AFC Rushden & Diamonds let their teamwork and motivation do the talking, as they recorded a 2-1 victory over league leaders Spalding United in Lincolnshire on Saturday afternoon. The Diamonds put a halt to the Tulips winning run with goals from Matt Gearing (pen) and Richard Bunting giving them a 2-0 lead at the break. The Tulips had seen Nathan Stainsfield dismissed for bringing down Russ Dunkley, but they had keeper Michael Duggan to thank for keeping them in touch with the Diamonds, as he made three excellent saves from Aaron King, and possibly an even better one from Russ Dunkley. That meant the hosts’ late goal from a Diamonds defensive mix up might have caused problems, but the Diamonds safely saw out the game to move up to third in the UCL Premier Table, as well as recording their tenth win in a row.
Diamonds manager Mark Starmer had a number a challenges to overcome in order to field a team to challenge the Tulips. With Alex Deakin having a recurrence of his back problem, and Arron Parkinson still struggling to shake off illness, he had the added problem of Jake Gillingwater being unavailable for the next few weeks. He had to bring Jamal Clarke straight back into the side after his 4 game ban, rather than bring him back to match fitness via the bench, and paired him alongside Brad Harris for the first time, as Harris again dropped back from midfield.
Up-front he chose not to risk either Alfie Taylor or Fazel Koriya after their recent injuries, giving Russ Dunkley a “lone striker” role with Aaron King supporting him in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Richard Bunting making a start after his injury problems.
The Diamonds faced the further challenge of getting used to the bumpy pitch as they kicked off with the wind at their backs, but it was quickly clear they were going to take the game to their hosts. They won a succession of corners early in the game, with Matt Gearing’s delivery becoming even more dangerous as the wind helped them to curl towards goal. There were shaky moments for the Tulips’ defenders as they failed to judge the bounce and saw Russ Dunkley turn past Stainsfield as the former Conference North defender struggled to handle his opponent.
Matt Gearing was also causing problems during open play, and Aaron King and Greg Ling were also ensuring all the Tulips’ defenders had a challenge on their hands, not helped by an ineffective offside trap.
The Diamonds pressure finally paid off after 18 minutes when the Tulips defence again misjudged a ball forward and Dunkley powered past a flat-footed Stainsfield, who resorted to tripping the Diamonds striker as he closed on goal. Referee Andrew Humphries pointed to the penalty spot, and showed Stainsfield a red card. Matt Gearing stepped up and made no mistake with the spot kick.
As the Diamonds had been causing so many problems to the Spalding defence, and were dominating midfield to that point, the Tulips’ manager Rayment decided to drop his top striker Andrew Tidswell back into midfield, as he had to move new signing Jon Fairweather back into defence.
The Diamonds continued their domination, and it was fitting they should be doing so during the tribute to Dale Roberts after 24 minutes, which was well observed by both sets of fans. Just as that applause had ended the Diamonds almost had their second as a powerfully hit free-kick from Aaron King brought a splendid save from Michael Duggan.
Further chances fell to Dunkley, who headed narrowly wide, and Aaron King who forced a tremendous double save by Duggan after good work from Gearing. Just as it was beginning to look like the Diamonds might not get rewarded for their dominance before the break, they scored their second. A Russ Dunkley flick-on was right into the path of Richard Bunting whose excellent ball control allowed him to get the ball under control whilst continuing his run, and then fire past Duggan.
Half-Time: Spalding United 0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2
With Spalding now having the advantage of the wind, and with manager Rayment having been able to reorganise at half-time there was an expectation the Tulips might get back into the game, but it was the Diamonds that continued to create the better chances. At the back Jamal Clarke and Brad Harris looked like they had played together many times – when in fact this was the first time they had formed the Diamonds centre back partnership. Greg Ling produced a couple of early threats in the second period, and Joe Merrill also fired wide.
Tom Cross was finally getting tested in the Diamonds goal as Andrew Tidswell was pushed back up front, but the Tulips striker found himself blocking a well-hit shot from a team-mate before Cross made a good save from Thurlbourne and saw a Tidswell effort clip a post.
Richard Bunting had produced an impressive performance in the Diamonds midfield on his first start after injury, but he picked up another knock and had to be replaced by Fazel Koriya just after the hour mark. Koriya, Dunkley and Merrill linked well to threaten on the right, and then Matt Gearing made an excellent solo run down the right that forced a corner, with Jamal Clarke just unable to latch onto the Gearing corner.
Keeper Duggan had produced a man-of-the-match performance for the Tulips already, but his best save of the game when Dunkley once again outjumped his marker to get on the end of a Sam Brown diagonal ball into the area, with the keeper pulling off a great reflex save.
After Lewis Webb headed a good chance for the Tulips wide, it looked like the Diamonds might keep a clean sheet, as well as pulling off such an important victory, but a defensive mix-up as they didn’t deal with a mis-hit cross after 89 minutes saw the ball fall to Jamie Stevens who fired home.
The Diamonds managed to deny the hosts any further chances and held on for victory.
Full-Time: Spalding United 1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2
Diamonds Man of the Match: Brad Harris
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Michael Duggan
2. Peter Bore
3. Adam Jackson
4. Jamie Stevens (c)
5. Nathan Stainfield
6. Lewis Webb
7. Dan Cotton
8. Jon Fairweather
9. Sam Mullarkey
10. Andrew Tidswell
11. Jamie Thurlbourne
12. Lee Beeson (for Jackson 75)
14. Alex Lowery
15. Marcus Ebdon
16. Danny Hussey
17. Tom Cross
2. Joe Merrill
3. Sam Brown
4. Séan McBride
5. Jamal Clarke
6. Brad Harris
7. Matt Gearing
8. Richard Bunting
9. Russ Dunkley (c)
10. Aaron King
11. Greg Ling
12. Fazel Koriya (for Bunting 65)
13. Adam Whybrow(GK)
14. Deven Ellwood (for Ling 90+3)
15. Alfie Taylor
16. Rashid Koriya
Goals: Stevens (89)
Goals: Gearing ((pen), 19), Bunting(42)
Yellow Cards: Cotton, Stevens
Yellow Cards: Clarke
Referee: Andrew Humphries
Assistants: Tony Sharrock, Gabriel Rabatin