Diamonds moved into the play-off places with an important victory at lowly Halesowen on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts, five points off safety before the game, began well without creating a clear chance at goal. Striker Jack Till did have an effort from range that was easily held by Ben Heath, but Diamonds fashioned the best opening when Declan Rogers’ cross from the left found Ben Diamond at the back post only for his header to be straight at Daniel Platt to parry away. The first half was played at a keen pace and at a quick intensity, and the visitors began to get more of a foothold in the game as the half wore on. They should have taken the lead just after the half-hour mark when Rogers was found in space in the area, and his flashed cross found Tom Lorraine yards out from goal. However, his diving header crashed off the top of the crossbar and out for a goal-kick. Rushden carried on the pressure as Alex Collard headed wide, Zack Reynolds and Rogers hit efforts over, and Diamond struck a half-volley that was deflected over. Till forced Heath into further work when a long throw-in fell to the striker around 12 yards out, but the keeper was equal to the effort and the scoreline remained deadlocked at the interval.
Halesowen started the second half with a spell of possession, but Diamonds soon assumed control. The midfield three of Jack Westbrook, Nathan Hicks and Rogers were getting on the ball more and more, and finding more space to run at the home defence. Rogers came very close when he ran at the home defence before launching a fierce shot towards the far corner, and Platt uncomfortably chested the ball behind for a corner. Collard saw a downward header saved from the resultant set-piece, but he was involved again moments later as Diamonds took the lead. Rogers curled a corner in from the right that the defender headed across for Liam Dolman to head into the six-yard box, and there was Ben Diamond to head home from close range for the all-important first goal. Both sides made a couple of substitutions and, despite some increased home pressure, Rushden defended stoically and superbly to limit the hosts to little. Rogers came close to doubling the lead when he hit an effort that was comfortably saved, and four minutes of additional time saw the hosts almost snatch a last-gasp leveller. After a corner had seen Platt come forward and almost get onto a delivery into the area, a long free-kick was only partly punched by Heath straight to Lee Hughes. His stabbed effort was deflected away, and the loose ball ran for Aaron Gilpin who was denied by a combination of the keeper and a Diamonds defender. The full-time was soon signalled though to confirm Diamonds’ third straight away league victory, to extend their unbeaten league run to eight games, and to lift them up to fourth in the table.
Manager Andy Peaks stuck with the same starting XI that had impressively defeated third-placed Stratford Town on Tuesday evening. This meant Jack Ashton continued at left-back, and that Sam Johnson continued in a three-pronged attack alongside Ben Diamond and Tom Lorraine. The only alteration came amongst the substitutes as Sam Brown was unwell, and so Joe Curtis returned to the squad on the bench.
The two sides stepped out onto The Groves playing surface on a sunny and mild afternoon, with the teams coming into the contest at opposite ends of the league table. The hosts entered the fixture second from bottom and five points off safety, though they did have a game in hand and had only lost one of their last five league matches. Conversely, Diamonds were one place and two points off the play-offs on the back of an unbeaten seven game run in the league. They had only lost one of their last 15 league games, they had kept three clean sheets in their last four and they had won their last two away league matches. Both sides were therefore looking for three points for different reasons, and an intriguing game lay in wait. After the pre-match formalities were completed, referee Robert Hathaway got the contest underway.
The game began at a quick pace as both sides looked to pressure their opponents high up the pitch and to get onto the front foot immediately. In the sixth minute neat play between Declan Rogers and Diamond saw an initially dangerous ball be played through, but home keeper Daniel Platt was able to collect the pass. Moments later Halesowen, nicknamed The Yeltz, almost got in when a ball over the top of the Rushden defence looked to have released the experienced Lee Hughes in on goal, but Ben Heath read the danger excellently and came out to punch it away just inside his area.
Two minutes later, a Diamonds long ball also caused danger. Johnson played it past the home backline for Lorraine to run onto and, as he latched onto it just inside the area, home captain Kieran Morris came across to challenge the striker. Lorraine went down as the ball squirmed through to Platt, but the referee waved away the protestations for a penalty and signalled for play to continue.
Despite it being a watchable and enterprising opening to the contest, neither side created a real opportunity at goal or forced the opposing goalkeeper into a save until the 15th minute. The chance fell for the away side when Diamond began a move down the left that was eventually worked out to Rogers on the byline. He whipped in an inviting cross towards the back post, and it met the perfectly timed run of Diamond who was free to head at goal. However, Platt parried his effort away, and Lorraine’s header on the rebound drifted up and allowed the keeper to easily claim.
Halesowen were looking neat and tidy in their approach play and were looking dangerous down the flanks, and they forced Heath into a save shortly after Diamond’s chance. A loose ball dropped for Jack Till around 25 yards from goal, and he swiftly turned before generating space for himself and striking a low right-footed effort goalwards. However, the shot lacked real pace, and the Rushden keeper was able to stoop to hold the ball. They then won a free-kick on the left, and the delivery was lofted towards the back post only for some strong Diamonds defending to head the ball away and the danger to be cleared.
The half-hour mark ticked by and there was still little to separate the two sides who were both industrious, but who had both been unable to build any sustained period of pressure or possession. However, the visitors created the best opportunity of the game only moments later. They built a move down the left, and Diamond attempted to generate room for a cross. He jinked back and instead slipped a clever ball into the path of Rogers just inside the area. The home defence seemed to stop waiting for an offside flag, but one wasn’t forthcoming and so the Diamonds midfielder flashed a cross in towards the six-yard box. Lorraine had escaped away from his marker to meet the ball with a diving header but, from close-range and with the keeper covering the near post, his stretched effort hit the top of the crossbar and went out for a goal-kick.
This was the trigger for Diamonds to up the ante, to force the hosts further back and to fashion a few chances. In the 37th minute Heath quickly threw the ball out to Zack Reynolds, and the full-back was able to gallop forward a long way over the halfway line and towards the hosts’ penalty area. Just before a defender stepped out to try and stop him, the Diamonds man hit an effort towards goal. However, the attempt was always rising and flew well over the bar. Moments later the right-back, who hadn’t had much opportunity to get forward earlier in the half, surged on the offensive again and nicely linked up with Nathan Hicks to allow the midfielder to skip into the area on the right. He flashed a cross across the face of the area, and it almost found Lorraine only for an important flick by a home defender to take it away from the striker.
A minute afterwards, Reynolds was involved again. He purposefully strode forward towards the edge of the area before being hauled down around 25 yards from goal slightly right of centre. Rogers came across to line up the free-kick, and he bent an effort up and over the wall but over the crossbar also. It didn’t take much longer for play to be down that end again, and Diamond received the ball on the edge of the box before turning and hooking a half-volley towards goal that was deflected out for a corner. Rogers’ delivery was inviting and found Alex Collard in space at the back post, but he was stretching and so could only direct his header over the target.
That was the final action of the opening period as the referee signalled half-time. It had been a half that had seen the hosts begin well and create a couple of dangerous moments, but Rushden had got more of a foothold the longer the half went on and had had a few opportunities to take the lead.
Half Time: Halesowen Town 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The two teams emerged from the changing rooms ready for the second half, with most thoughts during the interval focusing on who would be able to score the all-important first goal of the contest. After a swift count of the 22 players, the referee got the match back underway.
The hosts started with a period of possession and a few forays forward that ultimately came to nothing, and Diamonds broke on the counter-attack before Johnson did well to win the ball on the right and play it off the full-back for a corner. The delivery was driven in towards the near post, but it was well cleared away by the Halesowen defence.
With the scoreline the way that it was, everything was still to play for and the game was on a knife-edge. In the 52nd minute the home side found a lot of space within the Rushden defence and a shot was flashed towards goal from the edge of the area, but the effort went comfortably wide of the post. Only a minute later, the visitors came so close to taking the lead. Rogers received a pass just ahead of the halfway line in behind the home midfield, and he had room to run forward towards the Halesowen back-pedalling defence. He got to around 25 yards out before unleashing a swerving shot towards the right corner of the goal and, though Platt got across to the effort, he was fortunate that it bounced inadvertently off his chest and out for a corner. The set-piece was played in and it reached Collard, but his downward header was comfortably saved.
Diamonds were beginning the half as they had ended the previous one, with their tempo quick and their pressure growing. Diamond dropped deep to receive a pass, and he looked up before floating a precise ball towards Lorraine. Platt came out to collect the cross, but he ultimately flapped at it almost allowing Johnson to latch onto the loose ball. However, the danger was hacked away before it could be hooked towards goal. Moments later Diamond was involved further as he was found in space again, and this time he laid a pass into the path of the overlapping Ashton on the left. He hit a first-time cross that looked dangerous, but it went behind the Diamonds men in the area and ran for a home defender to clear upfield.
However, it didn’t take the away side much longer to forge ahead. They won a corner on the right, and Rogers drilled the resulting delivery in towards the back post. Like in the first half, Collard won a free header to guide it across the area, and Liam Dolman then headed it back across the six-yard box. It found Ben Diamond around three yards out from goal, and he buried a header clinically into the back of the net. It was the striker’s tenth goal of the season, and gave Rushden a vital lead right just before the hour mark.
The hosts responded almost immediately by making their first substitution of the contest, and they looked to launch a quick riposte. They did begin to have more possession than they had had before, but they struggled to turn it into persistent attacks and clear-cut opportunities. Much of that was due to the Diamonds’ shape and closing down of their opponents and, when the hosts did face up the away defence, Dolman and Collard in particular were calm, confident and strong to limit the chances at goal. The visitors were still attacking down the other end though as they looked for a killer second goal, but similarly they weren’t able to fashion many openings at goal.
Peaks made his first alteration as John Dean took to the field at the expense of Johnson in a like-for-like switch. Halesowen also made another change, and then Jack Bowen was introduced for Lorraine as the time continued to wind down and the action on the pitch was relatively quiet. Less than ten minutes remained when, similar to his earlier chance, Rogers found room in the middle third to run towards the area and unleash a shot at goal. However, he was unable to catch the effort cleanly, and Platt was able to make a relatively comfortable save.
Aside from that moment though, the play continued to be bitty which suited the Diamonds to a tee. The home side’s final ball was often lacking when they got into potentially promising positions, and the vast majority of balls forward and crosses in were being cleared away by the strong Diamonds backline. The time ticked into the final of the regulation 90 minutes, and four added minutes were signalled by the fourth official. Kieran Morris had been sent forward from defence as an emergency centre forward, and long balls now began to reign in on the Diamonds defence. Everytime one was cleared, it went straight to a home player who in turn would play it back into an attacking area, and so the pattern of stoppage time was set.
90 seconds of the additional time had elapsed when the hosts won a corner on the right. Platt came forward, and the delivery was aimed towards the keeper. However, it ended up going out for a goal-kick. That looked to be the final action, but one final moment of serious danger remained. Halesowen won a free-kick just inside their own half, and everybody went forward apart from Platt who launched the kick deep into the area. Heath came out to try and punch but, with so many players between him and the ball, he was unable to do so. The loose ball dropped for Hughes close to goal, but a sea of bodies deflected his attempted shot across the area. It ran for Aaron Gilpin who flashed a low attempt towards the net, but Heath flew out to block the shot with his leg. It went out for a corner, and Platt again came forward only for the delivery to b eventually cleared.
No sooner had it been hacked away than the referee signalled the end of the contest. There had been a massive heart-stopping moment at the end and it had almost seen some real late drama, but ultimately it was a hard-fought, deserved victory for Diamonds in the end.
Full Time: Halesowen Town 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
It was an entertaining clash that had seen the hosts begin well and threaten on a couple of occasions, but Diamonds soon started to control proceedings and should have been ahead at the half-time break. Once they did take the lead in the second period, they managed the rest of the match well and defended stoutly to limit Halesowen to only that last-gasp opportunity. It is their fourth clean sheet in their last five games in all competitions, and that is testament to a consistent backline superbly marshalled by Dolman and Collard in this game. The victory was made all the more important considering Stratford, Alvechurch and Coalville had all been defeated, and so Diamonds move back into the play-off places with only 11 games of the season remaining. Their next match sees them return to Hayden Road to take on fellow play-off hopefuls Alvechurch in an important clash next Saturday 2 March, 15.00pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Alex Collard
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Daniel Platt
2. Samuel Griffiths
3. Tyler Weir
4. Ivor Lawton
5. Kieran Morris (C)
6. Callum Mendez-Jones
7. Callum Coyle
8. Samir Nabi
9. Lee Hughes
10. Jack Till
11. Aaron Gilpin
12. Mathias Curley
14. James Spruce (for Lawton 75)
15. Jack Kelly
16. Joe Fitzpatrick (for Nabi 62)
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Jack Ashton
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Alex Collard
7. Sam Johnson
8. Declan Rogers
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. John Dean (for Johnson 75)
14. Joe Curtis
15. Ben Farrell
16. Ben Acquaye
18. Jack Bowen (for Lorraine 80)
Goals: Diamond (59)
Yellow cards: Gilpin (41), Coyle (70)
Yellow cards: None
Referee: Robert Hathaway
Assistants: Ben Watkiss, Samuel Clark
Updated player profiles with appearance and goalscoring details are now available.
Video post-match interviews are available here.
Match Gallery courtesy of Matt Hawkins. Copyright HawkinsImages ©2019