Ben Farrell struck an 89th minute penalty to seal a dramatic and fully deserved victory at fellow play-off hopefuls Nuneaton on Saturday afternoon.
Diamonds dominated large swathes of the game with their quick, incisive and attacking football that threatened on numerous occasions. They created two great chances in the opening five minutes when, firstly, Nabil Shariff had a header tipped over from point-blank range, and then Ben Acquaye headed over when completely free at the far post. The winger then flashed a free-kick just wide from the edge of the area, and Shariff had a rolling effort held after another swift break. Miles Addison had the host’s best chance of the half when he headed a corner wide of the near post, but Rushden always looked the more threatening and did just about everything apart from score.
Nuneaton made two changes at the break and, though they initially started quick, Diamonds soon resumed their dominance. Greg Kaziboni headed wide after being picked out superbly by Acquaye, Shariff glanced a corner that was cleared off the line, and then the striker span in the box before seeing a shot parried away to Jesse Akubuine whose rebound was deflected agonisingly wide of the post. There were a few nervy moments down the other end, particularly when a low cross in beat Ben Heath but not Patrick Casey who superbly and crucially cleared away. Shariff had another chance when he was fed through on goal only for the striker to shoot over, and they were almost made to pay for it when home substitute Jamie Towers had a header goalwards that Heath clawed away. It looked as if the game would end goalless, and that Diamonds’ dominance wouldn’t be rewarded, but that changed when Acquaye was brought down in the area. Ben Farrell stepped up to calmly slot the spot-kick into the corner of the net to spark jubilant scenes amongst the travelling support behind the goal. They then survived over seven minutes of stoppage time to earn a crucial victory, one that puts them even closer to the play-off places.
Manager Peaks made two changes to the starting XI that had started the dramatic late draw at home to Hednesford in midweek. Zack Reynolds returned after missing the last couple of games and, with Jack Ashton unavailable for this contest, he would begin at full-back allowing Patrick Casey to take up the vacant centre-half slot. Greg Kaziboni also came back into the team, and Ben Acquaye’s suspension after his red card last time out hadn’t begun, which meant he took his place in a 4-3-3 formation.
Diamonds came into the contest seventh in the table, two points off the play-off places. They were still unbeaten in 2020, having won four and drawn one of their matches in this calendar year, and they had only lost one of their last ten in the division. Nuneaton had been one of the pre-season favourites for promotion after suffering relegation from the National League North last campaign, but they had only won one of their last five in the league. However, they had only lost two home league matches all season and had the second best home record in the division which had helped them to only five points off the top five. Three points and three places separated the two play-off chasers prior to kick-off, and so anticipation was high when referee Matthew Scholes got the match underway.
Only four minutes had elapsed when Rushden fashioned their first of many good opportunities in the match. Reynolds found room on the right to step forward and whip an inviting delivery into the middle, and Nabil Shariff was completely free to head at goal from point-blank range. However, home keeper Tony Breeden stretched an arm out above him to tip the header onto the roof of the net. After the corner was cleared, the visitors launched another attack down the right wing. Kaziboni did brilliantly to lift a cross towards the far post, and this time Acquaye was unmarked only for his header to fly over the bar.
Two gilt-edged opportunities inside the opening five minutes might have acted as a wake-up call to the hosts, but instead Diamonds continued the pressure and won a free-kick right on the edge of the area after Shariff was brought down. Liam Dolman and Acquaye were closest to the dead-ball, and it was the latter who stepped up to flash a stinging effort that left Breeden rooted to the spot. However, the strike flew past the upright. Jesse Akubuine was then booked for halting Nuneaton’s first break forward of the contest, but play swung down the other end soon afterwards as Kaziboni jinked down the left before playing a cross into the middle. Shariff latched on it but, after swiftly sorting his feet put, his eventual attempt was easy for Breeden to collect.
All these away chances had occurred before 15 minutes, and it proved how quick Diamonds had begun the game. They were hungry, quick to press their opposing numbers, spread the play well on a wide surface, and attacked with a pace and verve that the hosts struggled to handle. Nuneaton did fashion their chance in the 17th minute when a cross from the right was headed away, but only as far as midfielder Jordan Goddard who lashed a strike over Ben Heath’s goal.
After the frenetic opening, the game understandably settled down as both sides looked to strike the first blow in a game of high stakes. The hosts sprung an attack that resulted in a lobbed cross from the left that Dolman crucially headed away, and Rushden countered through Shariff and Acquaye. The striker played the winger in down the left, but he was eventually crowded out. A minute later Kaziboni latched onto a defensive mistake and attempted to slide Acquaye in on goal, but the offside flag was raised against the Rushden number seven.
Shortly before the half-hour mark, the home side created their best chance of the half. They won a corner on the right, and the ensuing delivery found the run of ex-Derby man Miles Addison charging in at the near post. However, his flashing header went wide of the post. Diamonds won a corner of their own shortly afterwards and, though the delivery was initially headed up in the air, it dropped for Shariff to attempt an ambitious overhead kick that flashed comfortably wide of Breeden’s goal.
The rest of the half, apart from a set-piece opportunity for either side that was well cleared by the opponents’ defence and treatment being required for one player apiece, passed by without any real action of note. Scholes blew the half-time whistle to call time on a half where Diamonds had completely dominated in the opening 20 minutes, but where Nuneaton had come back into it for the rest of the half without really threatening.
Half time: Nuneaton Borough 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Home manager Jimmy Ginnelly made two substitutions at the break, which clearly showed how he had felt about his side’s first half display. After the whistle had been blown to start the second period, one of these substitutes, Nigel Julien, stepped forward from right-back only for his strike from distance to sail well wide of the post. Casey then did brilliantly to shepherd a home attacker away from goal and win a free-kick in the meantime. Moments later, Nuneaton won a free-kick of their own on the edge of the area, but Rhys Sharpe hit a curling effort that went comfortably over the bar.
The hosts had started the half well and it appeared that it may be a much more even half with the game still well in the balance, but Diamonds began to get back on top. In the 53rd minute they created another excellent chance when Acquaye did superbly to get down the left before standing up an inviting cross to the far post. It found Kaziboni in space, but the winger’s header flashed wide of the post. In their next attack Shariff was almost through on goal, but Breeden came out to clear the ball in the nick of time.
Kaziboni and Shariff, along with Acquaye, were menaces to the home side throughout with their fluid movement and their ability to run with the ball at pace. The former two threatened again just before the hour mark when, firstly, Kaziboni was almost found at the back post after a great cross in, but the defender got back to head it out for a corner. The resulting delivery found Shariff in the six-yard box, but his glancing header was agonisingly headed off the line and the danger cleared upfield.
The hour mark passed, and the attendance was announced as 654 – a marked increase on the hosts’ home league average of 511 so far this campaign. Diamonds continued to force the issue and look dangerous everytime they attacked, and in the 64th minute they came close again. Reynolds advanced well down the right and fed a pass into the box for Shariff, and he span brilliantly to generate space on his left foot. His effort was parried away, but only as far as Akubuine whose goalbound effort was deflected. It wrong-footed Breeden and flew towards the far corner, but it dropped millimetres wide of the post.
It was becoming more and more conceivable that Rushden may rue all the missed chances, and this almost proved the case in the 69th minute. A swift home break down the right saw a threatening low ball across the six-yard box beat the despairing dive of Heath, but Casey showed terrific positional sense to be in the right place at the right time to hack the ball away from close to the goal-line.
The game started to become more end-to-end as the time continued to tick down, and it became more likely that one goal would settle this match. Rushden threatened yet again to get it when a quick counter saw Akubuine feed a neat ball into the left channel for Nathan Hicks to run onto, and he nicked it through to Shariff before being brought down by a covering defender after the ball had gone. The striker picked up the pass and sprinted into the area, but the ball bobbled up just as he was about to shoot and so his strike whistled over the bar. Jordan Macleod was then introduced for Kaziboni in Rushden’s first change.
Tall home striker Jamie Towers had been the other substitute who had been introduced at half-time, and he threatened twice in the space of two minutes. Firstly, he found space on the edge of the area to run forward and hit a low strike towards goal that Heath was able to comfortably hold. Then, after Farrell had been booked for a foul in midfield, a deep free-kick found Towers who leapt highest to plant a header down into the ground and towards goal. It looked like it would beat the dive of Heath and nestle in the corner, but the Diamonds keeper flung himself up and clawed it away from goal.
It was a crucial save and, at that moment, potentially a match-saving one. The visitors responded by introducing Tom Lorraine for the threatening Shariff, a sign that Peaks wasn’t settling for just a point. The substitute was into the action straight away as he met a quick throw down the line by Sam Brown, but his cross was kicked away from danger.
The time ticked towards the 90 minute mark and it did appear, after an action-packed and dramatic match, that both sides would emerge with a draw. However, that all suddenly changed in the 88th minute when Acquaye latched onto a defensive mistake by Julien to toe the ball past the substitute. The defender’s challenge came in just as the ball had been pushed past him, and Acquaye went down. Scholes blew his whistle and, after a moment’s deliberation, pointed to the penalty spot. After missing three of their previous four penalties this season, and given the importance of the match and what it could mean come the end of the campaign, nerves were naturally through the roof as Ben Farrell put the ball down on the spot. Despite the overwhelming tension, the midfielder didn’t feel it one iota as he stepped up and placed a sidefooted effort past Breeden into the corner of the net. The keeper had gone the right way, but the kick was perfectly placed and Diamonds suddenly had the lead. The celebrations amongst players and the travelling faithful on the terrace behind the goal will never be forgotten, but time still remained in the contest.
Addison, who had been playing at centre-half, was pushed up front immediately, and five minutes of stoppage time were signalled. Matt Slinn was introduced for the goalscoring hero Farrell, and an aerial bombardment laid on the Diamonds area was terrifically and stoically rebuffed by the men in yellow. Time ticked beyond the five initial minutes but, despite a few heart-stopping moments in the penalty area, Scholes eventually blew his whistle to signal the end of the contest.
Full time: Nuneaton Borough 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
This, in just about every way, was a perfect away day for Diamonds. A performance full of attacking threat, expansive and controlling midfield play, and a strong defensive effort, set the cornerstone for the result. Although they left it late and could have easily scored three or four to make the scoreline more comfortable, the nature of the result will certainly last long in the memory. It completes a league double over a pre-season promotion favourite, and shows how much this promising young Diamonds team is developing and performing with every match. The victory extends their unbeaten run to seven league games (winning five of them), and puts them one point shy of the play-offs and five points off Bromsgrove at the top of the table (with two games in hand).
No matter what happens come the end of the season though, this side is creating lasting memories and playing a style of football that is passionate, determined and exciting. The spirit and character within the entire club was particularly evident in the celebrations at the final whistle, and the club knows no bounds. Play-offs or not, the journey that the club is embarking on has been, and will continue to be, an inspiring one, and another memory to never forget was created today. And who more deserving to be at the pinnacle of that memory than the match-winner Ben Farrell, after everything he has been through in the last year, and who, through moments like this, is emerging from it for all the stronger. After not scoring a goal all season, he now has two important strikes in his last three games.
Diamonds’ next league match sees them return to Hayden Road to take on Needham Market on Tuesday night (28 January, 7.45pm kick-off).
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ben Farrell
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Tony Breeden
2. Ryan Edmunds
3. Rhys Sharpe
4. Jamie Hood
5. Miles Addison
6. Isaiah Osbourne
7. Riccardo Calder
8. Jack Byrne (C)
9. Enoch Andoh
10. Devon Kelly-Evans
11. Jordan Goddard
12. Nigel Julien (for Hood HT)
13. Tyrell Belford
14. Joel Kettle (for Calder 85)
15. Fortune Maphosa
16. Jamie Towers (for Andoh HT)
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown
4. Patrick Casey
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Jesse Akubuine
7. Ben Acquaye
8. Ben Farrell
9. Nabil Shariff
10. Greg Kaziboni
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Matthew Slinn (for Farrell 90+2)
14. Ryan Dove
15. Tom Lorraine (for Shariff 82)
16. Jordan Macleod (for Kaziboni 77)
17. Nat Gosnal-Tyler
Goals: Farrell (pen 89)
Yellow cards: Addison (65), Kelly-Evans (70), Osbourne (77)
Yellow cards: Akubuine (11), Farrell (80)
Referee: Matthew Scholes
Assistants: Darren Laska, Kurt Bartlett