The Diamonds completed their pre-season programme by staging a late fightback to earn a 2-2 draw from their trip to face Lutterworth Athletic.
After making changes in midfield in midweek, Mark Starmer introduced another triallist in central midfield, with Sean McBride starting alongside George Cox. Sam Brown had recovered from his knock to start at left-back, with Joe Merrill completing the back four alongside Hope and McDonald. Triallist Jordan Pendered was given a second opportunity to play wide left, with Wisniewski on the right, and Ellwood and Taylor up front. With Quincy Shorunmu still recovering from his injury, James Broadbent once again played in goal, but Peter Okechukwu had to spectate from the sidelines once more as he recovers from the injury picked up in the Peterborough XI game.
As the teams took to the field the fans at the neat and welcoming stadium were treated to a display by a Vulcan bomber that was taking part in a nearby Airshow.
On a pleasant August afternoon, the game started brightly, with the home side creating the better chances, and Broadbent the busier keeper. The best Diamonds chance in the first period when Chris Hope got his head on a corner and forced a flying save from the home keeper.
Apart from a couple of misplaced efforts from the Diamonds strikers, it was Athletic who were controlling the game, being prepared to build from defence, and allow time for their forward players to get into good positions to run past the Diamonds defence onto well-placed through balls. This created several opportunities which James Broadbent did really well to thwart, but he could do nothing about the opportunity that fell to Danny Laywood after 39 minutes. Joe Merrill was always willing to get forwards to support the Diamonds midfield, and one such run saw him surge forwards and feed the ball to Jack Wisniewski and then almost get onto a return pass. However, as he ran back to retake his place in the back-line the hosts broke forwards, and although he had stepped up to attempt to play Laywood offside, the back four weren’t properly lined up, and thus the offside trap was sprung leaving Laywood free to run in on goal, sidestep the onrushing Broadbent and slot home to give Athletic a deserved 1-0 lead.
There was still time at the end of the half for the Diamonds strikeforce to waste further chances, with Taylor showing good control and skill to control a long ball and wrongfoot a defender but his left foot effort was sliced wide. A ball through the middle by Sean McBride presented Jordan Pendered with a chance to run through between the two centre backs, but he too shot wide, and then Taylor dragged another effort wide just before the interval.
Half-Time: Lutterworth Athletic 1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0
Although the hosts had taken a lead, they did not desert their principles of playing the ball out from defence, but the early stages of the half saw a more determined Diamonds rob the ball from them in dangerous positions. Alfie Taylor set up Jordan Pendered with an early chance which he dwelt on, allowing a defender to get back and concede a corner. The low corner saw Chris Hope and Deven Ellwood both just failing to get in a shot with the ball coming to them at an awkward height.
Joe Merrill was continuing to get forwards, and he shot wide from a good position, and then Taylor robbed a home defender to set up Wisniewski who saw a shot blocked. Taylor then made a good run past his marker, but didn’t quite manage to shield the ball from the covering defender who was able to force the ball away before the Diamonds striker got in an attempt on goal.
Although the hosts were far less of an attacking threat in the second period, they managed to convert the sort of chance that they hadn’t capitalised on in the first half, when Ben Laxton found space in the left channel, sidestepped two challenges before firing home an excellent second goal.
The Diamonds continued to press, and create chances, notably from corners and long throws from Sam Brown, but it looked like being one of those days where every chance was no more than a half-chance, and none of them were being converted, as first Hope and then Wisniewski went close.
Mark Starmer started to change things around, the first couple of substitutions meaning Joe Merrill was pushed forwards as Jamie O’Grady took his place at right back, with Jordan Pendered leaving the field along with Deven Ellwood who was replaced by Ben Morgan,
As well as some lack-lustre finishing by the Diamonds, the home keeper also played his part with a smart save from Alfie Taylor, and Taylor looked to have over-extended himself when taking the shot, and had to leave the field a few minutes later, with the versatile Jake Gillingwater taking his place in attack. Elliot Dent then replaced Jack Wisniewski, with Chris Hope making way for Alex Deakin, but once again the sequence of substitutions was affected by a Diamonds injury, as Sam Brown felt a knock after a heavy challenge, and Louis Smith took his place, meaning that Merrill had to move back into the back four, this time at left back. Smith had already played 45 minutes in the earlier youth team game.
The rejigged Diamonds line-up immediately started to take advantage of a tiring home defence, and after 80 minutes they were awarded a penalty when Ben Morgan made one of his trademark runs on goal and was hauled down. Although it looked clearly inside the penalty area, the referee appeared unsure, but after consulting his linesman he awarded the spot kick, which Ben Morgan fired confidently into the left corner of goal on 81 minutes.
Merrill continued to show both energy and determination, and another run saw him get on the end of a Morgan cross, but his effort was too close to the keeper. Jake Gillingwater was revelling in a role he had played earlier in his career, and as he picked up the ball on the right he ran forcefully at the defence, and with no easy options he fired a powerful shot which struck the right hand post.
Just as it looked like the hosts might hold out, the Diamonds won a corner on the right, and it appeared both Gillingwater and Morgan got a slight touch to present Alex Deakin the chance to slot the ball home and earn the Diamonds a draw.
This was certainly one of the more testing pre-season games, against a side who had already started their league season. Mark Starmer will be looking at why his side allowed the home side their domination in the first half, and at the poor finishing before the late recovery, but he will have been pleased with the spirit shown in the late fightback.
Full-Time: Lutterworth Athletic 2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2
There is now a week before the Diamonds historic first game as a senior team in the ChromaSport and Trophies United Counties League Division One, when Thrapston Town visit the Dog and Duck.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ben Morgan
Attendance: Approx 150
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Ben Morgan (for Ellwood 66)
Jamie O’Grady (for Pendered 66)
Jake Gillingwater (for Taylor 72)
Alex Deakin (for Hope 73)
Elliot Dent (for Wisniewski 73)
Louis Smith (for Brown 77)
Danny Laywood (36)
Ben Laxton (56)
Ben Morgan (81 pen)
Alex Deakin (88)
Cards : None
Cards : None
Images courtesy of Mal Swinden