Royston Town 1-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

AFC Rushden & Diamonds advanced to the Southern League Division One Central Play-Off Final on Monday afternoon after a heroic performance saw them defeat Royston 2-1 at Garden Walk.

Diamonds were right on their game from the get-go and after Jack Bowen had hit the crossbar, they took the lead on the half-hour when a corner was headed goalwards by Jason Lee and despite it being blocked on the line, Bowen was the first to react to hook the follow-up home from four yards. Lewis Leslie saw a curling shot tipped over and Bowen had a header straight at home keeper Ron Yates, and the way Rushden closed, harried and pressured meant the hosts didn’t have a chance of note in the opening period. 

The second half saw Diamonds continue to dominate despite Royston naturally applying some more pressure. Leslie had a header saved after a deep cross by Claudiu Hoban, and Bowen lashed over from the edge of the box as Diamonds continued to take the game to Royston. In the 78th minute Bowen chased a long ball forward and was brought down by Yates as he bore down on goal, resulting in a red card for the keeper and a penalty for the Diamonds. Liam Dolman stepped up and calmly placed the ball to Ryan Ingrey’s left-hand side, who had gone in goal due to the hosts having made all three of their substitutions. The contest seemed to be easing to a Diamonds victory until Hoban was sent off for a second bookable offence, and with five added-on minutes signalled Royston pulled one back in the second of these when Scott Bridges slammed home a loose ball in the middle of the area. The nerves were frayed, the tension was palpable and hearts were in mouths as the referee ended up playing over seven added minutes, but the final whistle was eventually blown to signal fantastic scenes of jubilation and happiness from everyone involved with the football club. Diamonds will now travel to St Ives Town in the Play-Off Final on Bank Holiday Monday, the 2nd of May, after they defeated Egham Town on penalties. 

Diamonds manager Andy Peaks made a solitary change to the side that had overcome Godalming in their final match of the regular league season, with Liam Dolman returning to the side to replace Robbie Parsons. This meant that Brad Harris was restored to a central midfield position alongside Dan Quigley, and Lewis Leslie moved forward to operate behind lone-striker Jack Bowen in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

There was a clear and tangible buzz around the ground amongst both sets of fans, as the sets of players entered the pitch, with Royston aiming to avoid defeat in the semi-final like they did to Barton Rovers last season and Diamonds experiencing the end-of-season play-offs for the very first time under their new guise. The Crows had defeated Rushden in both the sides’ previous meetings, and with the hosts boasting an unbeaten home record against the eventual top-five during the season prior to the game commencing the red-shirted visitors knew they’d have to be at their very best to gain a result.

Although there was a slight wind and chill blowing around Garden Walk, the sun was bright in the evening sky as referee Alistair Wilson got the contest underway. The opening five minutes were naturally cagey and tense with the importance of the tie known all too well to both sides, though early Diamonds pressing stopped Royston building up any sort of early rhythm or cohesion. The first chance fell the visitors way in the seventh minute as Bowen flicked a nice ball into the path of a galloping Claudiu Hoban, and he was able to face up and then sprint away from full-back Danny May. His whipped cross to the back post found Bowen, and although his header was half-blocked, it fell for a lurking Richards to prod a shot goalwards which goalkeeper Ron Yates blocked from point-blank range.

There was a worry for the Diamonds two minutes afterwards when a long ball down Royston’s left channel saw the nippy Rhys Hoenes and Jack Ashton running after it, but Matt Finlay came out to head the danger away. However, his momentum took him into Hoenes, and as a result he was left in a heap on the ground whilst the ball was still in play. Thankfully for the away side the ball ran out for a throw-in on the left touchline, and with no substitute goalkeeper present on the Diamonds’ bench, it was a relief that the player of the season was able to continue after some treatment.

Considering the significance of the occasion Diamonds were staying calm and confident when in possession, with individual skill and neat link-up play also beginning to be showcased. One such example saw a Jason Lee throw-in into the feet of Hoban, and the Romanian winger produced a lovely, deft turn to spin away from his marker. Unfortunately for the Diamonds though, his resultant half-volley from 30 yards out drifted well wide of the left-hand post.

Moments later in the 19th minute, the visitors went agonisingly close to taking the early initiative. Shawn Richards, like Hoban before, showed a swift turn and then fleet-of-foot to power down the right wing, and his cross into the area found dropped for Bowen at the back post. His effort into the ground bounced up and over Yates seemingly heading for the back of the net, but the ball hit the crossbar, bounced down and was eventually hacked to safety by a Royston defender.

Rushden didn’t sit back and rue this chance however as they continued to harry and swarm around their opponents when the hosts were in possession. The high work-rate and level of pressing, especially from the midfield, meant that Diamonds were dominating possession and winning it back quickly whenever they were without the ball. One instance of contestation and challenging for everything saw Leslie and home defender Daniel Braithwaite collide, and despite receiving some initial treatment and returning to the field of play, the Crows’ man was unable to continue and was replaced by Liam McDevitt.

A minute after this substitution occurred, the Diamonds forged into the lead. A neat ball round the corner by Bowen found Leslie, and he skipped away down the left before seeing his cross blocked behind for a corner. Richards went across to take the kick and whipped in an excellent delivery which Lee met with a bullet header, only to see the effort blocked on the line by a combination of goalkeeper and covering defender. However, the ball squirmed loose to a lurking Jack Bowen just inside the six-yard box, and he showed precise ability to hook the ball home on the volley via a slight touch off the underside of the crossbar.

The scenes around the stadium were naturally ones of ecstasy and rapture, but only thirty minutes of the game had elapsed and there was still a long way to go. Any danger that the Diamonds may try to sit on the lead until the half-time break were banished as they won possession back immediately from the restart, an indicative sign of them not allowing their hosts to settle or have time on the ball. Bowen and Leslie linked up again in the 36th minute similarly to the initial move that had brought about the corner for the opening goal, and after cutting in from the left Leslie saw his curling right-footed effort brilliantly tipped over by a stretching Yates. The inswinging corner from Hoban led to a second one, and the near-post kick found Leslie to flick the ball across goal. No red shirt was there to latch onto it, though the subsequent Royston clearance looped up into the air and dropped for Hoban again. He managed to squirm the ball through to Richards, and he saw a shot blocked before the ball fell for Quigley to scoop a presentable half-volleying opportunity over the bar.

Another corner was earnt, this time on the left-side after Hoban saw a shot charged down, and Richards floated in another tempting delivery which found Bowen rising at the back post, though his header was straight at the Royston stopper. Hoban then led a pacey and swift counter-attack after a home corner had been cleared, and his ball into Bowen saw the number 9 cut back inside the penalty area, though the covering defender was just able to get a toe on the ball and avert the danger.

Despite Diamonds dominating the majority of this opening period, the fact that Royston had finished second in the regular season and had scored the league’s highest amount of goals (99) meant that the visitors could never become complacent or settle back. In the fourth minute of five added-on minutes at the end of the half a long free-kick into the Diamonds area dropped for Hoenes, and the diminutive winger, in attempting to jink away from the closing Ashton, went down looking for a penalty. The referee blew his whistle and for a moment it seemed like he was about to point to the penalty spot, but he instead booked the Royston number 11 for simulation.

Moments later the half-time whistle was blown on a frenetic, quick-paced first period which had seen the Diamonds take the game to their opponents, and subsequently hold a precious lead as they headed for the break.

Half Time: Royston Town 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

The home side re-appeared slightly earlier than the Diamonds did after the half-time interval, and with the sun now having disappeared behind the cloudy Hertfordshire sky the floodlights gleamed and beamed down onto the Garden Walk playing surface. Everyone was ready for what was to be an absorbing and captivating second-half.

It was understandable to think that Royston may come out straight away attempting to get a foothold in the contest, and though they did try to achieve this they weren’t allowed to as the Diamonds begun where they had left off. They earnt a corner inside the opening minute of the half, with another dangerous Richards delivery being very well dealt with by the home defence.

One of the players in this Crows defence, May, was able to get forward shortly after this Diamonds set-piece, and as he reached the by-line he stood up a testing cross which Finlay did excellently to hold onto as he retreated towards his back post. Aside from this though, the Rushden stopper was largely untroubled as the entire side maintained their sterling, diligent closing-down of the home players.

The away side were still creating chances as they searched for a second goal to allow them a slight cushion, and to calm the nerves which were starting to build a little. In the 52nd minute Harris did well to work the ball out to Hoban on the left flank, and his accurate, deep cross to the back post saw Leslie plant a header goalwards right into the grasp of the grateful Yates in the home goal. Seconds later Dan Quigley did superbly to win back possession high in the Royston half, and though Bowen seized onto the loose ball he leaned back slightly too far and drove his shot over the bar from the edge of the box.

The dangerous and tireless Bowen had linked up with the equally energetic Leslie particularly well in the opening half, and they combined again with the striker laying the ball off to the number 10, but his effort crept wide of the near upright. Leslie had another opportunity five minutes afterwards in the 58th minute when a deep cross from right-back Connor Kennedy was only headed out to Hoban, and his shot into the ground skipped up off the surface for Leslie to flick a header that dropped just over the goal.

Shortly before this half-chance Josh Castiglione had been introduced for the hosts, and just after the hour mark they used their final substitution as Simon Thomas, the match-winner in the two sides’ last meeting at Garden Walk, went off to be replaced by Rob Mason. This signalled the launch of Royston’s first period of real pressure in the game as they began to see more of the ball, but everytime they tried to make inroads forward they ran into one red brick wall, Diamonds’ midfield, and if they were to pass them, another red brick wall, Diamonds’ defence, was there to stand in the Crows’ way.

The support and atmosphere from the travelling Rushden contingent had been loud and incessant throughout the contest as they attempted to inspire their red-shirted heroes to another goal and towards victory, with one rendition of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ bellowed out as Richards jinked in from the right side and saw an effort well blocked. The substitute Mason was then booked after an aerial duel left Ashton hurt on the ground, though he was up and ok to continue.

The game ticked past the 70 minute mark, with the nerves and tension beginning to mount around large swathes of the ground. This didn’t appear to transmit onto the pitch, however, as Diamonds continued to force their opponents into mistakes with ceaseless and constant harrying in midfield and defensive areas. Hoenes, already on a yellow card for his first-half dive, was slightly fortunate to escape a second caution after he felled Ashton in an attempt to win the ball back after losing it.

Just as it appeared that the Diamonds may be forced to defend their single goal until the very end, a long ball over the top saw Bowen selflessly sprint after the seemingly lost cause. However, Royston defender Chris Watters’ attempted header back to his goalkeeper was too short and Bowen was onto it in a flash. He poked the ball past the dive of keeper Yates and was felled as he attempted to get past the number 1, leaving the referee little option but to point to the penalty spot and issue Yates a red card. With the home side having made all three of their substitutions, number 10 Ryan Ingrey donned the green goalkeeper’s jersey, Liam Dolman was the man he would face after the Diamonds captain decided to take the kick. Having missed a penalty in the previous match against Godlaming, but more importantly due to the stage and magnitude of the occasion, Diamonds fans were understandably anxious as the penalty was about to be taken. Some even refused to watch, and all that could be heard and seen seconds later was wild and passionate celebrations from players and supporters alike. The Diamonds centre-half, seemingly oblivious to any pressure or nerves whatsoever, had calmly rolled the ball to the goalkeeper’s left and into the net, with Ingrey flinging himself in the other direction.

With Rushden now having a two-goal cushion, with them having chased and harried constantly for eighty minutes and with the hosts now being down to ten men, the visitors naturally eased back slightly, though they still were quick in the tackle and fast to stop any sign of danger at source. Hoban was booked for a tackle half-way inside the Royston half, and moments later Mason struck a shot from the edge of the box that Finlay watched all the way and held onto superbly as it arrowed towards the top left corner. The fact that that was Finlay’s first save of the match was testament to the graft, hard-work and sheer willpower displayed by the visitors in stopping any semblance of a Royston opportunity.

The game seemed to be working its way towards a Diamonds victory when a loose ball in midfield saw Hoban go in for a challenge, and with the Royston player going down as a result of the challenge, referee Wilson swiftly issued the Rushden man with his second yellow card and suddenly it was ten men versus ten men. Still Diamonds were positive with the ball at their feet, and one neat ball through by the excellent Lee just ran away from Bowen’s path. As the ninety minute stage was reached and five minutes of stoppage time had been announced, Elliot Sandy made a welcome return from injury to replace the determined and box-to-box Leslie.

Two minutes of added-on time had elapsed when Royston mounted what was thought to be one of their last attacks. A neat interchange on the edge of the Diamonds box saw the ball fed out to the left-side of the area where Castiglione was in space, and his driven ball across goal was too pacey for Finlay to hold onto. The ball spilt into the heart of the area, and despite two Diamonds men back on the goal-line, home captain and top-scorer Scott Bridges was on hand to slam the ball into the corner of the net.   

All of a sudden the Crows’ fans, management team and players sensed an unlikely equaliser to take the match into extra-time. Defender Ryan Frater had now joined the home attack, and with only Bowen for the Diamonds and McDevitt for the hosts left down the other end the ball was now camped in the visitors half. There seemed to no way out for the Diamonds; wave after wave after wave of home pressure came at them, and any long clearance forward represented only the briefest moment of respite as the ball was quickly reloaded into the away half.

However, the Diamonds rode the pressure and defended heroically. Bodies were thrown on the line, brave blocks were made, important interceptions were won, crucial challenges were accomplished. Bowen willingly chased any small resemblance of a ball forward, and Quigley, despite having chased, harried and harassed the opposition for the previous 94 minutes, somehow found some energy within his shattered legs to chase a header clear from Dolman to the half-way line in an attempt to stop the ball being launched back into the area. The clock ticked past the five minutes originally added-on and moved into the 97th minute when Diamond hearts were tested one last time as a Royston player went down in the left side of the box, though appeals for a penalty weren’t forthcoming as the referee pointed for a goal-kick.

After another minute of stoppage time, and an overall eight additional minutes, the referee blew for full-time to spark joyous, jubilant and memorable scenes from the supporters, players and management team as they celebrated deservedly reaching the play-off final. News filtered through shortly afterwards that they would face St Ives in the decider after the Cambridgeshire outfit beat Egham 4-2 on penalties after a 2-2 draw.

Full Time: Royston Town 1-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds

This game will undoubtedly rank for many Diamonds fans as the most memorable, tension-filled and emotionally-driven spectacle ever seen in the four seasons of senior football witnessed. Superlatives can do no justice at all to the performance level of the 12 red shirts who had a part in the game; to a man they were sensational. They attacked as one. They defended as one. They chased as one. They believed as one. And they won as one.

Credit must go to Royston who have had a magnificent season and gave their all in this rollercoaster of a contest in continuing to fight to the very last sound of the referee’s whistle.

However, it is the Diamonds who advance to the Southern League Division One Central play-off final to face St Ives at their home ground ProEdge Westwood Road due to the Ives finishing the regular season one place above Rushden. The game will be played on Bank Holiday Monday, May 2nd, with the game having to be decided on the day. This means if the scores are level after 90 minutes, there will be extra-time and penalties if needed.

Diamonds Man of the Match: Jack Bowen

Attendance: 655

Match Report by Ollie Mortimer

Royston Town

AFC Rushden & Diamonds

1. Ron Yates

2. Danny May

3. Chris Watters

4. Scott Bridges (C)

5. Ryan Frater

6. Daniel Braithwaite

7. Ryan Tower

8. Stuart Bridges

9. Simon Thomas

10. Ryan Ingrey

11. Rhys Hoenes



12. Liam McDevitt (for Braithwaite 29)

14. Tommy Hull

15. Martel Powell

16. Josh Castiglione (for Stuart Bridges 55)

17. Rob Mason (for Thomas 61)

17. Matt Finlay

2. Connor Kennedy

3. Jason Lee

4. Jack Ashton

5. Liam Dolman (C)

6. Brad Harris

7. Shawn Richards

8. Dan Quigley

9. Jack Bowen

10. Lewis Leslie

11. Claudiu Hoban



12. Nabil Shariff

13. Elliot Sandy (for Leslie 90)

14. Tom Manship

15. Robbie Parsons

16. Andy Hall

Goals: Scott Bridges (90+2)

Goals: Bowen (30), Dolman pen (80)

Yellow Cards: Tower (36), Hoenes (45+2), Mason (69)

Yellow Cards: Harris (40), Leslie (45+1), Hoban (82 and 86)

Red Cards: Yates (79)

Red Cards: Hoban (86)

Referee: Alistair Wilson

Assistants: Andrew Hickman, Hugh Gilroy