Diamonds fought well but ultimately succumbed to a defeat at play-off chasing Ilkeston on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts missed two good early chances when Dempsey Arlott-John and Henri Wilder shot wide from promising positions, while Rushden hit the woodwork through debutant Momodou Jallow. Ilkeston had the better of possession and pressure as Mitchell White and Evangelos Empochontsif were forced into goal-saving blocks, and Dean Snedker did well to deny Kieren Fenton and Jamie Ward. They did take the lead on the stroke of half-time though when ex-Rushden man Lee Tomlin crossed for Remaye Campbell to head home.
The goalscorer forced two further saves at the start of the second half as did substitute Chris O’Grady, but Diamonds continued to battle hard and had strong claims for a penalty waved away. Moments later the home side doubled their advantage as Tomlin span expertly before sweeping past Snedker, but the visitors refused to lie down and pulled one back when Fraser Corden drilled home from outside the area following good work by Jenson Cooper. However, Ilkeston put the result beyond doubt when Fenton headed in from a right-wing cross.
Following their late and uplifting victory over St Ives on Monday, Chris Nunn was forced into four changes to his starting XI. Centre-halves Ryan Hughes and Luke Massingham were ruled out through injury, so Evangelos Empochontsif and Charlie Black came into defence. Kartell Dawkins and Miguel Ngwa’s loan deals had expired meaning that Peter Abimbola moved into centre-midfield alongside Mitchell White, Andy Kanga came back into the side and new signing Momodou Jallow lined up to support Jenson Cooper. Fellow signings John Dean and George Joyce were named amongst the substitutes.
Diamonds had moved off the foot of the table following their win last time out, though they were looking to arrest their recent away form which had seen them lose their last seven on the road. Ilkeston sat seventh in the table and, after not winning any of their first six league games, they had only been defeated in one of their previous seven and three of their last 12.
Entry to the match was free which drew a crowd of 1,320 and plenty of atmosphere throughout the afternoon. The hosts, nicknamed the Robins, started on the front foot and should have led inside the opening four minutes. A neat through-ball found Dempsey Arlott-John running in behind on the left, but he could only sidefoot wide of the far post.
Rushden responded and came even closer to taking the lead only a minute later. A loose ball dropped for Jallow and, with seemingly nothing on ahead of him, he stepped inside from the left before curling a strike towards the top corner from around 30 yards out. It sailed over the despairing dive of home keeper Saul Deeney, but the effort hit the top of the crossbar and went behind.
The pattern of the game was set early on, with Ilkeston dominating possession and territory and Diamonds looking to hit on the counter-attack. The hosts won a free-kick which was clipped to the back post, and Henri Wilder met it only to somehow steer it wide from close-range. Soon afterwards ex-EFL attacker Jamie Ward, playing a deeper role in this match, struck towards goal but it flew harmlessly wide of the mark.
The visitors briefly threatened when Jallow curled another strike wide and Conor Tee almost fed Cooper through on goal, but play quickly swung down the other end. White did terrifically to deflect a goalbound effort over the top, and Dean Snedker also did well to react to a deflected Kieren Fenton free-kick and claim the ball in his grasp.
Kanga had a chance to sprint forward after a stray home pass in defence, but he was tackled just as he was about to strike. Moments later Tee’s free-kick found Jallow, but his header lacked power and it drifted past the far post.
Ilkeston were quickly back on the attack, with a brilliant driving run from Ward taking him past four Diamonds challenges before finding himself with only Snedker to beat. However, the keeper stood up and turned the resulting effort behind. Striker Remaye Campbell was then found through on goal and skipped round Snedker, but Empochontsif recovered brilliantly to block the shot on the line.
Three minutes of additional time were signalled and, just when it appeared Rushden would make it to half-time level, the hosts struck. Lee Tomlin collected the ball on the right before curling in a precise cross for Remaye Campbell to head up and over Snedker into the back of the net.
Half time: Ilkeston Town 1-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The hosts tried to carry on from where they left off at the end of the first period as, after only five minutes in the second half, Campbell forced Snedker into a strong save low down at his near post. Minutes later Tomlin slid the striker in behind the away defence, but the Rushden stopper parried his shot away to keep the deficit to one.
Diamonds responded and, after Jallow had a header easily held following Kanga’s cross, they had a claim for a penalty. A neat interchange between Abimbola and Tee saw the latter drive into the left side of the area, and it appeared he might have been shoved over by a covering defender. Referee Haydn Lavender had a good view of the incident though and waved away the appeals.
Abimbola went down soon afterwards before being replaced by Fraser Corden, and the Robins then doubled their advantage. A nice move down the right saw a low cross played in for Lee Tomlin, and the ex-Diamonds man showed quick skill to spin away from a nearby challenge and calmly roll an effort into the net.
Home sub Chris O’Grady, who had an effort held before, had another shot held by Snedker as Ilkeston threatened to add more goals. However, the visitors found a way back into the contest as the time ticked into the final ten minutes. A long ball forward saw Cooper battle with the centre-half and show good strength to latch onto possession. He then laid it back to Fraser Corden whose low strike flew past Deeney and into the bottom corner.
Two minutes later though, after Snedker denied Tomlin, Ilkeston did re-establish their two-goal advantage. Another move down the right saw a cross played to the back post where captain Kieren Fenton had the simple task of heading home from almost on the line.
George Joyce was introduced for his debut alongside Luis Pinto-Leite, but Diamonds were not able to find a way back into the game as referee Lavender soon blew the whistle.
Full time: Ilkeston Town 3-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
This was always going to be a tough match, especially missing several key players, but Diamonds showed plenty of spirit and character to remain in the contest and almost set up a grandstand finish in the process. Ilkeston’s array of quality, particularly exemplified by the mercurial Tomlin and Ward, proved too much in the end as they moved closer to the play-offs.
Rushden slip back to bottom of the league standings following Hednesford’s win at Bedford, but they have another chance to pick up vital points when they entertain Rushall Olympic next Saturday (14 January, 3pm kick-off) at Hayden Road.
Diamonds Player of the Match: Charlie Black
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
Diamonds: Snedker (C), Agemoh-Davies, Lashley, Abimbola (Corden 68), Empochontsif, Black, Tee, White, Cooper, Jallow (Pinto-Leite 89), Kanga (Joyce 88) (subs not used: Dean, Grey)
Diamonds goal: Corden (81)
Diamonds yellows: Agemoh-Davies (25), Cooper (44)
Ilkeston: Saul Deeney, Joseph Wilson, Henri Wilder, Jack Thomas, Finn Delap, Kieren Fenton (C), Reece Fyfe (Chris O’Grady 59), Jamie Ward, Remaye Campbell, Lee Tomlin (Daniel Bradley 87), Dempsey Arlott-John (Thabang Dube 73) (subs not used: Silvio Bello, Harvey Woodward)
Ilkeston goals: Campbell (45+2), Tomlin (70), Fenton (83)