AFC Rushden & Diamonds slipped to defeat at Northern Premier League side Hednesford Town in their final pre-season match.
The first half saw the hosts dominate territory and possession but struggle to create many clear-cut opportunities. Midfield playmaker Sean Geddes saw one shot go over the bar and then a curling effort straight at Matt Finlay in the Diamonds goal, and early substitute Cohen Brammall jinked into space on the left side of the area before seeing an effort beaten away to safety. The Diamonds did well to limit the Pitmen with some courageous and sometimes last-ditch defending, though aside from Jake Newman jinking into space and seeing a cross well blocked they didn’t create much themselves down the other end.
Shortly into the second period a short free-kick from the left for Diamonds saw Brad Harris have a shot blocked, and the resultant clearance was missed allowing defender Liam Dolman to slam an effort off the crossbar from 14 yards out. Finlay then saved confidently from Hednesford striker Jon Matthews and Brammall again, but the hosts were to take the lead in the 63rd minute when substitute Tristian Dunkley, who had only come onto the pitch a minute before, slammed a loose ball into the net from six yards. After seeing a curling effort then held by Finlay, Dunkley extended the lead by running onto a long through ball and bobbling a left-footed shot past the Diamonds stopper into the far corner of the goal. Diamonds substitute Taylor Orosz could have pulled one back shortly before the end but tamely skewed a shot wide after good work by Oulton, and Finlay was called upon to make a couple more saves to keep the scoreline at 2-0.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks made four changes to the starting XI that had defeated Raunds 4-1 on Tuesday night, with Liam Dolman, Lewis Leslie, Richard Bunting and Kyal McNulty all brought back into the side. This meant a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Harris partnering Dolman in the centre of defence and Leslie operating in behind the two strikers Jake Newman and Nabil Shariff.
With this being the first time that AFC Rushden & Diamonds had visited Keys Park, the fact that this match represented both sides’ final pre-season game and this also being an opportunity for the visitors to pit themselves against higher league opposition, there was a keen sense of intrigue as the two teams made their way onto the sun-bathed pitch.
Referee Simon Brown got the action underway, and the early pattern was set almost from the offset: Hednesford dominating possession and Diamonds looking to strike on the counter-attack. The hosts created the first opportunity of the game in the fifth minute as captain Ashley Sammons initially saw a shot blocked, but the loose ball fell for Jon Matthews to pull an effort wide of the near post.
Rushden were then able to move play down the other end and earn a throw-in on the right wing close to the corner flag. Trialist Ross Oulton summoned his best Sam Brown impersonation and launched the throw towards the near post, with a strong punch being required to clear the danger by ex-RDFC goalkeeper Dan Crane. An early substitution was then brought upon the home side, with winger Noel Logan being replaced by Cohen Brammall.
Both teams were closing down their opposing ranks quickly and efficiently in the opening exchanges, and one case led to the ball breaking into the path of Diamonds captain Richard Bunting. He showed quick feet and strong close control to move away from a couple of midfield challenges, and he in turn fed the ball out to Kyal McNulty on the left channel. He controlled it and attempted to curl a shot goalwards, but the effort was well blocked away.
A scrappy ten minutes then ensued, with the Pitmen attempting to turn the Diamonds defence at any given opportunity with balls over the top but the visitors nullifying and quashing much of the threat, with Brad Harris and Aidan Bradshaw in particular forced into many clearances. One dangerous moment did appear in the 21st minute when the hosts won a free-kick on the left, and the subsequent delivery into a melee of players saw Finlay come out and punch clear. However, the ball dropped invitingly for midfielder Sean Geddes, and he dispatched a shot towards goal just as Finlay had picked himself up and got back to his net. Fortunately for the stopper and for the away side however, the attempt went just over the crossbar.
This kickstarted a period of Hednesford pressure, and playmaker Geddes was at the heart of it. He was proving to be the orchestrator in the middle of the pitch, seemingly always available to receive the ball and then use it intelligently to build momentum and tempo. Another free-kick was awarded to the home side in a similar position to the previous one, but rather than trying to curl the ball into the danger area again, the ball was played short to the lurking Geddes. He collected, composed himself and then whipped a bending shot that Finlay did well to hold. A few moments later saw Geddes collect the ball in a potentially threatening position on the edge of the box, but the shot was bravely blocked before Brammall collected possession, drove to the left byline and flashed a cross across the entirety of the penalty box.
Hednesford were still often looking to use the pace of Matthews by playing the ball over the top of Harris and Dolman, and one such instance saw Harris try to flick the ball back towards Finlay. However, the ball ran too far away from goal and Matthews was able to collect, weigh up his supporting options and then roll the ball across to the arriving Brammall. He in turn laid the ball to Geddes, who switched it onto his left foot and then shot towards goal, though another block stopped the danger in its tracks. Brammall, who was proving a danger himself, then jinked away from Bradshaw on the left side before driving into the penalty area and flashing a shot that forced Finlay to parry the ball away.
Shortly prior to this Diamonds were able to have some possession of their own, and Brown cleverly slipped a pinpoint pass into the path of Jake Newman. On his favoured left foot, the striker attempted to commit the defender and then drive a low ball across goal, but it was partially blocked and Crane was able to collect.
There was to be one final chance before the half-time break and it fell for the home side. Sammons did well to turn into space on the right, but his shot was strongly blocked away by Dolman, with this being indicative and representative of the visitors’ committed defending throughout the opening period.
Half Time: Hednesford Town 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Two substitutions were made by the Pitmen during the interval, with one of them seeing captain Sammons replaced by Tom Thorley. The sun was still shining on the Keys Park surface as the referee got the second half underway, with the contest still being very much in the balance.
It was the visitors who began the half more on the front foot, as whilst they were still pressuring their opponents whenever possible they were now utilising the ball more productively in the attacking third. A prime example came in the 51st minute when Shariff did brilliantly to nick the ball off home defender James Mutton, and the Diamonds attacker drew a foul to give his side a free-kick on the left side. Dolman and Bradshaw went forward from defence expecting a cross into the box, but the ball was instead played short to Harris whose shot was blocked. However, the attempted defensive clearance upfield was shanked, and it fell for Dolman to slam a left-footed effort that beat Crane but thundered back off the crossbar. A minute later Crane mishit a clearance of his own, but luckily for the home side the ball was out of reach of the onrushing Shariff.
Robbie Parsons then entered the fray for Rushden at the expense of Lewis Leslie, and he immediately linked up well with Shariff to run along the edge of the penalty box, though he was met by a couple of Hednesford challenges and the threat was quelled. The ball was quickly worked up to the home side’s attacking third, and Matthews generated some space to hit a low shot that Finlay was able to get down to and comfortably hold. The away keeper was forced into action again when a corner from the left was headed away only as far as Brammall, but his stinging return shot was claimed by the goalkeeper above his head.
The away side then earnt a corner kick of their own, and after Parsons had played it short to Dolman and then received the return, he tricked his way past a rather weak tackle and into the area. Although Dolman had taken up an excellent position, the subsequent pull-back was too far ahead of him and the chance was lost.
After the period of Diamonds pressure in the early exchanges of the half, Hednesford had clearly upped the anté as they searched for the opening goal, and it arrived in the 63rd minute. Neat play down the left wing resulted in a teasing cross towards the back post, and Brown despite his best efforts could only clear the ball straight to substitute Tristian Dunkley. Having only been introduced from the bench a minute previously, he showed good control to settle the ball and then thrash it past the helpless Finlay from six yards.
Dunkley was proving an immediate threat to the Diamonds backline with his pace and direct running, and had enough speed to beat Harris to race onto a ball down the left flank. He cut inside the Diamonds defender, though with a narrow angle he could only curl a shot that was easily held by Finlay. Andy Peaks then made another alteration for the Diamonds as striker Tom Lorraine replaced Newman, and he was involved immediately as he met Oulton’s inswinging free-kick, but as he was stretching back he flicked his resulting header harmlessly and well wide of the post.
Less than a minute later Hednesford doubled their advantage. A seemingly innocuous through ball in behind the Diamonds defence was missed by Harris, and this allowed Tristian Dunkley to run away from the visiting backline and bobble a shot across Finlay and into the far right corner of the net. Dunkley was on the hunt for his hat-trick goal in the hosts’ next attack, and he picked up the ball in an advanced position with a three-on-three situation ahead of him. He decided to go it alone, but his driven shot sailed wide of the post. Geddes then was picked out in space after a short corner-kick had found its way to the midfielder, though his shot had a similar outcome to Dunkley’s in ending up wide of the intended mark.
Taylor Orosz had been introduced shortly before this last chance, and he, like several of the other substitutes, had an impact immediately. Firstly he did well to muscle Mutton off the ball, and despite calls from the home side for a foul the referee waved play, but the substitute striker trod on the ball and a covering defender was able to win back possession. Oulton then superbly swerved into a hugely promising position on the edge of the area, and with Orosz free on his left and Lorraine similarly so on his right he chose the first option, though unfortunately for the Diamonds Orosz’s shot was tame and went wide. Jack Ashton and James Harvey replaced Bunting and Oulton respectively, and literally seconds after these changes Orosz found space ahead of him to run into but again his end product was slightly lacking and the effort went past the post.
After this brief flurry of chances and activity the match naturally slowed, though there still remained a couple of opportunities for the home side. Dunkley advanced to the right byline and floated in a tempting cross that was headed goalwards, but it lacked pace and represented a simple save. A Hednesford right-wing corner was then narrowly volleyed wide, substitute Gurjit Singh saw a curling effort held by Finlay and finally a snap-shot from the left side required the Diamonds stopper to scamper to his left to tip the ball around the post.
Referee Brown called time on the game without any extra minutes added on, with both sides contributing to what was an entertaining and very worthwhile final pre-season friendly.
Full Time: Hednesford Town 2-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
With Hednesford having played in the National League North last season, this was always going to be a tough test for the Diamonds but they acquitted themselves well and can certainly draw positives from the match. They defended well for large swathes, looked an organised unit and one that will be difficult to break down, and when they were breached Matt Finlay produced several impressive saves. Winning five out of the seven pre-season games will naturally build some confidence and momentum heading into the new league season, though the most important aspect of the matches has been to improve fitness and give some minutes to all of the squad which has without doubt been achieved. Diamonds’ first venture into Northern Premier League First Division South football begins next Saturday (August 13th) as they travel to Staffordhsire to face Newcastle Town.
Diamonds Man of the Match (chosen by Match Reporter): Matt Finlay
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Dan Crane
2. Rhys Thompson
3. Calum Flanagan
4. Michael McGrath
5. James Mutton
6. Francino Francis
7. Simeon Maye
8. Sean Geddes
9. Jon Matthews
10. Ashley Sammons (C)
11. Noel Logan
12. Cohen Brammall (for Logan 10)
14. Michael Williams (for Geddes 78)
15. Lloyd Ransome
16. Tristian Dunkley (for Matthews 62)
17. Tom Thorley (for Sammons HT)
18. Desean Martin (for Thompson 62)
19. Demetri Brown (for McGrath HT)
(Blank Shirt) Gurjit Singh (for Brammall 83)
17. Matt Finlay
2. Aidan Bradshaw
3. Sam Brown
4. Brad Harris
5. Liam Dolman
6. Lewis Leslie
7. Richard Bunting (C)
8. Kyal McNulty
9. Jake Newman
10. Nabil Shariff
11. Ross Oulton
12. Taylor Orosz (for Shariff 73)
13. Joe Haynes
14. Robbie Parsons (for Leslie 55)
15. Tom Lorraine (for Newman 66)
16. Lewis Jackson (for Brown 83)
18. James Harvey (for Oulton 78)
21. Jack Ashton (for Bunting 78)
Goals: Dunkley (63, 70)
Yellow Cards: None
Yellow Cards: None
Referee: Simon Brown
Assistants: A. Sarginson, L. Blackwood