Diamonds took another massive step towards promotion by recording their second consecutive win over a promotion contender, and their third straight win overall, on Saturday afternoon at Westwood Road.
The early stages were understandably keenly-fought and highly competitive, as the whole game would prove to be. Cambridge created the first opportunity when Salim Relizani headed wide at the back post, and then a long-throw by James Hall found a home head to flick on only for it run across the face of goal and eventually be cleared to safety. There were then calls from the host for a free-kick and a red card as Ebby Nelson-Addy latched onto an initial mistake by Blaize Punter before running through on goal. The Diamonds defender got back to shoulder-charge the winger away, and the referee deemed it a fair challenge and allowed play to continue. The visitors responded with Spencer Weir-Daley heading a corner over at the near post, but the opening exchanges weren’t full of goalmouth action and clear-cut chances as both sides tried to settle into the contest. Rushden went close in the 23rd minute when Ryan Robbins was found in space outside the area, and he drilled in a low left-footed effort that the keeper parried away. Weir-Daley swiftly latched onto the rebound, but the offside flag was up to stop the striker in his tracks. The hosts were having more possession and were arguably utilising the ball better, and one neat move saw a cross to the back post find the onrushing Relizani. However, under pressure from the recovering Joel Gyasi the strikers subsequent volley from close-range flew over the bar. Cambridge began to up the pressure from the half-hour mark and started to ask more questions of the Diamonds backline, and one moment almost led to the opening goal. Another long-throw by Hall, a weapon that was a persistent threat in the opening half, was flicked on at the near post, and it hit Dolman before hitting a home player and looping up in the air. It could have gone anywhere but fortunately for the visitors it looped up for Heath to easily collect. Despite the home territory and possession the Diamonds were defending well, and just when it looked like it would be honours even heading into the half-time break the visitors got a massive boost. A move forward saw Weir-Daley latch onto a loose ball before smartly turning and hitting an effort goalwards. It bounced up meaning the keeper could only parry it away with his chest, and the gambling Gyasi arrived to fire home the rebound to send the Diamonds faithful into raptures, and into the interval a goal ahead.
The second half was mainly scrappy and low on real quality, with such a pattern to the game suiting Diamonds who held the advantage. One dangerous moment materialised early in the half when Nathan Olukanmi got to the right byline before fizzing a cross into the middle, but it was just too high for the substitute Ben Seymour-Shove and it ran for the visitors to clear. Weir-Daley had a sniff down the other end shortly afterwards when he pressured a defender onto a mistake, but his subsequent shot was charged down and ran through for the keeper. Clear-cut chances were at a premium, understandable in a game of such magnitude and importance for both teams, with the midfield third seeing the most action through competitive challenges and skirmishes. Robbins had a glimpse at goal when he was fed by Gyasi on the right, though after running forward and cutting inside his resultant shot was fired wide of the near post. Rushden were doing excellently to close down the space when Cambridge were in possession, and we’re also defending stoically when any danger did present itself. Heath confidently held a couple of potentially threatening crosses under extreme pressure, other crosses in were cleared, and the nearest the hosts came to a leveller was Ryan Towner firing wildly over from the edge of the area and Nelson-Addy having a shot blocked before Hall’s cross in went behind. In fact it was the Diamonds who went closest to adding to the scoreline when Ben Farrell, who was magnificent throughout, and Luke Fairlamb exchanged a one-two before the latter found space to crash an effort towards goal, but it hit the side-netting. Substitute Ben Diamond also came agonisingly close when a neat move involving him and fellow substitute Tom Lorraine saw the front-man find space to curl an effort goalwards, but the keeper leapt up to tip the ball over the bar. Despite three minutes of added-on time Rushden comfortably held on to secure another potentially season-defining success and, coupled with Beaconsfield’s defeat at home to Hayes & Yeading, saw them return to the top of the table effectively one win away from sealing promotion.
Manager Andy Peaks made just the solitary change to the team that had secured a crucial victory over play-off bound AFC Dunstable on Tuesday night. The match-winner in that contest, Ben Farrell, returned to the starting XI to replace Ross Oulton who joined Ben Ford, Tom Lorraine, Ben Diamond and Jack Ashton on a very strong-looking bench.
The two sides took to the sunny Westwood Road playing surface, a ground that the hosts share with St Ives Town, and Diamonds fans hardly needed to be reminded about their last trip to the ground back in May 2016 for the Southern League Division One Central Play-Off Final prior to this contest. Whilst their promotion dreams were ended then, they knew a win on this ground today would move them one massive step closer to automatic promotion to Step 3 and would leave them effectively one victory away from that aspiration. It was their final away game of the league season; a campaign that had seen them win thirteen of twenty away games to date whilst only losing three, a run that had helped them to second in the table. Cambridge came into the game 5th in the table and on the back of a nine-game unbeaten run, having won seven of those, with them having scored the most goals of any team in the league but having conceded the most of the sides in the top eight. They sat seven points behind Diamonds with a game in hand, so if they were to win this game and the extra match also then they would only be a point behind and conceivably well in the hunt for an automatic promotion spot. Therefore a keen sense of intrigue and anticipation was felt by everyone, and after the teams had shaken hands and the coin-toss had been conducted, referee Mark Chalkley blew his whistle to start the game.
It was always going to be interesting to see whether the match would begin cagily or at full throttle and, after the first few minutes of both sides trying to build early possession and settle into a rhythm and tempo, the hosts were the first to create an opportunity. Striker James Hall met a ball down the right channel before controlling and stepping back inside before measuring a pinpoint curling cross to the far post. Salim Relizani had made a run to meet the delivery, but he was stretching as he leapt and so the subsequent header drifted well wide of the post. A minute later Hall was involved again when a long-throw of his, a weapon that would be a consistent threat in the opening period, was flicked on by Jordan Gent at the near post only for it to run right across goal and be cleared away upfield. Diamonds then built up a move down the other end and threatened with a cross in also. After an initial home clearance the ball fell for Liam Dolman to calmly play out to Sam Brown on the left, and he looked up before measuring a cross towards the far post. It sailed over a white home shirt and looked like it would meet Spencer Weir-Daley’s head, but it skimmed off his head instead and ran out for a goal-kick.
The play was highly competitive and pretty fast-paced as the respective sides knew how imperative it may prove to be to get the first goal of what was a match of truly high stakes. In the 14th minute there was a contentious moment when Blaize Punter miscontrolled a ball forward and allowed home winger Ebby Nelson-Addy to pressure him and attempt to run through on goal. The two came together as the defender shoulder-barged the home man, but the referee deemed it a fair challenge despite loud appeals from the hosts. A challenge like that was symptomatic of the early stages, with neither side allowing the other much and both defending solidly when it was required. A couple of minutes later the visitors won their first corner of the game, and Luke Fairlamb’s inswinging delivery found Weir-Daley only for the striker’s header under pressure to go over the bar.
The game ticked past the twenty minute mark with no real clear-cut chance for either team and neither keeper forced into action. That all changed though in the 23rd minute when Joe Curtis fed Joel Gyasi, and he ran forward before passing across to the free Ryan Robbins. The striker took a touch to take the ball out of his feet before drilling a low left-footed effort towards goal. Cambridge keeper Josh Bexon moved to his left but could only parry the shot, and Weir-Daley was on it in a flash in an attempt to score from the rebound. However, the offside flag was immediately raised against the Rushden number 10, and the attack was ultimately curtailed. Moments later Robbins was involved again as he led a swift counter-attack to power down the right flank but, with a couple of grey shirts running into the middle for support, he took it to the byline and eventually ran out of room as his attempted poke ran out for a goal-kick.
That was a good little spell for the visitors, but the even nature of the game up until then meant that the hosts were quick to respond and apply pressure up the other end. They won a corner on the left and the high floating delivery found Gent at the back post, but his header was looping and represented an easy catch for Ben Heath at his near post. Shortly afterwards a neat passing move ended in a cross being played in from the right by Ben Robinson, and a high bounce that was a feature of the pitch led to Dolman not being able to complete the clearance. It looped to the back post, and there was Relizani arriving seemingly with a golden opportunity. Gyasi did fantastically to track the run though and put pressure on the home man, with the attention effective enough to mean the effort went comfortably over the bar. The Cambridge number 10 went down as a result of the challenge and, despite initially receiving treatment before attempting to continue, he went down again shortly afterwards and had to be replaced.
The home side began to step up their pressure from this moment, with them enjoying the bulk of possession and territory and forcing Diamonds largely onto the back foot. They had another chance when a long-throw from the left by Hall was flicked on again at the near post, and it hit Dolman instinctively before ricocheting around. It then hit a home player on the foot and really could have ended up anywhere, but thankfully for the visitors it looped up for Heath to catch and the danger was averted. Although Rushden were struggling to build persistent possession in this period of play, they were limiting the hosts in terms of clear chances and play in the penalty area. The time continued to tick towards the half-time break as the game remained very much on a knife-edge and in the balance and, as the assistant referee signalled two minutes of additional time, it appeared the deadlock would remain going into the interval.
However, this all changed in the first minute of stoppage time. Curtis picked up the ball halfway inside the Cambridge half and played the ball towards Farrell, and it looked like the midfielder was fouled as he attempted to turn. It ran through to Weir-Daley though, and he shrugged off the attentions of Gent before playing the ball out to Joel Gyasi on the left. The winger cut inside before hitting an initial shot that was blocked away by Gent, but the Diamonds man latched onto the loose ball before attempting to run past a couple of challenges and into the area. The ball ricocheted across to Weir-Daley, and he controlled excellently before spinning and hitting a shot that bounced in front of the keeper and forced him to only parry away with his chest. There was Gyasi following in the effort, and he calmly placed the rebound past the helpless Bexon into the back of the net. It was the wide-man’s 13th goal of the season and, judging by the rapturous celebrations of the Diamonds fans around the ground, his most important one to date.
There was barely time to restart proceedings before the referee blew for the half-time break, an end to a half that was keenly-fought and largely even before Diamonds forged into an advantage at a crucial time moments before the whistle was blown.
Half Time: Cambridge City 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
After a first half in which the sun had beamed onto the pitch for much of the forty-five minutes, the players returned from the changing rooms to the sun having gone in slightly. Most of the thoughts around the ground at the half-time interval had revolved around how Cambridge would react and play now they were a goal down, and how Diamonds would set about their play knowing they were the ones in the driving seat. The referee quickly counted both sets of players before blowing the whistle to commence the second period.
The early exchanges of the half were pretty scrappy and short on goalmouth action though still highly competitive, with the home side fashioning the first opening in the 51st minute. Nathan Olukanmi embarked on a run down the right that saw him escape past Brown before he flashed a cross towards the far post but substitute Ben Seymour-Shove, who had scored St Ives’ winner in that match against Diamonds two years ago, couldn’t stretch to reach the delivery and it went past him on its way out for a throw-in. Diamonds reacted with a break down the other end as Robbins found space just ahead of the halfway line to flick on into the path of his strike-partner Weir-Daley, and he ran through past the home defence to meet the ball. However, the offside flag was raised against the striker. Shortly afterwards the front-man was involved again as he closed and harried the substitute Stevan Shaw into a mistake, and Weir-Daley latched onto the loose ball before hitting a shot goalwards that was deflected and made easy for the keeper to collect.
Any expected home onslaught in the early exchanges of the half in response to Diamonds’ lead hadn’t yet materialised, and the visitors were looking pretty comfortable. They created a further opportunity in the 57th minute when goalscorer Gyasi fed Robbins on the right, and the striker had plenty of room to run into ahead of him. He powered forward towards the edge of the area before cutting inside on his favoured left foot only for the resultant shot to be fired wide of the near post. The hour mark then passed as much of the play still was being contested in the middle third and neither side really being able to settle into a period of sustained possession, something which suited Rushden with them holding the score advantage. Ross Oulton replaced the industrious Joe Curtis, but the hosts did threaten when Shaw hit a diagonal from just inside the away half towards the area, and Gent flicked on towards the lurking Seymour-Shove. The midfielder was free and would have been released through on goal, but Punter made a crucial interception as he headed the ball calmly to safety.
A minute later play swung up the other end as Robbins did well to win a free-kick on the right side, and it was an ideal position for a threatening delivery to be whipped in. Unfortunately however, the ball in had too much depth on it and it went over everybody for a goal-kick. The winger was involved again shortly after when he received the ball on the right before having time and space to find Farrell inside of him. The centre midfielder flicked it first-time back into the path of the advancing winger, and he collected the one-two in the area before controlling and smashing a half-volley towards goal. The effort smashed into the near side-netting though, and the scoreline remained 1-0 to the visitors.
The time continued to tick away, and Heath continued to be rarely threatened as the ten players in front of him worked tremendously hard to shut down the space and opportunities available for Cambridge. He was required to work when Hall moved down the left before delivering a threatening cross into the middle that was initially cleared, but it was worked back to the Cambridge number nine. He flashed in another dangerous centre that looked like it would seriously trouble the away defence, but Heath superbly claimed the ball and also drew a free-kick for being fouled in the process.
Tom Lorraine had been introduced a minute before at the expense of Weir-Daley as a pair of fresh legs in an attempt to stretch the home defence on the counter-attack, but the visitors didn’t really have much to counter as Cambridge were unable to create many, if any, clear-cut chances. In the 79th minute Hall again got down the left wing before crossing into the middle only for Punter to half-clear. The ball broke to Seymour-Shove who was well tackled by Gyasi, but the loose ball fell for Ryan Towner only for his strike from the edge of the box to fly well over the goal. A minute later Rushden carved out the best opening of the half when a quick counter saw Lorraine and fellow substitute Ben Diamond, who had replaced Robbins, link up well before the former fed the latter just outside the box. Diamond had space to line up a shot and curled his effort towards the far post, but Bexon did excellently to leap up to tip the ball over the crossbar.
Less than ten minutes remained now as Diamonds continued to move towards a massive three points and, although the hosts hadn’t threatened much in the second period, it may only take a moment to create an opportunity so the visitors had to retain their concentration at all times and stick to their task doggedly. They had done throughout the game and continued to do so, with the hosts only able to briefly threaten in the 85th minute. They won a corner on the left, and the curling delivery was superbly headed away by the commanding Dolman before Seymour-Shove latched onto the loose ball on the right and jinked to find space to cross in. Heath leapt with a home player and, though he initially dropped the delivery, the referee blew his whistle to signal a foul on the keeper. A moment later a swift move forward saw the ball fortuitously run for Nelson-Addy, but his shot was blocked before Hall’s cross afterwards went behind for a goal-kick. The block was synonymous of Diamonds’ defensive effort throughout the game, in particular the second half, a real collective effort that saw the whole team keep calm under any pressure and stoically nullify any perceived threat.
Three minutes before the end of the regulation ninety minutes Diamonds won a corner on the left after Fairlamb ran powerfully before seeing an attempted cross blocked behind. Gyasi moved across to swing in the delivery, and his cross was inviting only for it to run past every onrushing player and pass away to safety. Play went on, and soon the assistant referee was signalling for three added minutes. Though home pressure was to be expected, the majority of the three minutes were spent in the middle-third and in the Cambridge half as Rushden continued to manage the game well and see it out. Gyasi went down with an injury on the left halfway inside the home half two minutes into stoppage-time, and he received treatment as the match continued. However, play had hardly kept going when the referee signalled the end of the contest; an engrossing and intriguing game that had seen Diamonds forge into the lead before managing the game excellently from there on in to secure the win, a success that moved them top of the table after Beaconsfield’s defeat but more importantly moved them one game away from effectively sealing promotion.
Full Time: Cambridge City 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The game was largely an even one, with neither side creating a glut of clear-cut opportunities or having a sustained period of pressure or domination, and the match being keenly-contested and well-fought for the majority. However, Diamonds crucially took their chance when it arose and then negated and controlled any home pressure and attacks in the second period to secure the success. It meant Diamonds have won two-thirds of their away league games this season, a superb record that has helped them to the cusp of their third promotion in only six years of existence as a club. Every of the fourteen men involved deserve praise, but in particular the irrepressible Ben Farrell, along with the solid Punter and Dolman, put in excellent performances. As mentioned, coupled with Beaconsfield’s loss at home to promotion rivals Hayes & Yeading, Rushden’s win takes them to the top of the table two points clear of Beaconsfield who have a game in hand. Hartley Wintney defeated Ashford to stay three points behind Diamonds in third, but vitally Diamonds have a better goal-difference by fifteen goals. This means that, with two games remaining, if Diamonds were to better Hartley’s result on Tuesday evening they would be officially promoted, and if they were to match the result then they would not mathematically be promoted per se, but due to their vastly superior goal-difference then promotion would effectively be secured. They take on third-bottom Aylesbury on Tuesday evening in their penultimate game of the campaign (April 24th) at Hayden Road, 19:45pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Joel Gyasi
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Josh Bexon
2. Ben Robinson
3. Ross Paterson (C)
4. Sam Squire
5. Jordan Gent
6. Jordan Williams
7. Ebby Nelson-Addy
8. Ryan Towner
9. James Hall
10. Salim Relizani
11. Nathan Olukanmi
12. Adam Capel
14. Stevan Shaw (for Robinson HT)
15. Jack Vasey (for Olukanmi 68)
17. Ben Seymour-Shove (for Relizani 32)
18. Lewis Wilson
13. Ben Heath
2. Blaize Punter
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Joe Curtis
7. Joel Gyasi
8. Ben Farrell
9. Ryan Robbins
10. Spencer Weir-Daley
11. Luke Fairlamb
12. Ben Ford
14. Tom Lorraine (for Weir-Daley 72)
15. Ross Oulton (for Curtis 60)
16. Ben Diamond (for Robbins 78)
18. Jack Ashton
Goals: Gyasi (45+1)
Yellow Cards: None
Yellow Cards: Robbins (77)
Referee: Mark Chalkley
Assistants: Christopher Williams, Mahdi Elhalawany