AFC Rushden & Diamonds superbly battled their way to an entertaining but ultimately narrow victory over Sheffield FC at the Coach & Horses Ground on Saturday afternoon.
After a bright start by both sides it was Rushden who took the lead in the ninth minute. Sam Brown launched a long throw-in from the left that Tom Lorraine flicked up, and it fell for Ben Farrell to overhead-kick the ball into the back of the home net. Farrell then had two more efforts saved by Sheffield keeper Danny Haystead either side of home striker Ant Wilson having a shot smothered by Matt Finlay, with Lorraine then running through before being denied by a well-timed challenge. Diamonds were having the better of the play as Shariff saw a near-post shot saved low down, but the hosts did still represent a threat as they forced Liam Dolman to importantly clear away a fierce shot that was goalbound. After a fast-paced 45 minutes the half-time whistle was blown shortly afterwards, with Diamonds in the ascendancy.
Sheffield started the second period quickly and put pressure on the Diamonds defence and midfield from the get-go. Pat Lindley scooped an effort from the edge of the area over the bar, and winger Matt Roney drilled an effort wide of the right-hand post after running into space. Brown was required to make two important clearances before and after a Nabil Shariff lob had drifted over the crossbar for Diamonds, and Brad Harris also made an interception from a Roney ball across goal to avert the ever-increasing danger. Shortly afterwards though, in the 67th minute, the visitors added to their lead as a Joe Curtis free-kick wasn’t fully cleared, and Lorraine was in the right place to poke home from yards out. Sheffield swept down the other end, however, and won a penalty when Wilson was felled by Finlay. Roney stepped up and hit a weak penalty down the middle of the goal, with the Diamonds keeper able to kick the ball away to safety and keep the scoreline at 2-0. It signalled the start of further home pressure, and it paid off when James Gregory met a flick to head home into the far corner of Finlay’s goal. Wilson then saw a shot blocked, substitute Joel Purkiss had a shot held, and Dolman heroically cleared off the goal-line to stop a Wilson header dropping into the back of the net. After several minutes of stoppage-time the end of the game was signalled, with the visitors completing the double over their Yorkshire-based hosts.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks made just the solitary and ultimately enforced change from the starting XI that had comfortably defeated Loughborough Dynamo last week, as Kyal McNulty replaced the injured Callum Westwood at right-back. The visitors again opted to use a fluid 4-3-3 formation, one that had brought them much success in away games so far in the season, and a strong-looking bench was made up of Taylor Orosz, Ben Heath, Ben Ford, Lewis Leslie and Ollie Brown-Hill.
The two sides stepped out onto the Coach & Horses surface as the sun beamed down, and a keen sense of intrigue surrounded the tie with Sheffield being undefeated in their last five home league matches along with Diamonds having won eight of their twelve away league fixtures. The pitch had passed a 10am inspection in order for the game to go ahead, with that news bringing a healthy attendance to the home of the oldest football club in the world.
Referee Aaron Bannister got the game underway, and it was the red-shirted hosts who were the first to threaten. A neat move down the right-hand side resulted in a cross being dispatched to the far post, and striker Ant Wilson rose highest to drift a header straight into the arms of Matt Finlay. Another header from another cross was then deflected behind for a home corner, though this was cleared upfield, and Wilson moments later drilled a shot wide of the right-hand post as Sheffield begun the game brightly.
Prior to this Wilson effort Diamonds had launched their first foray into the hosts’ half, and an intricate passing exchange saw Sam Brown feed Tom Lorraine in the left side of the box. The striker initially appeared to be in plenty of space before briefly losing control, but he still managed to lay the ball off to captain Richard Bunting outside the area. However, his subsequent attempt flew well wide of the target. This nonetheless kickstarted the away side into beginning to take a grip of the game, and in their next attack they had the lead. A throw-in was earnt on the left wing, and Brown stepped up to launch a trademark dispatch into the near post. Lorraine rose well to flick the ball up in the air, and it dropped for the nearby Ben Farrell to execute a terrific overhead kick that flew past keeper Danny Haystead and into the back of the net.
In their last away league match at Romulus Diamonds had taken an early lead before eventually losing to a late goal, and with this in mind they maintained their pressure and ever-increasing control over this game. Minutes after his goal Farrell was close to notching a second, with Joe Curtis’ layoff to the midfielder resulting in a curled effort towards the far post that Haystead dived and held onto. The affair was being played at a very quick pace and tempo, with many tough but ultimately fair challenges coming in from both teams, and the first of a few stoppages for treatment to a player was required for Brad Harris after an aerial duel. He was okay to continue though, and shortly after the break Sheffield created a good opportunity. An intricate ball down the right for Wilson to run onto found the striker with only Finlay to beat, but as his angle for a shot narrowed the Diamonds keeper flew out to block his effort.
The Rushden midfield three of Bunting, Curtis and Farrell was operating fluidly and effectively, with the former often sitting in front of the back-four which allowed for the other two to push up and support Lorraine and Nabil Shariff. In the 22nd minute a poorly directed defensive header by a home defender fell for Farrell to try a first-time volley, but he didn’t catch it as sweetly as he would’ve liked to do and it drifted towards goal for Haystead to comfortably collect. After the hosts then applied some pressure and won a couple of corners that were ultimately cleared away, the visitors had a great opportunity to double their advantage. A long ball forward saw Shariff precisely flick into the onrushing path of Lorraine, and he found himself through on goal with only Haystead to beat as he ran into the area. Before he could hit an effort towards goal though, home captain Lee Cooksey raced back and superbly timed a slide-tackle to avert the danger. Shortly afterwards the Diamonds number nine went down after another aerial battle, but he like Harris was up after a minute of treatment and okay to play on.
For the next five minutes there was a slight lull in the game as both sides recovered from an often frenetic opening half-an-hour, and Diamonds were the next side to fashion an opening at goal. A well-timed challenge by Fazel Koriya on the right saw him win back possession and quickly lob a pass over to the other side for the free Shariff. He couldn’t latch onto the pass to begin with, but he picked up the loose ball before jinking to his left and hitting a shot towards the near post that Haystead was able to drop onto and hold.
Similarly as with the opening few minutes of the half, Sheffield had the better of the closing stages of the 45 minutes. They worked some space on the right-hand side of the box before a shot across goal was deflected behind for a corner, and the resulting set-piece caused problems for the Diamonds. The deep delivery was only cleared as far as a red-shirt lurking just inside the box, and with Finlay down on the ground the quick snapshot looked destined for the goal. However, Liam Dolman was perfectly placed to clear the ball away and to keep the Diamonds’ lead intact. There was just enough time for McNulty to receive some treatment after a heavy challenge just short of the halfway line, and moments later Bannister blew the half-time whistle to call time on a highly entertaining 45 minutes of football.
Half Time: Sheffield FC 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The Diamonds returned to the field of play a couple of minutes before the hosts, and after the eleven red shirts had made their way from the changing rooms the whistle was sounded to begin the second half. The first period had ended with McNulty going down hurt, and the second period began in exactly the same fashion as the Rushden full-back ended up on the ground after another aerial duel. He initially looked in serious pain, but thankfully for the visitors he was able to continue after several minutes of treatment. The hosts again begun a half quickly and on the front foot as they seeked an equaliser, and Dolman was forced to powerfully head away a dangerous cross in the first of what would prove many attacks on the away goal. Some minutes later a sharp move down the left by Sheffield saw the ball played back to Pat Lindley on the edge of the area, but his scooped effort sailed harmlessly wide of the far post.
It was almost inevitable that the home side would emerge quick out of the blocks at the start of the second half, and after an often free-flowing and controlling performance shown in the first half by Diamonds they were now required to show a different side to their game: one that needed them to ‘dig in’ and protect the lead. Sheffield continued to threaten as first winger Matt Roney escaped down the right flank before flashing a shot wide of the near post, and then Brown brilliantly slid in to recover and block a cross into the middle after Roney had escaped away from him.
The away side still looked a threat on the counter-attack, however, and just before the hour mark a long ball forward dropped ideally into the path of Shariff with Haystead a few yards off his goal-line. Therefore the Rushden striker attempted a lob from around 20 yards, but it sailed high and wide of the goal. A minute later Diamonds were back on the defensive, and a flashing cross in from the left saw Brown superbly head the danger away to keep their lead intact. Whereas in the first half the visitors were able to largely monopolise the ball and quickly win it back when they were out of possession, it was now Sheffield who were first to seemingly every ball and who were able to commit more men forward. Roney in particular was causing problems for the Diamonds defence, and another well-weighted ball down the right found the winger running in behind. However, rather than hit an effort at goal he tried to flash a low cross across the area for a supporting teammate, but Harris was in the right place to kick the ball away before Brown completed the clearance.
The pressure was alleviated for a few minutes as Diamonds, for the first time in the half, managed to build a sustained period of possession. They won a corner kick and throw-in down the left, but both deliveries into the area were well defended by the hosts. Moments later a clipped ball down the right found a white-shirt running forward, and a Sheffield defender was forced to concede a free-kick to stop a cross into the area. Curtis stepped up to take the kick, and his inswinging delivery saw Lorraine jump in front of Haystead to force the keeper to push the ball up into the air. Shariff then challenged for the loose ball, and it dropped for Dolman to poke an effort goalwards. It seemed, with two Sheffield men back on the line, that it would be easily cleared, but one of the red-shirts could only flick the ball behind him for Tom Lorraine to gleefully smash home into the gaping goal. The strike took him onto 49 goals for the club, and the celebrations that followed showed how much the goal meant not just to him but also to the team’s hopes of victory.
Seconds after the goal the striker could have moved onto a half-century of goals for the Diamonds. A ball dropped perfectly into his path around 30 yards from goal, and with space ahead of him he powered towards the edge of the box before slamming a shot over the crossbar. Play quickly switched back up the other end, and the whole complexion of the remaining time left in the match changed. A neat through-ball from midfield found Wilson running through on the left side of the box, and he managed to reach the ball just before Finlay dived in. The striker went down, and Bannister pointed to the spot without a second of hesitation. Roney decided to stand up and take the kick, but his effort lacked power and was right down the middle of the goal, which meant Finlay could kick the ball away despite having initially dived to his left side.
Peaks then made his first alteration of the match by introducing Lewis Leslie at the expense of Joe Curtis, but this did little to alter the pattern that was now set for the rest of the match. A loose ball on the edge of the Diamonds area dropped for the dangerous Wilson to strike goalwards, but his fizzed effort flew wide of the post. Shortly after a cross from the left was blocked behind, and the resulting corner almost found Lindley to bundle home at the back post, but a free-kick was signalled for the ball hitting the Sheffield man’s arm. In an attempt to utilise more pace on the counter-attack Taylor Orosz was then summoned to replace Koriya for Rushden, and the visitors immediately could have put the game to bed when Shariff collected a Lorraine flick and found himself in space in the area, but his attempted cutback to Farrell was intercepted and cleared.
This represented only a brief respite for the Diamonds defence though, and James Gregory for the hosts was quick to have a shot blocked away on the edge of the area. However, as the game ticked into the last ten minutes of regulation time Sheffield were to find a way back into the contest. Substitute Joel Purkiss was found in space on the right wing, and his flashing cross into the box was helped on by Wilson for James Gregory to adroitly flick a header into the far corner of the goal.
The home side now sensed a leveller and a share of the spoils from the match, and Diamonds knew they would now have to batten down the hatches even more than before to suppress the impending red-shirted ‘Alamo’. Another cross in from the right side looked threatening, but Dolman importantly cleared the danger before it could reach a home player, and then Wilson saw a shot blocked away as the visitors threw bodies in the way to protect their lead. The minutes continued to tick down towards the end of the initial 90, but still Sheffield bombarded the Diamonds defence with little sign of a way out. Space opened up for Purkiss on the edge of the box after an exchange of passes on the left, but thankfully for the away side his effort was weak and easy for Finlay to claim in his grasp.
Rushden did manage to find some relief from the incessant pressure by introducing Ben Ford in place of the tireless Bunting, and they had a chance to seal the win when Orosz flicked a backheel through to Lorraine just past the halfway line. The striker ran towards the area and towards Haystead, though his resulting effort was a tired one and saw the keeper make an easy save low down. Seconds later the Diamonds number 9 won a free-kick halfway inside his defensive half, and Ford then also drew a foul further down the pitch as the visitors continued to edge closer to the three points.
However, after the game entered five minutes of added-on time after McNulty’s required earlier treatment and a full quota of subs made by each side, Sheffield were literally centimetres away from snatching an equaliser right at the death. A swift attack down the left side saw Gregory get to the byline to stand up a cross towards the back post, and amidst a melee of players Wilson got up to loop a header up and over the stranded Finlay. It appeared that the ball would drop to nestle into the back of the net and that Sheffield would have earnt a point, but from nowhere Dolman got back on the goal-line to head the ball away and to safety. Many home players’ arms went straight up into the air to protest that the ball had crossed the line and that Dolman hadn’t prevented a certain goal, but the referee was unmoved and the linesman’s flag stayed down as the scoreline remained in the visitors’ favour.
Moments later, and after some more concerted pressure from the hosts, the referee sounded his whistle to signal the end of the game, the culmination of a gripping second-half, and the confirmation of three crucial and hard-earnt points for the Diamonds.
Full Time: Sheffield FC 1-2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The fact that this represented Diamonds’ ninth away league success out of thirteen was impressive enough, but the manner in which they secured this latest victory was particularly striking. After largely dominating the opening period and then surviving some initial attacks in the second to forge into a two-goal advantage, they then dug in superbly to endure Sheffield getting a goal back and then to withstand some late, unrelenting pressure to secure the three points. Credit has to go to the hosts especially for their level of performance in the last half-hour that could have earnt them a perhaps merited point, but Rushden defended superbly to hold on to the win. They now have a free week before facing mid-table Belper Town next Saturday (February 11th) at the Dog & Duck.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Ben Farrell
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Danny Haystead
2. Liam Royles
3. Sam Hanna
4. Pat Lindley
5. Lee Cooksey (C)
6. Danny South
7. Matt Roney
8. Ryan Tinsley
9. Ant Wilson
10. Alec Denton
11. James Gregory
12. Mohammed Hamid
14. Damien Magee
15. Andy Gascoigne (for Denton 63)
16. Joel Purkiss (for Roney 75)
17. Ross Goodwin (for Tinsley 72)
17. Matt Finlay
12. Kyal McNulty
3. Sam Brown
4. Brad Harris
5. Liam Dolman
6. Ben Farrell
7. Nabil Shariff
8. Fazel Koriya
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Richard Bunting (C)
11. Joe Curtis
13. Ben Heath
14. Lewis Leslie (for Curtis 72)
15. Taylor Orosz (for Koriya 75)
16. Ben Ford (for Bunting 89)
18. Ollie Brown-Hill
Goals: Gregory (81)
Goals: Farrell (9), Lorraine (67)
Yellow Cards: Hanna (66)
Yellow Cards: Finlay (69)
Referee: Aaron Bannister
Assistants: Jamie Rhodes, Gavin Hock