions – Niall Cooper, Jesse Akubuine, Massiah McDonald and Ryan Dove – lined up alongside Declan Rogers on the substitutes bench.
The two sets of players walked out onto the UK Flooring Direct playing surface with a strong gusting wind swirling around the ground, and with optimism high for both sides. Barwell had finished 16th in the league last season but had enjoyed a strong pre-season that had seen them win six out of their eight matches, and they were also unbeaten in the five previous meetings between the sides. Diamonds had come 9th in their first season at Step 3 of non-league football, and they were looking to extend an excellent opening day record in winning five of their last seven season’s curtain-raisers. After the customary handshakes and coin-toss had been completed, referee Simon Brown got the contest underway.
It was a relatively quiet start as both teams took time to adjust to the blustery conditions, and a couple of long balls came to nothing for either side. The hosts won the first corner of the game in the fifth minute, but Ben Heath met the inswinging delivery with a strong punch away. He was fouled in the process, and Diamonds had a free-kick.
Five minutes later, Rushden fashioned their first opening. They won a throw-in just short of the halfway line on the left, and Sam Brown quickly ran forward to dispatch it down the line for Lorraine running in behind. He reached the penalty area, and showed a good presence of mind to spin and feed it back to the supporting Acquaye. The attacking midfielder dropped his shoulder and shifted it onto his favoured left foot, and his effort looked goalbound until it was blocked away for a corner. The resulting set-piece was too long and passed over everybody.
Brown was involved with another throw, this time from the right wing, only moments later. The left wing-back pitched it in towards the near post, and Alex Collard was almost able to flick it on dangerously only for the home keeper to claim the ball. However, his subsequent kick got held up in the wind and Bowen latched onto it only for a home defender to recover and clear the danger away.
In the 14th minute, Brown found himself in another attacking position as he drew a free-kick just outside the area on the right. Acquaye lined up the kick, but his effort was too high and it flashed over the bar. The home side responded, and they threatened shortly afterwards. A ball into the area dropped for an onrushing midfielder, but his strike was deflected and the pace was taken away allowing Heath to collect the loose ball on the bounce.
Just over 20 minutes had elapsed, and it was proving to be a largely even affair with Diamonds just shading the chances. Bowen became the first man in the referee’s notebook after he showed the official dissent, but only a minute later he was almost making another impact as he was close to meeting a long diagonal ball into the box. The keeper just got a nick on it to send it out for a corner, and the delivery was flicked on by Liam Dolman that ran through to Collard on the edge of the area. His effort was blocked behind for another corner, but there were loud and vociferous appeals for handball and a penalty immediately. However, the referee was adamant that it was only a corner and nothing else. The set-piece was curled in towards the six-yard box but keeper Andrew Wycherley commandingly caught the ball.
Barwell had shown glimpses of danger with balls into the box, and one such case on the half-hour mark led to a chance. A move down the left resulted in a neat cross clipped towards the far post, but Brady Hickey was stretching all the time to meet the delivery and so his following header looped over the target. Two further crosses into the Diamonds area, one from either flank, looked threatening until Dolman excellently headed away both to alleviate the danger.
The hosts then won a corner on the left, and a neat short routine led to a cross into the area that ran for Hickey at the back post. However, Jack Ashton flew across to make an important block. Acquaye was then booked moments later for trying to nick the ball back, and the resultant free-kick from the right dropped for full-back Eliot Putman who stabbed a shot towards the far post. It rolled across the six-yard box and towards the far corner only for it to strike the upright, and it looped up kindly for Heath to collect.
That narrow escape was almost capitalised upon immediately. Heath launched a long kick forwards, and the wind helped to take it over the home back-four and through for Bowen. Wycherley came out to try and jump with the away striker, but Bowen reached it first and flicked the bouncing ball towards the empty goal with his head. It ran towards goal, but a covering defender got back to hook it off the line. The referee pulled the play back, as Wycherley had jumped into Bowen in the process of the header goalwards, and awarded a free-kick right on the edge of the area. Dolman laid it off to Nathan Hicks who drilled a low shot towards goal, but it was blocked away. So was Dolman’s rebound, and the danger was cleared.
This proved to be the final action of the half as referee Brown soon blew his whistle to signal the half-time interval. It had been a 45 minutes that Diamonds had edged and come close through Acquaye and Bowen, but one where Barwell could easily have led through Putman’s effort that had come back off the post.
Half time: Barwell FC 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The wind was still whipping around the Leicestershire sky as the two teams returned to the field of play. Moments later, Brown got the game underway again.
The hosts began the half positively with a few long balls forward into Diamonds territory, but these were all well defended by the strong away defence. In fact it was the visitors who threatened first in the half when Acquaye got his head down to lead a quick counter-attack. He powered past a couple of challenges and laid it forward to Bowen who attempted to feed it back to the attacking midfielder, but the pass was mishit and intercepted.
There had been a couple of strong and physical challenges so far in the game, and such a moment occurred again in the 52nd minute when Slinn went down close to the two dugouts. It resulted in some pushing and shoving, and the referee had to take a moment to speak to the nearby linesman before issuing three yellow cards – one to Barwell’s half-time substitute Sam Grouse, and one each to Slinn and Collard for their involvements in the melee.
In such close games with only a few chances, the first goal is always crucial. Moments later, this honour went to Diamonds. They won a throw-in on the left, and Brown moved forward to launch one of his trademark dispatches into the area. It was inadvertently flicked on by a home defender, and it looped across for Liam Dolman who was in acres of space at the back post. He calmly sidefooted a volley towards goal and, despite Wycherley getting a hand on it, the ball rolled over the line and into the back of the net. It was the defender’s first goal since the middle of February, and it was met with a superb, rapturous reaction by the travelling faithful behind the goal.
Soon afterwards Slinn, who had put in an industrious shift on his competitive debut, was forced to come off after going down, and Rogers came on in a like-for-like alteration. He was involved almost straight away as he bent in a free-kick from the left, and it was met by the head of Lorraine only for the effort to drift for Wycherley to easily pick up.
With the scoreline only being 0-1 the game was still very much in the balance, and so it almost proved in the 68th minute. Putman found some space on the left to measure a curling cross into the area, and it ran through for Hickey to head goalwards from point-blank range. It looked destined for the back of the net, but Heath somehow reacted instinctively and parried the ball away. Grouse latched onto the rebound and lashed it across goal, but it was turned wide of the target and Diamonds had survived.
A minute later a chance on the other side of the box saw another strike towards goal, but Heath again stood strong to stop the effort and hold on. An intriguing final twenty minutes was set up as the hosts sought an equaliser, and Diamonds looked for a second goal that would give them some breathing space. Moments after the second Heath save, the visitors almost extended their advantage. Bowen cleverly flicked a header into the path of the onrushing Lorraine, and he found himself running through on goal. His touch ran for Bowen who had ran in to support, and his strike from just outside the area was brilliantly tipped round the post by Wycherley.
However, the goal did come. The resulting corner from the left was drilled towards the near post by Rogers, and it met the perfectly timed run of Jack Ashton who flicked a header across the six-yard box and into the far corner of the net. It was also his first strike since mid-February, and it made the scoreline more comfortable.
Barwell still sensed a way back into the game, and they still posed a threat. Four minutes after the goal, they almost pulled one back when Putman hit a strike from range that Heath spilt. It ran for Hickey who squeezed the rebound towards goal, but Collard anticipated the danger and got back to clear the ball away from close to the goal-line. Diamonds broke, and they won a free-kick yards outside the box. Rogers lined up the kick, but his low effort was charged down and then his rebound was blazed over the bar.
Less than ten minutes remained, and Peaks made his second substitution as Ryan Dove came on for his debut in place of the hardworking Bowen. The hosts now seemed to believe that there was no way back into the contest, and instead it was Rushden who looked the most likely to score the next goal. In the 83rd minute a slick one-two between Brown and Acquaye set the former away and into the area, but his low cross across the area just bypassed Lorraine.
Shortly afterwards, Acquaye latched onto a loose pass before sprinting forward and having a powerful strike blocked away. Brown then embarked on another terrific run into the area as he got to the byline, and his dangerous ball across forced Wycherley to parry away before the ball was cleared further upfield.
There remained a couple more moments of action as the game passed into stoppage-time. Firstly, Diamonds won a couple of corners, and the second of these found Collard who was only able to head across the area before it was cleared. Acquaye then strode into the left of the area before going down under the close attentions of a home marker, but the referee dismissed the appeals.
The full-time whistle was signalled soon afterwards to consign Barwell to defeat, and to give Diamonds an opening day success.
Full time: Barwell FC 0-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
In many ways, this represented a perfect first game of the new season for the Diamonds. Two goals, a clean sheet, three points – the recipe for beginning the campaign off on the front-foot. The hosts could easily have been leading at the break, and if Hickey’s header had found the net rather than the outstretched hand of Heath, then they would have levelled halfway through the second half. However, Diamonds took their chances when they arose, and they carried the greater threat for the large majority of the contest. They also defended stoically, especially Dolman and Collard, to limit any threat of a Barwell comeback and to see out the victory. Diamonds sit third in the table, but it is still very early days. They return to Hayden Road on Tuesday evening (13 August, 7.45pm kick-off) for their first home league game of the campaign where they will entertain Leiston FC.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Liam Dolman
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Andrew Wycherley
2. Jacob Whitmore
3. Eliot Putman
4. Elliot Percival
5. Jamie Mcateer
6. Alex Tomkinson
7. Dominic Brown-Hill
8. Corey Armeni
9. Shaun Harrad
10. Brady Hickey (C)
11. Samuel Hollis
12. Jayden Cotterill (for Whitmore 67)
14. Sam Grouse (for Harrad HT)
15. Samuel Preston
16. Cain Thomas (for Armeni 73)
17. Justice Campbell
13. Ben Heath
2. Nat Gosnal-Tyler
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Ashton
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Alex Collard
7. Ben Acquaye
8. Matthew Slinn
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Jack Bowen
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Massiah McDonald (for Lorraine 90+4)
14. Declan Rogers (for Slinn 61)
15. Ryan Dove (for Bowen 81)
16. Jesse Akubuine
17. Niall Cooper
Goals: Dolman (58), Ashton (74)
Yellow cards: Wycherley (45+1), Grouse (53)
Yellow cards: Bowen (21), Acquaye (43), Collard (53), Slinn (53)
Referee: Simon Brown
Assistants: Kurt Bartlett, Adam Clenaghan
Video Post-match interviews are available here.