Diamonds’ seventeen game unbeaten league run came to an end as they slipped to defeat at Egham Town on Saturday afternoon.
The game started rather scrappily, with the only early chances being a home player having a tame effort saved by Ben Heath, and then down the other end Ben Diamond fed a pass to the returning Luke Fairlamb whose pinpoint cross found Sam Brown only for the defender’s header to loop over the bar. Egham took the lead in the 21st minute when a long ball forward was flicked on towards the penalty area, and a breakdown in communication in the Diamonds defence led to a weak clearance and Heath being stranded off his line. Ashley Lodge picked up the loose ball and lobbed an effort over the away defence, over Heath and into the back of the net. The visitors tried to respond immediately with a move down the right ending in a loose ball falling for Fairlamb, but his shot lacked power and allowed the home keeper to easily collect. They then had strong appeals for a penalty when Ben Farrell ran onto a Tom Lorraine flick-on and tried to poke the ball away from the diving challenge of the Egham left-back, but though he went down the referee dismissed the claims and pointed for a corner instead. It didn’t take much longer for Rushden to level though as they found a goal five minutes before the interval. Fairlamb embarked on a strong and direct run through the middle of the pitch before finding Joel Gyasi on the right, and the winger’s cross-shot curled over the home keeper and into the back of the net. However, the hosts regained the lead only two minutes later. A corner from the left wasn’t properly cleared by the Diamonds, and it dropped ideally for Michael Kalu to hit a left-footed effort from the edge of the area into the top corner. The half-time whistle was sounded shortly afterwards, with work for the visitors to do in the second period.
Diamonds continued to struggle after the interval though, with their defence looking a lot less resolute than it has for most of the season and them also struggling to find an attacking rhythm or tempo to threaten the hosts. Egham went close to doubling their advantage when a misjudgement in the away defence allowed Lodge to get into the area and hit a half-volley, but the effort was straight at Heath. In response Ryan Robbins saw a fiercely-struck shot fly just over the crossbar, and then inspired by a double substitution Rushden began to build some pressure for the second part of the half. A Fairlamb corner from the right was inadvertently turned towards his own goal by an Egham defender only for substitute John Dean to hook an instinctive effort over the bar, and then a minute later Robbins had a shot saved at the near post before the resultant corner was headed narrowly over by a leaping Jack Ashton. The defender was involved again when he met a deep Fairlamb free-kick, but his volleyed effort flew over the goal. The visitors carried on pressing in an attempt to salvage a draw and to keep their unbeaten run going, but they were still unable to create many clear-cut opportunities. Ashton headed a further chance over from fifteen yards out, and Egham almost sealed the contest when a curling free-kick by Ryan Debattista clipped the defensive wall and deflected just wide of the diving Heath and the post. There was some late drama when home midfielder Greig Stewart, who had already been booked, was shown another yellow card and a subsequent red for time-wasting as he was leaving the pitch to be replaced by a substitute, but despite this Diamonds could only create one final chance for a leveller. A Fairlamb cross reached Dolman but the defender’s header went over the bar, and despite further pressure the full-time whistle was signalled soon after to consign Diamonds to a league defeat for the first time since October 21st, though they still remain top of the table and three points clear of second place.
Manager Andy Peaks made just the solitary change to the starting XI that had defeated play-off hopefuls Chalfont St Peter a week previously. Winger Luke Fairlamb was available again after his recent suspension, and he came straight back into the side to replace Callum Westwood. There was also a welcome return to the squad for midfielder Ross Oulton as he was named amongst the substitutes with Blaize Punter, Ben Ford, John Dean and Ryan Robbins.
The two teams made their way out onto the Runnymede Stadium playing surface with an icy chill in the air but the sun also shining onto the pitch. Diamonds came into the contest on the back of a seventeen game unbeaten league run and with nine successive away league victories to their name whilst Egham entered the match having lost their last six consecutive league games. However, in the three encounters between the sides prior to this fixture Egham were unbeaten, with two wins and one draw, and so Rushden knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game irrespective of the clubs’ recent league form.
After the handshakes and the coin-toss referee James Hurst got the contest underway. It began at a slightly stop-start nature as a couple of early Diamonds attacks were curtailed by an offside flag and both teams attempted to settle into a rhythm and tempo, but both sides created an opportunity in the first ten minutes. Firstly the hosts built an attack that resulted in an attacker finding space, but his effort was tame and easy for Ben Heath to collect. Then moments later play swung down the other end as Ben Diamond showed some neat control and footwork in the area before playing a pass back for Fairlamb. The winger bent in a pinpoint cross onto the head of the free Sam Brown, but the defender’s header was too high and floated over the crossbar.
A few minutes later Rushden had another chance. Joel Gyasi found room down the right wing before playing in Diamond, but the home defence did well to get back and force the attacker away from goal. The match then settled into a quiet period with both sides looking to build possession and to gain an advantage, and in the next action of note Egham were able to do so. A long ball downfield was flicked on by tall striker Ryan Debattista and towards the Diamonds penalty area, but with Heath closing in on the ball and several defenders nearby it appeared the danger would be cleared. However, Brown’s clearance was weak and, with Heath stranded off his goal-line, Ashley Lodge was able to seize on the ball and lob an effort from twenty-five yards over the defence and keeper, and into the back of the unguarded net. It was the first time Diamonds had fallen behind in an away league game since October 21st, their last away league defeat, and so work was needed to be done.
Moments after the goal Greig Stewart was booked for the home side after hauling down an advancing Fairlamb, and it was the Rushden winger who threatened an immediate equaliser. A move down the right saw the ball fall to Fairlamb, but he couldn’t hit a strong enough effort to truly threaten the home goal and so keeper Matthew Nolan was able to comfortably collect. The visitors were struggling to settle into a coherent and dominant rhythm that typified many of their performances in the unbeaten run, and as a direct consequence they were struggling to create much in the way of clear-cut chances in front of goal. In the 34th minute a Tom Lorraine flick was met by the onrushing Ben Farrell as he made a run into the penalty area. He and the Egham full-back both reached for the ball at the same time, and the Diamonds midfielder went down as the ball squirmed away. There were loud appeals from players, staff and fans behind the goal for a penalty, but the referee adjudged that the ball had been won in the tackle and signalled for a corner.
Three minutes later Peaks decided to make an early alteration, with Ryan Robbins being introduced for Diamond, and moments afterwards the visitors had an equaliser. Fairlamb embarked on a powerful, pacey run through the centre of midfield before laying the ball off for Joel Gyasi on the right flank, and the winger’s cross-shot floated over Nolan’s head and into the back of the net. It was his tenth goal of the campaign, and yet another moment of quality in a highly impressive and effective season for the wide-man thus far. Most importantly it appeared to have got Rushden back into the contest, and it was hoped that they would be able to build on this.
However, only two minutes later Egham re-established their lead. They won a corner on the left which was played deep to the back post, and a header back across was in turn headed away by Lorraine. However, the ball bobbled about following a fifty-fifty challenge and fell for the lurking Michael Kalu to strike a precise left-footed effort that flew through the air and into the top corner leaving Heath rooted to the spot. It was the first time Rushden had conceded two goals in an away league game since October 17th, and for the second time in the contest they needed a response to get back into the match. The rest of the half passed without further action though, and referee Hurst signalled the end of the opening forty-five minutes, one in which Diamonds had been below par and one in which they had defended uncharacteristically poorly whilst not creating much in an attacking sense.
Half Time: Egham Town 2-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Both sides emerged from their respective changing rooms following the half-time interval, and a keen sense of intrigue was felt by many of the 264 fans in attendance as to how Diamonds would react to being behind, and as to what Egham’s tactics and set-up may be with them being in the lead. After a quick count of both sets of players, the referee blew for the beginning of the second period.
The away side won an early free-kick as they looked to act upon Peaks’ half-time words and to try to get back into the game, but Fairlamb’s delivery sailed straight through to Nolan for the home keeper to catch. The hosts then sprang on the offensive themselves as a chipped ball down the right was misjudged by Jack Ashton and allowed Lodge to run into the area, but thankfully for the visitors his resulting half-volley was straight at Heath.
Though the second half was only in its early stages Diamonds, much like in the opening half, were struggling to build momentum or pressure, and many attempted attacks broke down before they could threaten the Egham backline. This frustration was evident when Robbins received a yellow card for a physical challenge, but the striker responded by being involved in the next two pieces of action. Firstly Fairlamb found some space before slipping a neat ball through for the striker, but the offside flag was raised and the attack was stopped in its tracks. Then a loose ball fell for the Diamonds number 16, and he wasted no time in whistling an effort towards Nolan’s goal. However, though the strike was true, it was slightly too high and so it passed over the bar for a goal-kick.
If the visitors were to find a leveller it was most likely to come from the lively and ever-dangerous Fairlamb who, despite his three-game absence, had slotted straight back into the side and into form like he had never been away. Twenty minutes of normal time remained when he found space again to whip in a dangerous cross from the left, but a home defender did well to clear it away for a throw-in. Seconds later Peaks decided to make his final two substitutions as John Dean and Ross Oulton entered the fray at the expense of Lorraine and Joe Curtis in a couple of like-for-like alterations. These changes seemed to galvanise the visitors, and almost immediately Dean almost made an important contribution. An inswinging corner from the right by Fairlamb was inadvertently turned towards his own goal by Egham defender Greg Haydon, and it fell for Dean with his back to goal in the six-yard box. He hooked an instinctive effort towards the net, but it flew over the bar.
A few minutes later Diamonds’ best move of the game saw a neat lay-off by Fairlamb into the path of Farrell, and he in turn slipped a precise through-ball into the left channel for Robbins. The striker was forced slightly wide of goal but he still managed to hit a stinging effort towards the near post that Nolan blocked with his feet out for a corner. The resulting corner from Gyasi passed the first Egham man and found the onrushing Ashton, but he couldn’t keep his header down and it flashed over the goal. After a quiet period of Diamonds pressure without threatening the home goal Ashton had another chance when he met a deep Fairlamb free-kick at the back post, but he volleyed over though the offside flag had been raised against the defender.
Only five minutes of normal time remained and though the visitors kept pushing for a late leveller, the hosts were defending strongly in limiting them to few clear-cut chances. Ashton had a further chance when he had another headed opportunity, but his effort again went over the bar. Egham then almost clinched the game when they won a free-kick following a counter-attack, and Debattista stepped up to curl a left-footed strike towards goal. It flicked off the wall and appeared that it would drop into the bottom corner past Heath’s despairing dive, but it dropped just wide of the post and Diamonds escaped.
The home side then prepared to make a change as the time ticked closer to the end of the regulation ninety minutes, and Stewart’s number was held up to signal he was the man being replaced. He took some time to leave pitch however, and as a result the referee ran across before issuing a second yellow card and a subsequent red for the midfielder’s time-wasting.
The fact Egham were now down to ten men only further intensified the Diamonds’ pressure, but as stoppage-time began and started to wind down, only one further opportunity remained for an equalising goal. Again the chance was created by Fairlamb as he created room for a cross on the left, and his delivery found Dolman at the back post. However, the Rushden skipper was running away from goal as he attempted the header, and he could only direct his effort over the bar.
After a few further minutes of Diamonds huffing-and-puffing, but to no avail, referee Hurst signalled the end of the contest to consign the visitors to only their third league defeat of the season.
Full Time: Egham Town 2-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
After their recent superb form this defeat represented a reality check and, in some ways, brought the team back down to earth. Much of Diamonds’ good work this season had been based on a stoic and solid defence but they struggled defensively in this defeat, and they also weren’t able to create many clear-cut opportunities in order to get back into the game. All credit must go to Egham for the deserved success and for the way they took their chances whilst restricting Rushden, but the visitors know they were well below their best and can play a whole lot better than what they showed here, though this is to take nothing away from the hosts and their performance throughout the contest. However, very rarely do successful teams go through an entire season without setbacks and so this can be put down as a bad day at the office, one where lessons can be learnt but also one where it can be forgotten and where the club moves onto the next game. Results largely went in Diamonds’ favour as Beaconsfield, Hartley Wintney and Hayes & Yeading all lost also, and so they remain three points clear at the top of the table and are one game closer to the end of the season. Their next game, similar to their last home match, is against play-off and automatic promotion hopefuls Hayes & Yeading at Hayden Road on Saturday March 3rd, 3pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ben Farrell
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Matthew Nolan
2. Greg Haydon
3. Andreas Loizou
4. Devante McKain
5. Mitchell Wiseman
6. Rhys Paul (C)
7. Stephan Hamilton-Forbes
8. Greig Stewart
9. Ryan Debattista
10. Ashley Lodge
11. Michael Kalu
12. Brendan Matthew (for Hamilton-Forbes 75)
13. Lauric Diakiesse
14. Joshua Andrew (for Kalu 81)
15. Danny Julienne
13. Ben Heath
2. Joe Curtis
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Jack Ashton
7. Joel Gyasi
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Luke Fairlamb
12. Ben Ford
14. Ross Oulton (for Curtis 70)
15. John Dean (for Lorraine 70)
16. Ryan Robbins (for Diamond 37)
17. Blaize Punter
Goals: Lodge (21), Kalu (40)
Goals: Gyasi (38)
Yellow Cards: Stewart (21, 90)
Yellow Cards: Robbins (58)
Red Cards: Stewart (90)
Red Cards: None
Referee: James Hurst