After the desolation of a stoppage-time goal on New Year’s Day, there was elation for a stoppage-time goal here as Diamonds grabbed a late, great winner in a rollercoaster of a game at Hitchin on Saturday afternoon.
Rushden had led 2-0 after only 20 minutes. A pretty quiet start to the game with no real action of note was broken in the 15th minute when Albie Hopkins crossed from the left for Tom Lorraine to head across goal, and there was Ben Diamond on the line to stoop and head home to give Diamonds the lead. Five minutes later that lead was doubled when a corner from the right dropped for Alex Collard, his poked effort was parried by the keeper but only to Tom Lorraine who swept the rebound into the roof of the net. Any thoughts that Hitchin, who had lost their previous four league games, would then really struggle were quickly dismissed when they pulled one back shortly afterwards. A long throw from the left bounced through for Isaac Galliford to slam a volley into the top corner. Further chances were created for both sides as the pace of the game quickened. For Hitchin, Matt Nolan did well to cut in from the right before Blaize Punter made a terrific block to stop his goalbound effort, and then Ben Heath made an excellent fingertip save to parry over a half-volley from inside the area. In between these chances Diamonds should have extended their lead when Lorraine was played through on goal, but his effort was stopped by the keeper’s legs.
If the first half was entertaining enough, the second half was something else. Hitchin controlled the vast majority of it as they put the Diamonds under intense pressure and threatened with quick attacks and, after captain Daniel Webb had sidefooted a glorious chance wide, they drew level in the 65th minute. Webb flicked a long ball on and Galliford reached it first to knock it past a defender and to slide a clinical finish past Heath for his second of the game and the equaliser. Alfie Cue then had a back-post volley saved and Heath had to make a further save from a low strike, and the hosts’ pressure paid off as they took the lead in the 72nd minute. Galliford had an effort brilliantly tipped away for a corner, and the low delivery found Matt Nolan who curled a strike past Heath and into the back of the net. Rushden were reeling and responded with a treble substitution, though it initially appeared more and more as the time ticked down that they would be consigned to defeat. However, in the 89th minute, a corner from the right was headed down by Collard, and substitute Jack Bowen reacted first to flick a header off the underside of the bar and into the back of the net. It got even better in stoppage-time as, with four minutes added on, Matt Berry-Hargreaves drove forward down the right in the third of these minutes. His flashed ball across found the head of another substitute Sam Johnson, and he guided a header home to send the Diamonds into delirium and to send them back into the play-off places.
Manager Andy Peaks made two enforced changes to the starting XI that had experienced last-minute heartbreak at Kettering in their previous game. Full-backs Sam Brown and Zack Reynolds were unavailable, and so Matt Berry-Hargreaves was brought in to fill in at right-back. Nathan Hicks dropped back to deputise at left-back, and his place in midfield was taken by the returning Declan Rogers. There were only four Diamonds substitutes and these were Joe Curtis, Sam Johnson, Ben Acquaye, and Jack Bowen.
The two sides took to the Top Field playing surface, and they were entering the contest in contrasting form. Hitchin came into the match 19th in the table and only one point clear of the relegation zone. They had lost their last four league games after winning their previous four prior to that, and they had also been defeated in their last two home league matches after being unbeaten in their previous five. Diamonds were 6th coming into the game and well in the play-off mix and, despite losing last time out, they had only lost two of their last eleven league matches and had only lost two of their previous eight away league matches. After the pre-match formalities were carried out and both sets of players were ready, referee Marasca got the contest underway.
The opening exchanges were keenly contested but ultimately short on action as both sides attempted to establish an early foothold in the match. Diamonds won a free-kick in the seventh minute that Rogers curled in towards the far post, but it was slightly over-pitched and it went out for a goal-kick. Both sides then traded corner-kicks, but both deliveries were well defended by the opposing side and cleared away upfield.
The first real opportunity of the game led to a goal for Diamonds in the 15th minute. Albie Hopkins was fed the ball down the left, and he jinked before driving forward and curling a sumptuous cross towards the far post. Tom Lorraine had cleverly peeled off his marker in anticipating where the delivery was going to go, and he then showed further good awareness to head the ball back across the six-yard box for Ben Diamond to head home from virtually on the line. It was the front-man’s eighth goal of the campaign, his fourth away from home, and put Rushden in the ascendancy.
It got even better five minutes later when the lead was doubled. Diamonds won a corner down the right and Rogers’ inswinging delivery, a weapon that had been sorely missed on New Year’s Day, curled towards the middle of the area. A group of players rose for it, and it dropped for Alex Collard to poke an effort towards goal. Home keeper Michael Johnson did well to get down to his left to parry it away, but it rebounded out to the nearby Tom Lorraine who smashed it into the roof of the net.
The visitors had had two chances and scored two goals but, before they knew it, Hitchin pulled one back shortly afterwards. A long-throw from the left went over a number of players jumping to meet it, and it bounced through for Isaac Galliford to hook home an instinctive half-volley that flew past the rooted Ben Heath and into the top corner of the net.
The goal came out of nothing and, after a quiet opening 15 minutes, there had been three goals in less than ten minutes. The game was well and truly alive now, and was very much back in the balance again. Diamonds won a free-kick moments later that was well cleared by the home defence, and then Hitchin winger Alfie Cue flashed w volley wide from distance.
The play was pretty end-to-end now and the pace of the game was also quite high. In the 33rd minute Rushden won a corner on the left, and Rogers’ delivery was initially cleared only as far as Collard who hooked it back into the danger-zone. It fell for Lorraine looking for his second goal of the game, but his effort was blocked away to safety. Two minutes later the hosts broke, and a swift move saw the ball played forward for Matt Nolan in the right channel. He did excellently to cut inside into the area away from a Diamonds man, and it opened up for him to shoot at goal. The effort was goalbound until a superbly-timed sliding challenge from Blaize Punter blocked the effort away brilliantly, a goal-saving intervention. They built another attacking move though, this time down the left, and a cross came in that could have gone anywhere. However, it dropped for a Diamonds defender to clear off a Hitchin attacker for a goal-kick, and they could relieve the pressure.
Shortly afterwards Diamonds could and should have re-established their two-goal lead. Jack Westbrook played a pass into the feet of Hopkins, and he turned superbly just ahead of the halfway line before running forward and playing a through-ball for Lorraine in behind the home defence. He had plenty of time to take a touch and run into the area to face up the advancing keeper, but his low effort was saved by Johnson’s legs and the keeper was then able to drop onto the ball.
Openings were now becoming a regular occurrence, and moments before half-time Rushden had a couple of close moments. Firstly Ben Farrell ran forward in midfield before his attempted through-ball was just intercepted by the last defender, and then in a separate attack Hicks advanced down the left wing before his cross towards Diamond went just over the opening goalscorer’s head.
On the stroke of half-time Hitchin went close to an equaliser. A bouncing ball into the area ran past a couple of Diamonds men and Nolan for the hosts, and it reached Alex Anderson to hit a half-volley goalwards. It flew towards the top corner, but Heath did excellently to reach up and tip the effort over the bar with his right hand. The resulting corner from the right was flicked on at the near post against a sliding Collard which led to strong appeals for handball, but the referee waved these away and the danger was cleared.
Moments later Marasca blew his whistle to signal the half-time break. It had been an opening 45 minutes that had seen Diamonds forge into an early two-goal lead and threaten to run away with the rest of the game, but the hosts battled back to reduce the deficit. Both sides had come close to scoring again, and so an intriguing second half was set up with the contest still very much in the balance.
Half Time: Hitchin Town 1-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The respective teams returned to the pitch from the changing rooms, with much of the half-time talk on the terraces and in the stand focusing on who would be able to score the all-important next goal of the contest, and if the largely end-to-end pattern of the opening half would be continued. After a quick count of the 22 players, including home substitute Ezra Forde who had replaced Anderson at the break, the referee got the game back underway.
The hosts began the half on the front foot as they put Diamonds under pressure immediately from the get-go. The half-time change had seen a change in formation for Hitchin, and this led to them getting more men forward and proving even more of a threat. Three minutes into the half Galliford was fed in behind the Diamonds defence on the left side of the box, but his attempt across goal was scuffed and easily cleared away. This was an early warning for Rushden, and moments later Hitchin should have drawn level. A long throw-in from the left, which had been the source of their first goal, was flicked on and ricocheted out to captain Daniel Webb around 10 yards out with space to shoot. He sidefooted it towards the right corner of the net, and Heath was motionless as it raced towards the far post. However, the effort somehow flew just wide of the upright, and Diamonds survived.
Hitchin kept up the pressure, and in the 55th minute they won a corner on the left. The delivery was dangerous and headed back across goal, but it wouldn’t fall for a home man and it was cleared away. Moments later Diamonds had an opportunity to break, and they did so with pace. Hopkins ran forward into the opposing half before playing it across to the onrushing Farrell, and he checked back onto his right foot just outside the area. He attempted to curl an effort towards the far corner, but it took a deflection on its way past the post. The following corner was well dealt with, and Diamonds still held a narrow lead.
The hour mark passed, but the lead didn’t last much longer as the home side soon equalised. Defender Lewis Ferrell had time just short of the halfway line to float a long ball towards the edge of the area, and Webb flicked it on into the box. Isaac Galliford was the first to react and he toed it past Punter before calmly sliding a finish past Heath and into the bottom corner of the net. The striker had looked dangerous with his close control and quick, direct running, and his two strikes had been taken with confidence and aplomb.
The hosts were very much in the driving seat now and had all the momentum. They seemed to be first to every loose ball, they consistently put the Diamonds players under pressure, and they looked threatening every time they moved forward. Shortly after the goal Collard was booked for bringing down the advancing Jack Green down the right flank, and the subsequent free-kick was initially headed away before a volley came in from outside the area. However, it flew well over the crossbar. A minute later Hitchin had a good chance to complete the turnaround and take the lead. Good work down the left saw a deep cross delivered into the area, and Cue was completely free to hit an effort at goal. His volley was pretty tame though and straight at Heath, and the keeper was able to easily hold.
Rushden hadn’t been in the Hitchin half much so far in the second period, but they had a chance to do so in the 70th minute when a ball was played forward to Lorraine. He was pushed over, and a free-kick was given. Rogers trotted across to put the ball down and curl a delivery into the back post, and Collard rose highest to get a header on the ball. However, it was more of a glancing effort than a firm one, and it drifted comfortably wide of the target. It was a brief respite from the home pressure though, and Hitchin soon built another attack. This one came down the right as Nolan played it back to Cue, and his deep cross in was headed out by Punter only as far as Michael Cain. He caught his low volley well, but Heath dived to his left to hold onto his effort.
The hosts were back on the attack again seconds later though as a clearance by Hicks was collected by Galliford, and he drove forward before skipping past Punter and unleashing a fierce shot towards goal. Heath dived to his left and produced a superb save to tip the ball around the post. However, from the resultant corner the ball was cleverly swept in low for Matt Nolan who had peeled off the main pack of players, and he curled a first-time effort past Heath and into the far corner of the net. The complete turnaround was complete, and Diamonds had lots of work to do.
In an attempt to turn the tide of the second half that had been totally dominated by the hosts, Peaks made a tripe substitution as Joe Curtis, Sam Johnson and Jack Bowen were all introduced for Rogers, Farrell and Lorraine. However, the changes didn’t have an immediate impact on the pattern of the half as Hitchin looked the most likely to score the next goal rather than a Rushden equaliser. Forde did well to turn and run towards the area, and he then slammed a powerful effort towards the far post that flew just over the target.
The time ticked into the final ten minutes, but the hosts were still controlling possession and territory. In the 83rd minute a cross from the left found Forde at the near post, and his flicked header towards the far corner looked like it may roll in until it ran wide of the post for Heath to collect. Diamonds then began to get more of a foothold on the ball and were able to force Hitchin back a little more, but they still weren’t able to create any clear-cut opportunities and were being restricted by a strong home defence well marshalled by Webb.
As it ticked closer and closer to the 90th minute, it appeared that Diamonds may run out of time and that they would slip to defeat. However, that all changed in the 89th minute. They won a corner on the right, and the delivery was drilled in towards the back post. Collard rose superbly and headed it down and across the box, and there was Jack Bowen to flick a header up and off the underside of the bar before it dropped into the back of the net. There were great scenes amongst the Diamonds players and fans alike, and the striker’s first goal since mid-November couldn’t have come at a better or more crucial time.
However, time still remained for either side to win it. Four minutes of additional time were signalled almost immediately after Bowen’s equaliser, and Diamonds were the ones now in the ascendancy and pressing for a winner. As the game entered the third minute of stoppage-time it seemed that the game may end in a draw, something Rushden would have settled for only a few minutes before, but there was to be late drama. Berry-Hargreaves collected a loose bouncing ball just ahead of the halfway line, and the Oxford United loanee found some energy from somewhere to dash forward before driving past the full-back on the outside. He then put a cross in towards the near post, and suddenly there was Sam Johnson who had timed his run and anticipated the delivery with perfection. He flicked a header goalwards and, with the keeper already committing himself in diving the other way, the ball flashed inside the post and into the back of the net. Cue scenes of pandemonium and chaos amongst players and fans, and ones that will certainly live long in the memory. They had looked unlikely to get a point, never mind three, only a short while before, and yet they had fashioned two goals from almost nowhere to suddenly be on the brink of victory.
Still a minute remained, and Hitchin naturally launched an immediate attack. One long ball saw a player from each side challenge, and the loose ball resulted in a foul on a Diamonds man to run the clock down. No sooner had treatment been given and the free-kick taken then the referee blew his whistle for full-time, and to call time on a topsy-turvy, thrilling and engrossing encounter that had had just about everything.
Full Time: Hitchin Town 3-4 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
This was a truly unbelievable game that was played at a frenetic pace, that had many chances for both sides, and that had real drama throughout. After twenty minutes, and with Diamonds 2-0 up against a side who had lost their last four, it seemed that the visitors would go on to win relatively comfortably. However, Hitchin fought back to get back into the match before half-time, and they then dominated the majority of the second half to establish a 3-2 lead and look on the brink of claiming a come-from-behind victory.
What this Diamonds team, and club as a whole, has in abundance though is togetherness and a real unity, a trait that has shone through on so many occasions this season. This had been demonstrated two games ago when they scored two late goals to claim a draw at home to Biggleswade, and it happened again today to snatch three points. They had appeared to have snatched a defeat from the jaws of victory, but then in the space of four minutes they snatched a win from the jaws of defeat in a truly remarkable ending to the game. Diamonds fans have had many memorable last-minute goals down the years that will never be forgotten and, after the heartbreak of a last-minute goal four days ago, this stoppage-time goal is another one to add to the memories. Hitchin did not look anything like a side who had come into the fixture in bad form and who are close to the relegation zone, and they deserved a draw from the game at the very least. However, Diamonds found an inner reserve deep down to battle through adversity and through not playing as well as they can do to snatch a huge victory, one that could prove absolutely crucial come the end of the season. Their next match sees them return to home action as they entertain Lowestoft Town at Hayden Road next Saturday 12 January, 3:00pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Matt Berry-Hargreaves
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Michael Johnson
2. Alex Anderson
3. Noah Chesmain
4. Josh Bickerstaff
5. Daniel Webb (C)
6. Lewis Ferrell
7. Michael Cain
8. Jack Green
9. Matt Nolan
10. Isaac Galliford
11. Alfie Cue
12. Ezra Forde (for Anderson HT)
14. Scott Belgrove (for Cue 88)
15. Moses Olanrewaju
16. Craig Packham
17. Jay Dowie
13. Ben Heath
2. Matt Berry-Hargreaves
3. Nathan Hicks
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Alex Collard
6. Blaize Punter
7. Albie Hopkins
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine (C)
10. Ben Diamond
11. Declan Rogers
12. Sam Johnson (for Rogers 78)
14. Joe Curtis (for Farrell 78)
15. Jack Bowen (for Lorraine 78)
18. Ben Acquaye
Goals: Galliford (24, 65), Nolan (72)
Goals: Diamond (15), Lorraine (20), Bowen (89), Johnson (90+3)
Yellow cards: Nolan (87)
Yellow cards: Collard (68), Johnson (90+3)
Referee: G. Marasca
Assistants: W. Perry, D. Lander
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