AFC Rushden & Diamonds were narrowly defeated by rivals Kettering Town despite a late, almost great comeback in the NFA Hillier Senior Cup First Round on Tuesday evening.
The hosts had more of the possession and territory in the early exchanges of the first period, with Liam Canavan seeing a shot blocked before Jordan Wilson hit the post from the edge of the area, with both Bleu McNeil and ex-RDFC man Aaron O’Connor then having their rebounds blocked. A much-changed Rushden side came more into the contest as the half wore on and should have taken the lead in the 18th minute when Nic Evangelinos released Taylor Orosz through on goal on the left side of the box but he fired wide of the far post. He then saw a near-post effort parried away before flashing a first-time shot wide of the back post, but the Poppies were the ones to take the lead when O’Connor span Aidan Bradshaw and fired an effort past Finlay and into the far corner of the net. Wilson saw a shot narrowly deflected over by Harris and then the resulting corner found James Haran to direct a header goalwards that Evangelinos was perfectly positioned to clear off the goal-line.
The second half begun with the opening ten minutes being rather quiet and low-key, but that would all change with two Kettering goals in two minutes. Firstly Wilson was able to pick up a loose ball, traverse the area and hit a low effort off the far post and into the net, and then moments later O’Connor’s shot was blocked away before it fell for Canavan to steer home on the edge of the area. The danger would have been for Diamonds to fold and concede further goals, but instead they found a way back into the contest when Sam Brown met a deep Evangelinos corner and headed down and into the back of the net. That goal quicky became a second one when a Bradshaw cross found a sliding Evangelinos, and he swiftly in turn picked himself up to cross for substitute Chris Wreh to tap home on the goal-line. Although the away side applied a lot of pressure and almost forced an own-goal from Lewis Hornby which would have resulted in a previously unprecedented penalty shoot-out, Rushden were unable to find an equaliser as the 2016 Champions of the competition bowed out at the first attempt.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks made six changes to the side that had earnt the memorable victory at Concord Rangers on Saturday. In came Aidan Bradshaw, new signing Rory Winters, James Harvey, Kyal McNulty, Taylor Orosz and Jon Stevenson in place of Jack Ashton, Liam Dolman, Nabil Shariff, Robbie Parsons, Tom Lorraine and Ross Oulton. This meant a new-look centre back pairing for the away side, with Brad Harris moving back to play alongside the new man Winters, and a first look at the striking partnership of Orosz and Stevenson who was making his first start of the campaign.
The two sides stepped out on the Latimer Park surface in confident mood, with the Poppies having won their last two fixtures and Diamonds being in the midst of a six-game unbeaten run which included five victories. With this being only the second time the two sides had met, and with the first time being Diamonds’ last-gasp win in the 2016 final of the competition, there was a keen sense of intrigue ahead of the contest as referee Ian Rathbone blew his whistle for the kick-off.
Kettering, one step above Diamonds in the Non-League pyramid, pushed forward immediately as they built a move down the left flank, and a neat ball through almost found the run of Jordan Wilson, but Matt Finlay was quick and able to race out to collect the ball. Then moments later, in the 3rd minute, a long throw-in from the right found the tall midfielder Liam Canavan whose flick-on could have been dangerous, though it ended up drifting away from ex-RDFC player Aaron O’Connor as he lurked at the back post.
The Poppies did have the better of possession and ball retention in the early exchanges, though Diamonds were defending strongly and not being particularly troubled by their opposing numbers. Another home move down the left saw an overlapping run by Dominic Langdon being found, and he in turn pulled the ball back for Canavan to hit a shot goalwards that Harris bravely blocked before it could trouble Finlay.
Rushden had their first opportunity to trouble their Southern Premier League hosts in the 8th minute, when an unfair challenge just past the halfway line gave them a free-kick. However, despite captain Richard Bunting’s kick being into the middle of the area, Poppies goalkeeper Jamie Dean was able to come out and catch the ball with confidence. A few midfield challenges and skirmishes, along with a few halts in play as niggly challenges were called up for fouls, lent itself to a slightly disjointed and stop-start opening fifteen minutes of the match.
That was all to change though in the sixteenth minute as the home side went inches away from taking the lead. Wilson was found on the right-wing, and he embarked on a direct and purposeful run infield. As he weighed up the supporting options around him he decided to have a shot at goal, and his low left-footed strike skidded along the surface and came back off the near post. The loose ball bounced out to advancing full-back Bleu McNeil whose rebound was blocked by Finlay, and the goalkeeper was quickly on his feet to stop another effort, this time by O’Connor, before Diamonds were able to clear away the danger.
Shortly afterwards Rushden created a good chance of their own in the 18th minute. A loose ball dropped to Nic Evangelinos around 30 yards from goal, and space opened up ahead for him to sprint into and to approach on the Kettering back-four. Taylor Orosz made an intelligent run to his left, and the winger picked out the striker to put the away number 9 through on goal. However, he was unable to hit the target with his effort across Dean as it went wide of the far post.
The Diamonds now began to impose themselves slightly more as an attacking force in the game as they started to harbour more possession and build more of a tempo. They earnt a corner on the right side, and Harvey’s high, hanging delivery to the back post was not convincingly palmed away by Dean, though the loose ball dropped to a Poppies player and was easily worked away upfield. Orosz then received the ball on the right as Rushden broke on the counter, and his cross in towards Stevenson found the diminutive striker but his effort was blocked behind for a corner. The set-piece was easily cleared, and it was Kettering’s turn to race up the other end before Wilson also saw a strike blocked away as it travelled towards goal.
The game was still lacking in clear-cut opportunities and a consistently high and quick tempo, though Kettering tried to change that with a swift move forward that was stopped by Diamonds and resulted in a throw-in on the left. A long-throw was hurled into the area, but the resulting Poppies header sailed harmlessly onto the roof of the net. Despite a much-changed Diamonds starting XI, the away side were working hard as one to shut down their opposing numbers and were making crucial interceptions and blocks when called upon. This was highlighted in the 32nd minute when a searching ball forward by Lewis Hornby for Kettering tried to release Wilson in behind Winters, but the tall defender intercepted well before Brown was able to clear the ball upfield.
The contest was now slightly end-to-end as both sides strived for the opening goal, and Diamonds were the next ones to create a couple of goalscoring chances. Firstly, ten minutes before half-time, the ball was played to Orosz on the right of the box, and he wasted no time in moving the ball out of his feet and cracking a shot at the near post that Dean beat away, and then minutes later the ever-willing forward chased onto a long ball in behind the home defence and quickly dispatched a shot across goal, but the effort flew wide of the far post.
And in their next attack the hosts took the lead. A period of pressure outside the Rushden area saw a ball fed into the left channel for Aaron O’Connor, and he was able to twist away from Bradshaw before firing a left-footed shot across Finlay into the far corner of the net. The attacker, who played for RDFC between 2009 and 2011, didn’t celebrate, and was still an example of what he can do despite recently dropping down a couple of divisions to join Kettering.
This signalled a period of home pressure and control as the half-time break neared. Canavan lofted a half-volleyed pass out to Wilson on the right in the 42nd minute, and he perfectly trapped the ball before whipping past Brown on the outside. His attempted shot across goal hit Harris, and although it could have deflected anywhere, fortunately for the Diamonds it dropped just over Finlay’s crossbar. The resultant corner from the left found an unmarked James Haran at the far post, but his header seemed to hit a Diamonds man just in front of him before Evangelinos headed it away close to the goal-line. Another corner followed, this time from the right side, and the dangerous delivery only just evaded a couple of onrushing Kettering players before being cleared.
There remained one half-chance of the opening period, and it fell for the Diamonds. Evangelinos and Harvey had swapped wings for the last ten minutes, and it was the former who popped up on the right flank to curl a cross in towards the far post. Dean punched the ball away but only as far as Brown on the edge of the box, and his return header saw Stevenson challenge with a defender before it dropped harmlessly wide of goal and out for a goal-kick.
Referee Rathbone then brought the first half’s proceedings to a close, with Kettering just about deserving their single goal advantage but with Diamonds having shown enough to suggest there was a way back into the game.
Half Time: Kettering Town 1-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The home side were back out onto the pitch a couple of minutes before the Diamonds ranks took to the field again, and no alterations had been made from either manager as Kettering kicked off to get the second 45 minutes underway.
Only two minutes of it had elapsed when Diamonds sprang onto the attack, with Evangelinos advancing forward and clipping a through ball looking for the run of Stevenson but the offside flag was raised against the striker. A couple of minutes later Kettering launched a foray forward of their own as they earnt a throw-in on the right, and though the long pitch into the box was headed clear, it dropped to the lurking Hornby who controlled and hit an effort that beat Finlay but glanced off the far post before running away to safety for Rushden.
Summer signing Evangelinos has shown Diamonds fans in recent weeks consistently good form and performances with his dynamic running, link-up play with the strikers and his hard-work, and he showcased another example of his strong running shortly after the Hornby chance by darting away from McNeil on a sprint down the left side. He then delivered a dangerous cross into the middle that required Langdon to head the ball away over his own crossbar, and the subsequent set-piece dropped for Harvey to loft a cross back in towards Orosz who missed his kick. The loose ball dropped for the original corner-taker McNulty, but he could only stub his effort and it dribbled wide of the near post.
That proved to be McNulty’s final involvement in the game as he was replaced by Tom Lorraine in a like-for-like substitution in the 54th minute. Before he could barely touch the ball though, Kettering doubled their lead. A neat move in midfield saw a quick ball slipped into the path of Jordan Wilson slightly to the right edge of the box, and he swiftly turned, traversed the area and stroked a left-footed effort towards the far post that clipped the upright on its way into the corner of the net.
Diamonds now knew they had a tough task ahead of them to get back into the contest, and the possibility of that outcome was made even tougher two minutes later when the Poppies added further to their lead. O’Connor received the ball and ran into the right side of the area to hit a shot that was blocked, but it only span to the edge of the box for Liam Canavan to curl a precise finish past Finlay to the keeper’s left side.
The game looked up for the visitors, and some thoughts even may have turned to making it a damage limitation exercise rather than trying to get back into the game quickly and risk being picked off on the counter-attack. However, and to give them their credit, Rushden didn’t let their heads go down despite the quick Kettering double-salvo, though the hosts could have scored again when Lorraine sent a weak backpass to Finlay which forced him to engage in a 50-50 challenge with O’Connor. The keeper went down, but thankfully for the Diamonds he was up by the time the resulting cross was headed away to McNeil and the keeper held the attempted dipping half-volley. Wilson then leapt for a right-wing corner at the back post, but he was put under pressure from Brown as he jumped and therefore the header flashed well over the crossbar.
Andy Peaks responded to this period of home pressure by making another substitution, this time with Jon Stevenson leaving the pitch to be replaced by Chris Wreh. The powerful and strong front-man hadn’t even been on the pitch for five minutes when Diamonds managed to grab a goal back. A corner was won on the left wing, and Evangelinos stepped up to curl a tempting delivery into the back post where a completely unmarked Sam Brown was able to head the ball down for it to bounce into the net despite an attempt to hack it off the line. The goal was only the fifth that the full-back had notched in his entire Diamonds career, but it was a very important one to give the away fans some hope.
This could have easily proved scant consolation, but Rushden used the goal as a springboard to up the ante and increase the pressure on the home defence as the momentum of the tie, and especially the second half, began to change. Wreh cut in from the right side shortly after Brown’s goal, and spotting the forward run of Lorraine he flicked a ball through towards the advancing white shirt but it just ran away from him and Dean was able to collect. Wreh was involved again when he was very close to being released through the middle, but again the attempted pass through was slightly overhit and the chance was gone. Slightly before this the second new signing that had been announced before the game, Jordan Holmes, came on in place of James Harvey in Diamonds’ final alteration.
The away side clearly had the bit between their teeth and evidently sensed the opportunity of another goal, and in the 73rd minute they had just that. A precise flick out to the overlapping Bradshaw on the right flank saw the full-back drill the ball towards the back post, and Evangelinos slid in with McNeil as the ball squirmed forward. The winger was first to reach the loose ball, and he squeezed a cross past Dean for Chris Wreh to force home virtually on the goal-line.
From Kettering appearing to be in cruise control to Diamonds being right back into the contest in the space of five second-half minutes really was a remarkable switch in impetus and had completely altered the set-up of the rest of the game. Now Kettering were beginning to drop deeper and attempting to hit their opponents on the break, whilst Rushden players and fans alike started to believe in the real possibility of forcing a draw and ultimately penalties. A couple of minutes after Wreh’s goal the striker, who had made an influential impact on the contest right from his arrival onto the pitch, latched onto a Lorraine flick following a Brown long-throw, but the following header was high up into the air and Dean was able to jump to catch the ball relatively comfortably.
Despite the rise in confidence and tempo from the visitors, the hosts did well to take the sting out of the tie over the next ten minutes as they worked possession well when they had it at their feet, though everytime Diamonds won the ball back they were straight onto the front foot and looked dangerous. In the 83rd minute Lorraine received a throw from Holmes, and though he had two red-shirted men close to him he bullied his way past them both to sprint into the right side of the area. He looked up and tried to pull it back for a waiting Diamonds man, but Hornby in his attempt to intercept saw the ball cannon off him and required the goalkeeper to dive and claim the ball to his right.
It was no doubt and no coincidence that after Wreh entered the field of action the Diamonds kickstarted their attempted comeback, and the number 16’s close touch and direct running were on show again as he drove inside from the right and intelligently spotted the curving run of Evangelinos on the left, but the pass ran away from the winger and Dean collected. Four minutes of additional time was added on by the referee, and in the first of these Diamonds won a corner on the right that was drifted right onto the top of the goalkeeper, but any chance of an attacking header was quashed by the referee’s whistle for a foul by Wreh on Dean.
Kettering, in the last ten minutes especially, had seemed more content with keeping the ball rather than attempting to make the most of Diamonds’ now limited defensive numbers, though they did fashion one chance when a throw-in on the left was eventually worked to substitute Henry Limpitishi who dragged his shot wide of the near post.
There proved to be one final opportunity for the visitors to find a leveller and send the game to penalties, and it was the last move of the game as Finlay launched a long free-kick deep into the Kettering half for Lorraine to out-jump a defender and flick it on into the area. Orosz looked to latch onto it and looked like for a moment that he might, but the ball skipped away from the Diamonds man and ran straight through for Dean to gratefully hold onto. The final whistle was blown seconds later to confirm Kettering’s passage to the quarter-finals and to end Diamonds’ hopes of retaining the Cup, but just as in the tie between the two teams back in May the game was a very entertaining one and positives will be taken by both sides.
Full Time: Kettering Town 3-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Though the Diamonds found themselves 3-0 behind after less than an hour of this contest, they hadn’t played badly up to this point by any means and the proverbial towel could have easily been thrown in after Canavan’s strike. However, they rallied and changed the complexity of the match by forcing the issue which resulted in two goals being earnt back, and come the end of the game it was clear to see how relived Kettering players and fans alike were to hear the full-time whistle. Though Rushden’s six-game unbeaten run and the chance of winning the competition for the second year running ended here, confidence and positives can naturally be drawn from the entire game, but especially the last 30 minutes, for what was a slightly experimental side, and the performance level meant the team wasn’t overawed by a side who play one step higher than them in the Non-League pyramid. Diamonds return to Northern Premier First Division South action on Saturday when they entertain up-to-now unbeaten, second-placed Shaw Lane AFC at the Dog & Duck (3pm kick-off).
Diamonds Man of the Match (chosen by Match Reporter): Nic Evangelinos
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Jamie Dean
2. Bleu McNeil
3. Dominic Langdon (C)
4. Anthony Howell
5. James Haran
6. Paul Malone
7. Aaron O’Connor
8. Lewis Hornby
9. Jordan Wilson
10. Liam Canavan
11. Kaid Mohamed
12. Ben Baker
14. James Brighton
15. Ethan Lee (for Haran 62)
16. Henry Limpitishi (for Wilson 70)
17. Paul White
17. Matt Finlay
2. Aidan Bradshaw
3. Sam Brown
4. Rory Winters
5. Brad Harris
6. Richard Bunting (C)
7. James Harvey
8. Kyal McNulty
9. Taylor Orosz
10. Jon Stevenson
11. Nic Evangelinos
12. Jordan Holmes (for Harvey 70)
13. Joseph Haynes
14. Robbie Parsons
15. Tom Lorraine (for McNulty 54)
16. Chris Wreh (for Stevenson 64)
Goals: O’Connor (38), Wilson (55), Canavan (57)
Goals: Brown (68), Wreh (73)
Yellow Cards: None
Yellow Cards: None
Referee: Ian Rathbone
Assistants: Sam Anderson, Wayne Bright