Diamonds registered their first away win of the campaign with a deserved success at Nuneaton.
The hosts had more of the ball in the early exchanges, but Rushden created the better opportunities as Nathan Tshikuna had a deflected header saved, Will Jones saw a goal disallowed and Tshikuna then rounded the keeper before hitting the outside of the post from a tight angle. Jones had a half-volley blocked before having an effort parried, and then Nuneaton came back into it as Paddy Casey made a crucial block from Ravi Shamsi and flicked a clearance off the line from a back-post header. Home midfielder Cain Noble also volleyed over from a promising position as the half came to a close.
The second period began quietly before home substitute Leroy Lita was found by a right-wing cross, but his goalbound header was terrifically clawed away by Dean Snedker. The save was made even more vital when Diamonds scored soon afterwards through their own substitute Ben Diamond. Tshikuna showed quick feet to get away from a nearby defender before having a low shot parried, but it ran straight to Diamond who gleefully tapped home from a couple of yards out. Nuneaton applied some pressure late on with a number of balls into the box, but Rushden defended manfully to keep them at bay and to see out the victory.
Manager Peaks made three changes to the starting XI that had been beaten in the FA Cup First Qualifying Round at fellow Southern League side Coalville. The central defensive partnership was changed as Paddy Casey and Alex Collard came into the side, and ex-Nuneaton man Claudio Dias started in place of Matt Slinn.
Both sides came into the contest in the bottom half of the table with Nuneaton one place and one point ahead of the Diamonds, though the hosts had played one more game. The two teams were therefore looking to kickstart their respective seasons as the match got underway.
The hosts dominated possession early on but, aside from one right-wing cross that was confidently claimed by Dean Snedker, they weren’t able to threaten the away goal. It was Rushden who had the first chance of the game when Ben Garwood whipped in an inviting cross that found Nathan Tshikuna, but his header was deflected through to home keeper Tony Breeden.
Nuneaton responded with a cross in from the left that led to a blocked effort, and then Diamonds created some further opportunities. Firstly Jesse Akubuine did well to put pressure on high up the pitch and win the ball, a feature of the visitors’ play throughout the contest, before sliding it through to Will Jones. The young striker slotted the ball into the back of the net, but referee Richard Watson had blown his whistle to signal a handball against Akubuine.
A minute later, Diamonds won the ball again and sprang forward as Jay Williams was fed on the edge of the box. He cleverly slid it across to the free Tshikuna, and he kept his composure to skip round the sprawling Breeden. The angle narrowed though and, with a covering defender also on the line, his subsequent effort cannoned off the near post and out for a goal-kick.
Both teams produced courageous blocks to keep the scoreline level, with Williams and Tshikuna being denied down one end and Casey sliding in to block a goalbound effort from Ravi Shamsi down the other end.
Home winger Ryan Edmunds then cut in dangerously from the left before curling an effort over the bar, before Jones had a half-volley blocked after being found by a long ball in behind. The Diamonds striker was then released through on goal by Akubuine’s precise through ball, but he was quickly put under pressure and his strike across goal was parried down by Breeden.
Play continued to switch between either end as the hosts then should have taken the lead. In the 34th minute Carl Baker got down the right and stood up a cross to the back post. It was met with a towering header that seemed like it would find the net, but Casey vitally flicked it away from close to the goal-line. Two minutes later, a cross from ex-Rushden man Callum Westwood found midfielder Cain Noble close in, but his volleyed effort flew off target.
The rest of the half passed with little action, aside from a long-range dribbling Joel Gyasi effort that rolled harmlessly wide of the post.
Half time: Nuneaton Borough 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The home side made a change at the break as veteran Leroy Lita replaced Noble in an attacking substitution. Like the end of the first period, the second half started quietly with Nuneaton having more of the ball, and this led to a couple of openings.
Shamsi cut in from the right and played in Louis Baker, but his low effort flashed wide of the near post. Then, after Akubuine had been booked, Lita was found free in the area following a cross from the right. His looping header looked destined for the net, but Snedker miraculously stretched at full length to tip it onto the post before it was cleared away.
The save was made even more crucial when Diamonds then opened the scoring. Substitute Ben Diamond had only been on the pitch for seven minutes when an away free-kick was only partially cleared, and Akubuine played it back in. It dropped for Tshikuna who quickly stepped away from a lunging challenge and shot at goal. Breeden got down to his left to parry it away, but there was Diamond to tap home the rebound to the jubilation of the Diamonds fans gathered behind the goal.
Nuneaton looked to respond but, as had been the case for much of the game, they built possession without being able to regularly threaten the Diamonds defence who defended strongly and stoically. They made their final two substitutions, but it was a Rushden substitute who threatened when Fernando Bell-Toxtle did well to run forward and get into the area before being closed out. Diamond also had a long-range effort well parried by Breeden after it had bounced just in front of the Nuneaton stopper.
Rushden’s sterling defensive effort was encapsulated when Warburton eased Carl Baker away from meeting a left-wing cross, and fellow full-back Garwood then produced a timely diving header to clear the danger from a stoppage time cross. Soon afterwards, the referee’s whistle was blown to signal Diamonds’ second league win of the season.
Full time: Nuneaton Borough 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
This was a deserved success for Rushden who showed great character after three consecutive defeats to bounce back and put in a performance full of heart, determination and composure. They defended strongly at one end in limiting the hosts and pulling off crucial saves and blocks when required, and demonstrated a constant threat down the other end which could have resulted in more goals. In the end though one was enough, a goal and victory that meant everything to the fans, players and coaching staff as evidenced by the scenes after the full-time whistle.
Diamonds are soon back on the road again as they travel to Suffolk to take on Needham Market on Tuesday 14 September, 7.45pm kick-off.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Paddy Casey
Match report by Ollie Mortimer
Diamonds: Snedker, Garwood, Warburton, Williams, Casey, Collard (C), Gyasi (Diamond 60), Dias (Bell-Toxtle 77), Jones, Akubuine (Slinn 90+4), Tshikuna (subs not used: Hughes, Furlong)
Diamonds goals: Diamond (67)
Diamonds yellows: Akubuine (56)
Nuneaton: Tony Breeden, Callum Westwood, Jordan Gough, Damien McCrory, Scott McManus, Gift Mussa, Cain Noble (Leroy Lita HT), Louis Baker, Ravi Shamsi (Harry Wakefield 75), Carl Baker (C), Ryan Edmunds (Thomas Armitage 75) (subs not used: William Edjenguele, Alex Tomkinson)
Images courtesy of Hawkins Images ©2021