Nuneaton Borough 1-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

Ten-man Diamonds claimed a deserved draw at Nuneaton in the 2020/21 league opener on Saturday afternoon.

After an energetic and positive start for the visitors, one which saw Jack Ashton go close twice, they took the lead in the 35th minute. New striker Lorrell Smith was brought down in the area following a quick turn of feet and, after a penalty was awarded, Smith picked himself up to dispatch the penalty low into the net. He came close to doubling the lead early in the second period when his rasping shot was tipped behind.

The match changed after 51 minutes when Diamonds midfielder Ross Oulton was adjudged to have dangerously fouled ex-RDFC man Marcus Kelly, and a red card was issued. The hosts, quiet up to that point, then kicked into life and grabbed an equaliser through Andre Brown’s header. They kept up the pressure for the rest of the contest, with veteran striker Leroy Lita having a late goal ruled out for offside, but Diamonds defended terrifically to secure an opening day point.

First half: Delayed start, positive play, clinical penalty

Andy Peaks decided on a 3-5-2 formation for the contest. Recent signings Luke Fairlamb and Ross Oulton were handed their second debuts, and other signings Richard Walton and Lorrell Smith lined up for their first competitive start for Diamonds. Nuneaton, tipped as one of the favourites for promotion this season, gave starts to some of their new signings including Marcus Kelly, Ravin Shamsi, and Kieron Dunbar.

With it being the first league game since March 7th, there was a huge sense of anticipation and excitement amongst everybody at Liberty Way. The maximum attendance for the fixture had been set at 600 in line with the Coronavirus guidelines, with the match being an all-ticket affair. Demand for tickets had been high, and crowd congestion outside the ground just before 3pm meant that the kick-off was delayed until 3.15pm.

The match soon got underway, with Diamonds attacking towards the terrace upon which their vocal travelling support was situated. They were quick to get into their opponents, pressing high up the pitch and not allowing them time to settle into a rhythm. After Walton had dealt well with a couple of situations, the visitors won the first corner of the game after nine minutes. Matt Slinn swung in an inviting delivery to the back post, and Jack Ashton found himself completely unmarked. He and Smith almost seemed to get in each other’s way though, and the effort goalwards was easily collected by Tony Breedon in the home goal.

Tom Lorraine had been Rushden’s top scorer during pre-season with eight goals, and he had a chance to get his 2020/21 league account up and running. Good pressing by Jesse Akubuine won the ball high up the pitch, and the loose ball ran for the Diamonds striker. He ran forward before hitting a low effort towards goal from 25 yards out, but it rolled comfortably wide of the post.

The away side continued to look bright and lively, and they soon won another corner on the left. The same combination as the previous one was demonstrated as Slinn’s delivery found an unmarked Ashton creeping in at the back post, but his stubbed effort ran wide.

The defender was involved down the other end moments later when he fouled Devon Kelly-Evans just outside the area. Nuneaton hadn’t threatened much until then, but Shamsi’s effort from the resulting free-kick forced Walton into a sharp save at his near post to parry the ball to safety.

That save, along with a crucial Liam Dolman block a few minutes later, was made even more important when Rushden won a penalty in the 35th minute. A loose ball in midfield ran for Akubuine in space, and he slipped it through to Lorrell Smith. He took a touch before quickly flicking it past Joel Kettle and darting through on goal, but he was shoved over by the retreating Perry Cotton. The referee blew for a penalty straight away, and Smith took responsibility for the kick. Diamonds had scored a late penalty at the same end of the ground back in January through Ben Farrell, and Smith made sure he dispatched his kick too as the effort was whipped past Breedon into the corner of the net.

Cotton had been booked for his foul leading to the penalty, and less than five minutes later he slid in on Akubuine and caught the Diamonds man. The referee awarded a free-kick, and shortly afterwards the hosts won a free-kick of their own. Kelly whipped a cross into the middle, and it dropped for William Edjenguele who hooked it over the bar from inside the six-yard box.

The rest of the half passed without any real action of note, and Diamonds held the lead heading into the interval.

Half time: Nuneaton Borough 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

Second half: Red card, persistent pressure, stoic defending

The hosts made a half-time substitution as new signing Andre Brown was introduced, but Diamonds were the ones to threaten straight away. Neat link-up play led to Lorraine feeding Smith around 20 yards out, and the striker unleashed a venomous shot that was flying into the top corner until Breedon flew to his right and tipped it behind.

Four minutes later, the visitors were suddenly reduced to ten men. A header clear by Ashton saw Oulton try to help it further down the pitch, but he missed the ball and caught Kelly on his follow-through. A number of players surrounded the referee and, after consultation with the linesman, he showed a red card to the Diamonds midfielder.

Lorraine dropped back into midfield to fill the void, but Nuneaton were buoyed by the dismissal and sensed a way back into the game. Former Premier League striker Leroy Lita was introduced off the bench, and a flurry of home half-chances followed. Dolman made an important clearance following a darting run from Shamsi, Ryan Edmunds cut inside from the left and curled wide of the far post, and Shamsi had an effort well held by Walton.

In the 66th minute, the pressure told though. Edmunds found space on the left to measure a cross into the middle, and Andre Brown was able to guide a header past Walton and into the back of the net.

Rushden were struggling to get a hold of the ball, but they were still working tremendously hard and defending strongly to limit Nuneaton to only a few opportunities. Shamsi hit a free-kick well over, and a spell of pinball in the away area led to a number of courageous and crucial blocks before the ball was cleared upfield.

Fernando Bell-Toxtle was introduced in Diamonds’ first sub as he replaced goalscorer Smith, and the home side continued to push for a winner. Home scorer Brown turned in the area before having a shot blocked away, and Shamsi embarked on another dangerous sprint forward before his strike was deflected through to Walton.

There was a heart-stopping moment for Diamonds four minutes from time. A cross in from the left was flicked on by Brown, and it found Lita who impudently headed home past Walton. The veteran striker was off celebrating, but the linesman’s flag had been raised for offside and the goal was disallowed. Fellow home substitute Joshua Ruff then found space on the right in a dangerous position, but he kicked the ball against his standing leg and it looped out for a goal-kick.

Five minutes were added on, but the hosts were restricted to a few half-chances. Ruff hooked an effort over the bar following a corner, Kelly volleyed over, and Zack Reynolds did excellently to clear a loose ball away in the box before it dropped for a home man.

The referee’s whistle sounded soon afterwards to signal the end of the game, and to bring an enthralling encounter to a conclusion.

Full time: Nuneaton Borough 1-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

This was a fair result, with Diamonds having the better of the opening period and Nuneaton having lots of pressure in the second half following Oulton’s dismissal. It was a match befitting of the first league fixture back in over six months, and Diamonds will look to build on the positive performance in their next league fixture at home to Barwell on Saturday 26th September.

Before then, they will entertain Newark FC on Tuesday 22nd September in the FA Cup First Qualifying Round. The match is a 7.45pm kick-off and is an all-ticket fixture – check out full ticketing information here.

Diamonds Man of the Match: Patrick Casey

Attendance: 596

Match report by Ollie Mortimer

Nuneaton BoroughAFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Tony Breedon ©
2. Perry Cotton
3. Connor Gudger
4. Joel Kettle
5. William Edjenguele
6. Devon Kelly-Evans
7. Ryan Edmunds
8. Marcus Kelly
10. Kieran Dunbar
11. Alex Tomkinson
12. Ravin Shamsi  

Substitutes: 14. Claudio Dias 15. Leroy Lita (for Tomkinson 56) 16. Joshua Ruff (for Cotton 83) 17. Andre Brown (for Dunbar HT) 21. Jamie Hood
17. Richard Walton
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Patrick Casey
4. Jack Ashton
5. Liam Dolman ©
6. Ross Oulton
7. Jesse Akubuine
8. Matthew Slinn
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Lorrell Smith
11. Luke Fairlamb  

Substitutes: 12. Alex Collard 13. Luke Munro 14. Fernando Bell-Toxtle (for Smith 75) 15. Chris Wreh (for Lorraine 90+1) 16. Ben Ford (for Akubuine 88)
Goals: Brown (66)Goals: Smith (pen 35)
Yellow cards: Cotton (35)Yellow cards: Ashton (27)
Red cards: NoneRed cards: Oulton (51)
Referee: Alan Cox
Assistants: Simon Kavanagh, Ian Croston