Diamonds conceded a heartbreaking stoppage-time strike to lose an enthralling local derby with rivals Kettering Town on New Year’s Day at Latimer Park.
Both sides, backed by a huge 2147 attendance, took time to settle into the contest, though Diamonds looked the most assured and calm particularly in the first half. They were the first to threaten when first Albie Hopkins had a header easily held by the home keeper, and then Jack Westbrook had a free header from the first corner of the game only for the effort to go over the bar. Alex Collard also had a header tipped over, but the second-placed hosts threatened too in stages with Lindon Meikle having a long-range effort easily held and Declan Towers striking just over from the edge of the area. The contest was being played at a terrific pace, and Kettering came close again when Rhys Hoenes played a one-two in the area before sidefooting over from a promising position. However, Diamonds went on to have the better of the rest of the half as they largely controlled possession, built momentum and territory and regularly threatened. A Sam Brown long throw from the right was headed goalwards by Collard only for the effort to be blocked behind, and moments later Hopkins had a free header at the far post from a right-wing cross only for his attempt to drift wide. The best chance of the half was then created as Westbrook’s shot was deflected into the path of Lorraine but, under pressure from the keeper and a covering defender, he stabbed his effort wide of the post. Westbrook was booked shortly afterwards, and this was the final action of what had been an intriguing 45 minutes.
The second half began in very similar fashion to how the first half ended, with Diamonds more than matching their opponents and asserting their authority in the contest. Tom Lorraine was almost released on goal by a clever Ben Diamond pass, but the hosts responded by Hoenes firing over from a tight angle and Declan Towers heading wide when well placed from a corner. It was the Diamonds who took the lead in the 54th minute when Blaize Punter latched onto a low cross before laying it off to Nathan Hicks, and he superbly skipped past a defender into the area before firing an arrow of an effort across the keeper and into the far corner of the net. It was no less than the visitors deserved, and shortly afterwards Farrell fired over from outside the area. Kettering roused themselves into responsive action though, and Marcus Kelly should have levelled only to fire wide after an Adam Cunnington header down to him. Aaron O’Connor was introduced for the hosts and, after he had drilled across goal from the left, the hosts equalised. A pass was played back to Meikle, and his driven effort nestled into the corner of the net despite Ben Heath getting a strong hand on it. Kettering were now in the ascendancy and with the momentum, and they were helped even further when Westbrook was shown a second yellow card for stopping a counter-attack. The personnel was levelled up two minutes later though when Michael Richens was dismissed for an over-the-top sliding challenge on Collard. Gary Stohrer fired over for the hosts and, as the game entered three minutes of stoppage time, it appeared the match would end in a draw. However, there was to be a cruel late twist when Dan Holman crossed from the left, Dion Kelly-Evans headed back across goal and Hoenes guided a header home from close range. Diamonds had one last chance to get a leveller, but Hicks’ fierce goalbound volley was charged away. The full-time whistle was then blown to signal the end of a largely even, engrossing and entertaining spectacle, one that the hosts ultimately won but one that the Diamonds can take many positives from.
Manager Andy Peaks made one enforced change to the starting XI that had begun the engrossing and dramatic draw with Biggleswade only three days previously. Sam Brown, who had missed that match because of illness, had recovered and took the place of Declan Rogers who had had to come off at half-time in the last game due to illness also. This meant that Brown returned to full-back allowing Nathan Hicks to line up in midfield alongside Jack Westbrook and Ben Farrell, but Rogers was okay enough to take a place on the substitutes bench alongside Nathan Pickworth, Matt Berry-Hargreaves, Joe Curtis and Jack Bowen.
As soon as Diamonds won promotion last season, and as soon as the fixture list for this season was released, the first league meeting between these two sides was highly anticipated and the first one to look out for. Such was the anticipation, buzz and excitement around the fixture that it was announced at around 2:30pm that there was to be a 15 minute delay to the kick-off due to congestion at the turnstiles. Kettering came into the contest second in the table but with games in hand on the leaders Stourbridge, and Diamonds entered the game in fifth place having only lost one of their last seven away league matches and having only been defeated once in their last ten league games. It was all set up for a terrific encounter, and both sets of players entered the Latimer Park playing surface to a cacophony of noise and atmosphere from both side’s fans. The previous four encounters between the two sides, all in local cup competitions, had produced plenty of late drama and also 19 goals, and so gaols and drama were to be expected in this contest too. The players shook hands and the coin-toss was conducted, and then the referee blew to signal the start of the game.
Such high-profile clashes can sometimes begin quickly or cagily, and this one started somewhere in between the two. The hosts had an opening in the first couple of minutes when Declan Towers fed pass into the path of Dan Holman, and he turned before attempting to play a ball in behind the away defence for Rhys Hoenes to run onto. Ben Heath came out and got to the through ball first, but the offside flag was up against the Kettering man anyway. Diamonds responded by the subsequent free-kick by Heath being flicked towards Farrell, and he in turn headed it out to the right for Tom Lorraine to run onto. The striker volleyed a cross into the area, and Albie Hopkins improvised his body well to loft a header goalwards only for home keeper Paul White to easily catch.
The visitors then won the first corner of the game in the sixth minute. With Rogers on the bench Farrell took over set-piece duties, and his drilled delivery towards the near post found the run of Westbrook. However, the midfielder couldn’t direct his header on target and it flashed well over the bar. Moments later Kettering built a move down the other end that saw Dion Kelly-Evans dink a ball forward, and ex-Diamonds man Marcus Kelly flicked it on into the run of Hoenes. He ran across the Diamonds defence and pushed the ball past Zack Reynolds into the left side of the area. Blaize Punter came across, and Hoenes went down looking for a penalty only for the referee to turn down the appeals and instead give a goal-kick.
The early exchanges were pretty end-to-end, and with the play being quite frantic and high-paced. Rushden won a throw-in on the right level with the penalty area, and Brown trotted across to take it. His long pitch into the area was flicked goalwards by Alex Collard, and it required White to tip the header over the bar. However, the corner came to nothing, and the score remained level.
In the 17th minute a clearance by Ben Diamond fell straight to home midfielder Lindon Meikle around 35 yards out, and with space he decided to hit a strike goalwards. It moved slightly in the air, but Heath was able to comfortably save and hold the long-range effort. They then won a free-kick halfway inside their attacking half, and Kelly curled it towards the far post where captain Michael Richens hooked it in towards the centre of the area. Reynolds headed it away but only as far as Towers who chested it down and half-volleyed towards goal, but it flew over the bar.
Though the game hadn’t truly settled, the tempo was frenetic. Diamonds were the next to threaten as they won a corner, and Farrell played it in only for it to be cleared. They won another corner, their fourth of the game already, and Hicks took this one only for it to also be cleared away upfield. Kettering then created a good opportunity as Holman skipped past Hopkins on the home right before feeding a pass inside to Hoenes. He attempted to jink into space on the edge of the box, and played a low pass into Holman who then cleverly backheeled it back into the run of Hoenes. He was only around ten yards out with a clear sight of goal, but his sidefooted effort flashed over the bar.
Play then swung down the other end, as had been much of the pattern of the game up to now, and Rushden won a throw-in on the right. Similarly to one earlier Brown launched it in towards the near post, and Collard won the header again to flick it goalwards. However, Declan Towers got in the way to divert it behind for a corner that was cleared away by the home defence. A ball was played into Holman on the edge of the box moments later for Kettering, and he flicked it over a Diamonds man before lofting an effort goalwards that sailed well over the bar. Chances were traded again as Rushden then broke, and Reynolds did excellently to get into a crossing position down the right wing. His delivery towards the back post found the leaping Hopkins, but his header drifted wide of the post and out for a goal-kick.
The half had gone exceptionally quick, and shortly before the 40 minute mark Diamonds created arguably the most presentable chance of the half. A swift break saw Farrell play it forward down the left for Diamond, and he played it back to Hicks who in turn played it across to Hopkins. He then fed it out to Reynolds on the right, and the full-back in turn played it further down the line for Hopkins. He played it back to Hicks who then fed it back to the Oxford loanee, and he fed it across to the free Westbrook. He was quickly closed down, but he found time to strike a shot goalwards. It ricocheted off Meikle and broke for Lorraine who suddenly found himself through on goal. However, he had to stretch to reach the loose ball and, with White and Towers converging on him, he could only stab his close-range effort wide. There were no calls for a penalty, but as Lorraine took the shot he was brought to the ground by a desperate sliding challenge from the defender. A goal-kick was signalled by the referee though, and the scoreline stayed at 0-0.
Rushden were ending the half well, and looking the most likely to break the deadlock. Shortly after Lorraine’s chance Diamond did brilliantly to collect a Farrell knockdown short of the halfway line and skip past a couple of players to drive over the halfway line and towards the home backline. He reached the edge of the area and could have shot towards goal, but he decided to try and feed it to his right for Lorraine only for the pass to be behind the striker. The ball was played back to Reynolds, and his cross towards the near post and the run of Diamond was just collected ahead of the away man by White. Moments later Diamonds built another attack as Hicks received the ball on the left, and he ran infield before playing it across to Diamond. He in turn found Westbrook inside of him, but a slightly heavy touch saw him over-run the ball. He slid into a 50-50 with Richens, and the Kettering man won the ball before writhing around in pain. Despite some initial calls for a red card, the referee called Westbrook across and issued a yellow card. From the resultant free-kick Adam Cunnington went up with Punter and caught the Diamonds defender with a flailing arm but, whilst a free-kick was awarded, the home striker was only given a warning.
As was to be expected, there were some feisty challenges being put in. One moment saw Holman having to go off for treatment, and another saw Hoenes go down just ahead of the halfway line after an aerial clash with Westbrook. One minute of added-time brought no further action, and so the referee blew the whistle for half-time with no goals, but it set up a fascinating second half with the game very much in the balance. It had been a highly intriguing tie, and one that Diamonds had arguably had the better of.
Half Time: Kettering Town 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Over the half-time interval the official attendance of 2,147 was announced, a truly remarkable figure for Step 3 of non-league football and one that showed the rivalry between the two teams was still well alive and kicking in the local area. Both teams emerged from their respective changing rooms and were to be kicking towards their own fans in the upcoming half. After a quick count of all the players, the referee got the play back underway.
Diamonds began as they finished the first half: on the front foot. The half was only a couple of minutes old when Lorraine was almost released on goal by a clever Diamond flick, but the hosts responded when they swiftly broke following a Diamonds corner. The ball was played through to Hoenes who ran into the area, but he was tracked every step of the way by the covering Reynolds forcing the home man to fire well over from a tight angle.
Moments later Brown became the second Diamonds man to go into the book as he cynically stopped Homan getting past him on the right. The resultant free-kick was well headed away by Reynolds but fell for Kelly to chest down and volley goalwards. His effort was on target until it was deflected up and wide of goal by the head of Westbrook. Kelly went across to the left to take the corner, and his curling delivery found the run and head of Towers only for the defender’s header to be thundered wide of the target.
Less than five minutes later, Diamonds took the lead. It began with a Kettering attack down the left that saw Kelly whip a cross into the middle, but Westbrook powerfully headed away and Farrell launched a long ball down the left. Hopkins battled with Kelly-Evans to reach the bouncing ball, and the home full-back pushed Hopkins over to concede a free-kick. Hicks took the kick short to Brown down the left wing, and his low cross in more bounced off Farrell and into the path of Nathan Hicks. The midfielder latched onto it and dinked a ball into the path of Punter, and the defender laid it back into the path of Hicks. It looked like he may hit a strike first time from the edge of the box, but he sold a dummy to Cunnington in taking a touch into the area and unleashing a shot towards the far corner with the outside of his foot. It travelled like an exocet across the despairing dive of White and into the far corner of the net. There were loud, superb, delirious and memorable celebrations amongst players and fans alike for Hicks’ first goal in a Diamonds shirt, and what a time it was to get it.
However, only 53 minutes had been played, and there was still a long way to go in the contest. Rushden were even more buoyed by the goal, and three minutes after the strike they launched another attack that drew a corner on the right. Hicks moved across to take it, and his delivery was flicked away by Kelly only as far as Farrell whose long-range strike flew well over the bar. The hosts responded and should have drawn level with their next attack. A long ball forward was flicked on by Cunnington for Hoenes to run onto, but Collard cleared away. Meikle controlled the loose ball on the left and drifted inside before crossing into the area. The ball was cushioned down neatly for Kelly who was free and just inside the area, but his snatched right-footed effort flew wide of the post rather than into the back of the net. A minute later a pass-back was played to White, and Lorraine bore down on him to apply pressure. The keeper flicked it to his right and easily could have been robbed of possession that would have resulted in a goal, but he got away with it as the striker fouled him.
The hour mark passed, and Diamonds still held a deserved lead. In the 64th minute they won a throw-in opportunity and, like in the first half, it caused danger. Brown’s delivery was initially headed away but only to Diamond, though his strike drifted comfortably wide of goal. Before the resulting goal-kick could be taken, the hosts made their first change as Cunnington was withdrawn to be replaced by ex-Rushden man Aaron O’Connor.
Moments later Heath went into the referee’s notebook and was given a yellow card for apparent time-wasting over a goal-kick, and moments later Kettering threatened an equaliser. O’Connor had added further mobility and a different outlet up front, and he was the one who had the opportunity. Meikle received a pass in the middle, and he powered forward before playing a ball towards O’Connor on the left of the box. Reynolds slid in to try and intercept but missed the ball, and O’Connor had a free run towards goal. He lashed a low effort across the face of the six-yard box, but it skidded past everyone and out for a goal-kick.
However, in their next attack, Kettering equalised. A lofted ball was played out to the left wing and Kelly, and he ran forward before cutting back onto his right foot and crossing into the area. Reynolds stabbed it away on the slide, but it ran straight to Lindon Meikle who feigned to shoot before side-stepping to his right and then striking an effort towards the far corner that Heath got a hand to but was unable to stop going into the back of the net.
The hosts now had their tails up, and their support was in loud voice as they sensed a victory. Two minutes after their leveller Meikle was involved again as he clipped a neat ball into the area, and it passed over Reynolds for Hoenes to latch onto. He was forced out of the area but played it across to Holman whose shot was blocked, and it ricocheted out to Richens who drove an effort comfortably wide of the post.
Moments later the hosts were given even more hope in finding a winner as Rushden were reduced to ten men. Lorraine flicked a long ball on only for Gary Stohrer to clear away upfield, but it ran straight for Westbrook. However, the midfielder totally missed his control and in his attempts to win the ball back he fouled Holman. Several Kettering players were quick to surround the referee, and he issued Westbrook with a second yellow card and a red card. From the resulting free-kick the danger was initially cleared, but Kettering pressed again and O’Connor received a pass before attempting to flick it into the path of the onrushing Meikle. Reynolds stabbed it away but only to Kelly, and he cut inside to hit a low goalbound effort that was deflected over by Collard. However, the referee deemed it to have come off Holman, and a goal-kick was given.
Two minutes later, just as the time hit the 80 minute mark, Kettering were reduced to ten men too. A long ball was played forward, but Collard read it well and cleared it up in the air. It broke to Farrell who stepped on the ball, and it ricocheted for both Collard and Richens to challenge for the ball. Collard slid in along the ground, but Richens launched himself into the tackle studs-up and came down into the defender’s thigh in a horrific challenge. The referee ran straight over and wasted no time in issuing the home man a red card, and so it was now ten versus ten.
The hosts continued to threaten though, and in the 85th minute Stohrer advanced down the left before turning back close to the byline and playing it back to Meikle. He controlled it and had time to look up before drilling a high ball across the area, but it was too heavy for any fellow home man and it drifted out for a goal-kick. That was to be the midfielder’s final action as he was then replaced by ex-Rushden man Brett Solkhon.
Diamonds were dropping deeper and deeper, and the home pressure continued. A move down the right saw the ball played inside to Kelly, and he weighed up a cross towards the back post and the arriving Solkhon. The covering Diamond did excellently to leap with the substitute and stop any header goalwards, but the loose ball dropped for the nearby Stohrer only for the defender to slash a wild effort over the bar. Rushden built a move down the other end, and Hicks did superbly well on the left to hold off a home challenge and to run inside before laying it into the path of Farrell. The midfielder’s eyes lit up, but his first-time strike rolled well wide of the post.
The regulation 90 minutes were up, and three minutes of stoppage time were signalled. Jack Bowen firstly replaced Lorraine and then Declan Rogers took the place of Diamond in two away substitutions. Not much action occurred in the first two of these, but in the final one there was to be late drama. Stohrer launched a lofted ball down the left wing for Holman to collect and move closer to the touchline. He took a moment, shifted the ball onto his right foot and curled a cross in towards the far post. The arriving Kelly-Evans leapt the highest and headed it across the area, and Rhys Hoenes was free to gleefully head home into the net from only yards out. Nearby defenders, including Collard, appealed for offside, and it did appear at the time and subsequently that the Kettering man had strayed beyond the final defender before finishing. However, the goal stood, and the hosts had a late, late winner.
There remained time for one final Diamonds chance as they seeked for an equaliser. They won a throw-in down the left after Hopkins was tackled, and Brown moved forward to hurl a delivery into the near post. It was headed away by Towers, but it fell for Hicks on the edge of the box. He caught his volley well and it looked like it may go on target, but it was blocked away by a charging home player. No sooner had Reynolds retrieved possession then the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the game, and to signal the end of an engrossing, absorbing and gripping contest.
Full Time: Kettering Town 2-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
It was a cruel and undeserved late twist that befell Diamonds, but they can be so proud of their efforts and their overall performance. Considering the opposition and their impressive individual talent such as Holman, Cunnington, O’Connor and Hoenes to name but a few, Diamonds more than matched Kettering throughout and had the better of several spells in the contest. They settled into the match well, kept things calm and composed, defended superbly against high-profile attackers, and threatened a title-hunting side on many occasions. When you take into account where Diamonds were seven years ago and where they are now, it truly does show a miraculous development that has continued to evolve this campaign too. Hicks’ goal and the ensuing reaction will live long in the memory for everyone involved with the club, but credit must go to the hosts for the way they reacted, fought back and grabbed the winner at the death. The desolation was evident to see amongst everyone associated with Rushden, but if there’s one stand-out trait that this club has shown through the years and this season is togetherness and the ability to respond to a setback and adversity. They will attempt to do the same again when they travel to face Hitchin Town on Saturday 5 January, 3:00pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Zack Reynolds
Attendance: 2,147 (591 Diamonds)
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Paul White
5. Gary Stohrer
6. Michael Richens (C)
7. Lindon Meikle
9. Dan Holman
11. Rhys Hoenes
12. Dion Kelly-Evans
14. Marcus Kelly
15. Declan Towers
19. Craig Stanley
20. Adam Cunnington
3. Ben Toseland
4. Brett Solkhon (for Meikle 85)
8. Aaron O’Connor (for Cunnington 64)
10. Ben Milnes
16. Luke Graham
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown (C)
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Alex Collard
6. Blaize Punter
7. Albie Hopkins
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Jack Bowen (for Lorraine 89)
14. Joe Curtis
15. Declan Rogers (for Diamond 90)
16. Matt Berry-Hargreaves
17. Nathan Pickworth
Goals: Meikle (71), Hoenes (90+3)
Goals: Hicks (53)
Yellow cards: None
Yellow cards: Westbrook (40, 78), Brown (49), Heath (68)
Red cards: Richens (80)
Red cards: Westbrook (78)
Referee: Robbie Dadley
Assistants: Richard Cutts, Joe Clarke