AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 Hednesford Town FC

Diamonds began life under Andy Burgess’ interim role with a narrow victory over Hednesford Town at Hayden Road.

The first half was very tight with the visitors having more of the ball, but both sides struggled to create clear-cut opportunities. Away defender Harvey Portman had a header deflected narrowly wide, Riley O’Sullivan was denied by a good Dean Snedker save and George Cater drilled a strike over from range. In response Rushden striker Shane Bush had an effort on-the-turn blocked and Nathan Tshikuna’s inviting cross from the left narrowly missed Alex Collard at the back post.

Home full-back Sam Warburton almost struck within minutes of the second period, but his long-range attempt was tipped behind. Hednesford Town sub Chay Tilt was then released through on goal, but Snedker made a crucial stop to keep the score level. Rushden looked more dangerous when Will Jones and Jesse Akubuine were introduced, and the increased pressure led to the only goal of the match when captain Collard powerfully headed home an inswinging corner. Paddy Casey vitally cleared off the line in the last minute, but Diamonds held on for a crucial win that consolidates fifth place in the table.

First half

Burgess made just one change in his first line-up to the side that had beaten Barwell two weeks before. Shane Bush started up front in place of the departing Ty Deacon, and there was a return amongst the substitutes for Jesse Akubuine.

Since that last match, it had been an eventful fortnight for Diamonds with manager Andy Peaks leaving for Tamworth and top-scorer Deacon joining Kettering. They entered the contest fifth in the table having won their last three at Hayden Road without conceding, and they’d emerged victorious in seven of their previous nine matches in the league. Hednesford sat 9th in the table and had been unbeaten in six prior to losing their last game.

It was the hosts who fashioned the first opening when captain Alex Collard met a deep Sam Warburton free-kick, but his glancing header ran well wide of the post. Hednesford, nicknamed The Pitmen, responded with a set-piece of their own as a corner on the right found Harvey Portman whose header was deflected just past the upright. The next corner then resulted in a free header at the back post, but it also went off-target.

Further half-chances were traded as, firstly, Bush latched onto a Warburton long-throw before his shot-on-the-turn was blocked away, and away man George Cater then got into the area only to be denied by a sliding Warburton block. Chances in the first half were at a premium though, with the visitors having more possession and danger but not creating a huge amount.

Snedker was forced into a good save after half-an-hour when striker Riley O’Sullivan battled his way into space before seeing a deflected effort well stopped by the Rushden keeper. Moments before that, the home side won a corner that Nathan Tshikuna delivered to the back post for Collard. However, the defender’s towering leap just missed the ball and it ran out for a goal-kick.

One final opening of the half was created when, a minute before the interval, Cater picked up a loose ball on the left before cutting inside and striking just over from around 30 yards out.

Half time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0-0 Hednesford Town

Second half

The second half was only a couple of minutes old when Diamonds created their best chance of the game. It came out of nowhere as Warburton intercepted a pass and strode forwards before hitting a low effort towards goal from range. It almost caught away keeper Joe O’Shaughnessy out but he got across just in time to tip it round the post.

Two minutes later, The Pitmen fashioned an excellent opportunity themselves. Substitute Chay Tilt had been introduced in the opening period after Andre Landell was forced off with an injury, and he was played through on goal with a precise pass. He steadied himself before attempting to curl it into the far corner, but Snedker read his intentions and remained big to make a crucial stop.

Just after the hour mark, Burgess made his first two changes as he introduced Will Jones and Akubuine in place of Bush and George. It seemed to give the hosts more energy and impetus as they pressed Hednesford, and one such example saw them win a corner. Ben Diamond and then Liam Dolman got their heads on it, but the visitors were able to clear the danger.

However, from the next home set-piece, Diamonds took the lead. They won a corner on the right which Furlong whipped to the back post, and there was Alex Collard who towered above his marker to power a header past O’Shaughnessy and into the net.

They almost extended their advantage when Tshikuna was pulled back 30 yards from goal, and the attacking midfielder’s subsequent free-kick was on target but easy for the keeper to collect. Matt Slinn was then brought on to shore up the midfield and to see out the victory.

There remained one last chance for the visitors to get a point, and they came millimetres away from doing so. A cross from the right dropped for O’Sullivan who showed good strength and stubbed an effort past the diving Snedker, but Paddy Casey was perfectly placed to clear off the line and preserve Rushden’s lead.

That proved the final action as, following three minutes of additional time, the full-time whistle was signalled to confirm a vital three points.

Full time: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1-0 Hednesford Town

This was the ideal response to the events of the last two weeks, with Diamonds not playing brilliantly but showing great character and spirit to take their chance and emerge victorious. They defended well and Snedker made a couple of crucial saves as Rushden claimed their fourth successive home clean sheet, and the win also maintains their current position in the play-off places.

Their next match sees them travel to Bedfordshire to take on bottom-side Biggleswade Town in the rearranged clash on Tuesday 1 March, 7.45pm kick-off.

Diamonds Man of the Match: Alex Collard

Attendance: 478

Match report by Ollie Mortimer

Diamonds: Snedker, Casey, Warburton, Bell-Toxtle, Dolman, Collard (C), Tshikuna (Slinn 86), Diamond, Bush (Jones 64), George (Akubuine 64), Furlong (subs not used: Hughes, Snelus)

Diamonds goals: Collard (75)

Hednesford: Joe O’Shaughnessy, Wesley Atkinson, Carter Lycett, Harvey Portman, Lewis Ludford-Ison, Reece Flanagan, George Cater, Todd Parker, Riley O’Sullivan, Lewis Hayden (Kyle Bennett 76), Andre Landell (Chay Tilt 38) (Numain Rashad 84) (subs not used: Joshua Endall, Rhys Williams)