Diamonds romped to a fantastic and comprehensive away success at fifth-placed Leiston on Saturday afternoon.
They got off to the best possible start in only the second minute when Albie Hopkins capitalised on a goalkeeping mistake to slam the ball home from close-range. Leiston responded by seeing more of the ball but, aside from a Robert Eagle strike that went just wide, they struggled to create clear-cut opportunities. Diamonds were keeping the ball well and attacking with menace and pace, and they doubled their advantage in the 31st minute when Tom Lorraine rose highest to meet a deep free-kick and power a header past the stranded keeper. The keeper had to go off injured soon afterwards, and this contributed to five minutes of additional time at the end of the half. In the third of these the hosts pulled one back when, after Jake Reed had been fouled just outside the area, Christy Finch stepped up to whip a superb effort past the wall and Ben Heath in the Diamonds goal to reduce the arrears just before the interval.
That goal could have demoralised Diamonds and could have led them to dropping deep and protecting what they had in the second half, but it had the completely opposite effect as they went on to control the game. Lorraine had a shot saved when through on goal, and Declan Rogers and Hopkins were just denied by a a block and a last-ditch clearance in the same move. Leiston had one good chance when a striker put a free close-range header wide, and Rushden punished this by extending their advantage in the 79th minute. A pinpoint deep cross into the area was met by Ben Diamond at the far post, and his header found the back of the net to give the visitors some breathing space. There was even time to add the cherry on top of the cake when Hopkins, who was a constant threat, was brought down when through on goal, and Ben Farrell stepped up to comfortably convert the resulting spot-kick. This confirmed Diamonds’ second straight league victory, consolidated their third place position in the table, and capped an excellent week for the club.
Manager Andy Peaks made two changes to the side that had overcome Halesowen on Tuesday evening, and both alterations came in the centre of defence. Liam Dolman was still injured, Jack Ashton had picked up an injury and had not recovered in time, Blaize Punter was unavailable and Jack Westbrook began his three game suspension for his recent red card against Banbury. Therefore, with a shortage of centre-halves, two signings in the form of Alex Collard (from Kempston Rovers) and Matt Berry-Hargreaves (on a youth loan from Oxford United) had been made on Friday, and they were both named in the starting XI. Fellow new signing Sam Johnson, a winger from Kempston, was named amongst the substitutes alongside Nathan Pickworth, Rhys Kelly, Joe Curtis and John Dean.
The two sides took to a wet Victory Road playing surface, the result of persistent rain throughout the day, and an intriguing clash between two sides currently occupying play-off positions was set up. Leiston came into the contest fifth in the table and were the only side to have defeated league leaders Kettering Town so far this season, but they had been rather inconsistent of late with three defeats in their last five league fixtures. Diamonds were third in the table following their 2-0 win on Tuesday night but, though they had won their each of their last four home games, they hadn’t won any of their last four away matches. After both sets of players had shaken hands and the referee Thomas Hancock had conducted the coin-toss with the two captains, a minute’s silence was held for Leiston board member who had sadly passed away on Monday. The whistle was then blown to begin the contest.
Less than two minutes had passed when Diamonds took the lead. Declan Rogers almost got through into a shooting position, but the home keeper Marcus Garnham made a mistake which allowed the nearby Albie Hopkins to sweep home into the back of the net. It was the winger’s first goal since mid October, and made for a perfect start for the visitors.
Diamonds kept up the pressure, and a few minutes later they won a free-kick that Rogers struck towards goal. Garnham made the save, but needed two attempts to collect the ball. After ten minutes Leiston began to see more of the ball as they built possession in their attempts to get back into the game but, aside from one promising move that freed Jake Reed only for the front-man to be adjudged offside, they struggled to truly threaten the visitors’ new defensive partnership and the goal.
They did create an opening in the 19th minute when Robert Eagle received the ball on the edge of the box in space, but his resulting shot flew just wide of the post. The early exchanges had been well contested and competitive as both sides looked to gain an edge over the other, and a few minutes after Eagle’s chance Diamonds received another advantage. Hopkins and Sam Brown combined neatly down the left, and the full-back’s eventual cross was collected by Garnham. However, in doing so he appeared to have injured his right foot, though he attempted to carry on to begin with.
Shortly after, Diamonds extended their lead. Tom Lorraine was fouled in the middle of the pitch, and the offending home man wasn’t punished by the referee for doing so. Punishment was served from the resulting free-kick though as the deep delivery into the area found Lorraine who leapt highest, and the header flew past the stranded keeper and into the back of the net. It was the striker’s tenth goal of the campaign, and strengthened Diamonds’ grip on the contest.
It was evident soon afterwards that Garnham would be unable to continue, so defender Joe Jefford donned the gloves and Harry Knight came on to fill the gap in defence. Not much time remained until the half-time interval, and in the 40th minute a home attack down the right led to a dangerous cross being fired in, but the ensuing effort was blazed over the crossbar.
Five minutes were added on at the end of the half, and it appeared Diamonds would head into the break in a commanding position and two goals to the good. However, that was changed in the third of the additional minutes when Reed was brought down on the edge of the box. Christy Finch stood over the ball, and on the referee’s whistle stepped forward and curled a sumptuous effort past the helpless Ben Heath in the Diamonds goal and into the back of the net.
That was the final action of the half, a 45 minutes where Diamonds had clinically taken their chances to forge into the lead before Leiston pulled one back to set up an intriguing second period.
Half Time: Leiston FC 1-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The half-time chatter largely focused on if Leiston’s goal had changed the complexion of the game, and what Diamonds’ approach to the second half would be with only the single goal advantage now. The players soon returned to the pitch and, after a quick count of both sets of players, the referee got the match back underway.
Just like in the opening half, the visitors made a quick start and won a free-kick in a threatening position only two minutes in. Lorraine was the one who was fouled, and Rogers’ subsequent delivery saw Ben Farrell get in front of his marker, but the midfielder was unable to direct his header on target and the chance went begging. Shortly afterwards Lorraine was involved again as he broke the offside trap to be played in on goal, but Jefford stayed big to save the effort and keep his side only one goal behind.
Any sign of Leiston being buoyed by their goal and then putting concerted pressure on the away side in their search for an equaliser hadn’t materialised, and Rushden were instead the ones who had begun the half well. Their interplay had been very neat and tidy, and one such interchange down the left won a corner only for the set-piece to be well cleared.
The hour mark had just passed when Brown was sent crashing to the surface by a strong home tackle, and that led to a number of players from both sides running to the action and some pushing and shoving also. After it had all calmed down the referee booked Leiston’s Kyle Hammond and Finch, and play was restarted. Minutes later ex-RDFC man Ashley Nicholls was also booked for the hosts, this time for a foul on the ever-dangerous Hopkins.
Still Diamonds looked the most likely to score the next goal despite Leiston trailing and having to chase the game, and with twenty minutes of normal time to go Hopkins made a quick break from the halfway line before reaching the area. Just as he was about to pull the trigger, however, the ball was taken off him by a well-timed slide tackle. Two minutes later they had a great chance to re-establish their two goal lead when they broke dangerously in numbers, and Hopkins and Rogers both had attempts that were somehow blocked away, with Lorraine also failing to turn the ball home from close-range. In the next attack the striker fed Hopkins, but the Oxford United loanee’s effort was deflected just wide by a covering defender.
Leiston then made an attacking substitution in the 75th minute, and moments later they created their best chance to draw level. A long ball into the box found a home man completely free, but he totally missed his header and Diamonds were let off the hook. Three minutes later play swung down the other end with Hopkins and Rogers linking up nicely, but the latter’s shot was blocked away.
They didn’t have to wait much longer though to score the all-important next goal of the contest. An excellent cross into the area saw two Diamonds men queuing up at the far post to convert, and Ben Diamond was the one who headed past the keeper and into the back of the net. It was the striker’s sixth goal of the season, and one that looked like it may seal the three points for the Diamonds.
If there was any doubt about that at all, they were laid to rest in the 83rd minute when Rushden won a penalty. Hopkins, as he had been so often in the game, broke through after a powerful and purposeful run, and the only way to stop him was by bringing him down which is exactly what a Leiston defender did. After his successful penalty at Lowestoft a week ago, Ben Farrell stepped up again and coolly slotted home the spot-kick for his third goal in his last three games, and to put further gloss on the scoreline.
There was time for the visitors to use their full quota of substitutions as Joe Curtis, John Dean and new Sam Johnson all were introduced, but there was little further action with Leiston knowing the game was up and Diamonds knowing they just had to see the time out to confirm the win.
Alas they did, and after a few minutes of stoppage-time the referee blew to signal the end of the game. It had been a match in which Diamonds had been bright, effective and clinical throughout, and one where they deservedly claimed the three points.
Full Time: Leiston FC 1-4 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
This represented a perfect day and superb victory for the Diamonds. They looked dangerous from the get-go, defended calmly and strongly, kept the ball well, attacked with pace and power, and ultimately showed a ruthless edge in taking their chances. They could have easily been negatively affected by the home goal on the cusp of half-time, but they kept up their high performance level and when they were threatened in defence, Collard and Berry-Hargreaves showed a level of maturity and defensive nous that made them appear they had played alongside each other for a long time rather than this being their first game together. The result strengthens Diamonds’ third place position in the table and, coupled with Leiston being one of the pre-season favourites for promotion, is yet another indicator of how well Rushden have taken to life in their new surroundings. Their next match sees them on the road to another team in the play-off places, Alvechurch FC, in Worcestershire on Saturday 8 December, 15:00pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Albie Hopkins
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Marcus Garnham
2. Kyle Hammond
3. Seb Dunbar
4. Ashley Nicholls
5. Joe Jefford
6. Tom Bullard (C)
7. Byron Lawrence
8. Matt Rutterford
9. Jake Reed
10. Christy Finch
11. Robert Eagle
12. Matt Blake (for Rutterford 75)
14. Patrick Brothers (for Nicholls 80)
15. William Davies
16. George Keys
17. Harry Knights (for Garnham 37)
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown (C)
4. Matt Berry-Hargreaves
5. Alex Collard
6. Declan Rogers
7. Albie Hopkins
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. John Dean (for Lorraine 88)
14. Joe Curtis (for Hicks 86)
15. Sam Johnson (for Hopkins 88)
16. Rhys Kelly
17. Nathan Pickworth
Goals: Finch (45+3)
Goals: Hopkins (2), Lorraine (31), Diamond (79), Farrell (pen 85)
Yellow Cards: Hammond (61), Finch (62), Nicholls (69)
Yellow Cards: None
Referee: Thomas Hancock
Assistants: Gavin Jolly, Christopher Darling