Diamonds won their first away match at Step 3 of non-league football as they triumphed over St Neots at the Premier Plus Stadium.
They made a quick start and scored what was ultimately the only goal of the contest in the 7th minute. A long throw by Sam Brown caught the home defence unaware and Tom Lorraine latched onto it before being brought down in the area by a clumsy challenge. Ben Farrell stepped up and confidently dispatched the penalty past the despairing dive of the home keeper to get Rushden off to a perfect start. The midfielder then saw a goalbound effort blocked after great work by Callum Westwood and a header squirm through to the keeper, with the hosts having a header cleared off the line following a corner in between the Diamonds chances. St Neots looked to press for the rest of the half but the visitors defended well to keep them at arms length and to maintain the advantage at the interval.
Albie Hopkins, on his first start for the Diamonds, came close on a couple of occasions in the second period as he first saw a curling effort go over, and then he had a fierce shot blocked away from the edge of the area. Heath was forced to tip over a flick-on from a long throw for the Saints, and he also made a good save to deny Claudio Ofuso as the winger cut inside from the left. Jack Ashton had been forced off through injury in the first half, and Callum Westwood also sustained a knock that required him to be withdrawn from the action, but despite the enforced changes Diamonds continued to defend solidly and stoically to limit the hosts and to ensure their first clean sheet of the campaign along with an all-important three points.
Manager Andy Peaks made four changes to the starting XI that had begun the draw at Deeping Rangers in the FA Cup Preliminary Round last time out. Captain Liam Dolman made a welcome return to the team replacing Blaize Punter, Dan Clifton took the place of the unavailable Nathan Hicks, Tom Lorraine begun ahead of the injured Jack Bowen and Albie Hopkins made his first start for the club ahead of John Dean, with Diamonds again going with the fluid 4-3-3 formation that they had used throughout the season so far.
As the two sides stepped out onto the Premier Plus stadium playing surface a keen sense of intrigue was felt by the strong and plentiful attendance around the ground. St Neots, nicknamed The Saints, came into the contest 13th in the table having failed to score in three of their four league games so far but having recorded an impressive draw at Kings Lynn in their previous outing, and Diamonds entered the match having lost their last two consecutive away league games, despite performing well in both, and having not won in any of their previous away games in all competitions so far this season. The air was warm but there was a slight breeze in the air as the two teams shook hands, the coin-toss was conducted and referee George Byrne signalled the start of the match.
Rushden began brightly and, after only four minutes, Hopkins was in the action as he attempted a flick-on into the area that was just missed by a fellow yellow-shirted away man and the hosts were able to clear. However, moments later they won a penalty. A throw-in was won by the visitors halfway inside their own half, and Sam Brown quickly ran forward to pick up the ball and launch it forward. It dropped perfectly over the home defence for Lorraine to latch onto and, as he ran forward into the area, he was tripped by home defender Taylor Parr. The referee pointed immediately to the penalty spot, and Ben Farrell stepped up to take the kick. He had taken the last one for Diamonds in the final game of last season and scored, and the end result was the same here as he dispatched a low effort past the keeper’s despairing dive and into the left corner of the net. After top-scoring with 19 goals in all competitions last season this was the midfielder’s second goal of this current campaign, and it gave Diamonds the perfect start.
The away side were looking dangerous from the get-go with their ability to get the ball forward quickly and precisely, and the front three always being available to feet or in behind backed up by willing and direct running, and this was in evidence in the 12th minute. Joel Gyasi burst forward from midfield before feeding Hopkins down the line, but his cross was blocked behind for a throw. Brown trotted across to take one of his trademark launches into the area but, though the keeper missed it and the ball bounced dangerously across the face of the area, the referee sounded his whistle to signal a foul from Ashton on the goalkeeper.
St Neots had barely had a sniff in the opening exchanges as Diamonds kept the ball well and were very fluid and interchangeable in the midfield and forward areas, and their fast start was almost epitomised further two minutes after their previous chance. Callum Westwood did superbly to anticipate and intercept a home pass out from defence, and he drove forward before feeding the ball to his left for Farrell. The goalscorer had plenty of room just outside the area to hit an effort at goal, but a covering defender threw himself in front of the shot to deflect it. It ran loose for Westwood to try and latch onto just inside the area and he went down under a Saints defensive challenge, but the referee waved away the penalty appeals and the ball was cleared to safety.
The hosts were stung into action by Diamonds’ fast start, and they created their first opportunity in the 18th minute. A cross from the left side was too high for everyone in the box but it ran for winger Claudio Ofuso to collect and play back to full-back Jack Keeble. The defender looked to curl a cross into the area, but it instead looped towards goal where Ben Heath was forced to back-pedal and tip over for a corner. The resulting set-piece was swung in from the left for Parr to meet with a firm header and, though it beat Heath, Jack Westbrook was in the right place at the right time to head the ball off the line and the danger was then cleared.
Play swung down the other end, and Diamonds easily could and maybe should have extended their lead. Westwood curled a delightful cross into the area from the right wing, and it seemed perfect for the free Farrell. However, the midfielder couldn’t get a proper connection on the header and it looped up for the home keeper to easily collect. The game continued to be played at a quick and often frenetic pace, and was becoming an end-to-end affair. St Neots launched an attack of their own and won a free-kick around 35 yards out in the centre of the pitch. Captain Luke Knight stood over the kick and whipped an effort towards goal, one which required Heath to scurry and dive across to his left to parry the ball behind.
After the quick tempo of the first half of the opening period, it was natural that the pace of the game would slow a little at some stage as both sides looked to build possession and some territory and dominance. Just before the half-hour mark Diamonds suffered a blow when Ashton and Prince Matswunguma went up together for a header and, as the home attack went on, the away defender stayed down on the floor holding his knee. After treatment from the physio it initially looked like he may be able to continue but, after coming back onto the pitch and playing for another couple of minutes, he went down again and Blaize Punter was summoned to come on in his place.
Play passed the half-hour mark, and this began a period of home pressure. In the 34th minute striker Dion Jembie-Ferris got the better of Punter down the right to escape to the byline and cross towards the back post, and Ofuso’s goalbound header required an important block from Dolman before being cleared away. Shortly afterwards the Saints won a corner on the left, and the threatening delivery to the back post found a home head to guide it back across the area but a crucial header away by a Diamonds man cleared the danger.
Diamonds were being forced onto the back foot and on the defensive, but they stood up to the task with a stoic and solid response. A minute before the end of the regulation 45 minutes a good one-two down the left side saw a cross played in by Ofuso, and it looked like an arriving Saints player would have a chance at goal. Brown though did well to slide in and put the home man off, and then the covering Clifton excellently slid in to intercept and clear. Ofuso again provided a danger on the left moments later when the winger got into the area before flashing an attempted cross into the six-yard box, but Heath anticipated the attempt and was able to catch and hold onto the cross.
Shortly afterwards referee Byrne blew the whistle to signal the half-time interval and call time on a half that was quick-paced, entertaining and full of chances and bright, positive attacking football.
Half Time: St Neots Town 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
During the break most discussion around the ground centred on how important the next goal in the contest would be, and if St Neots would be able to maintain the pressure they showed in the final 15 minutes of the first half or if Diamonds would re-assert the authority they demonstrated for much of the opening half an hour. The attendance was announced as 609, a superb turnout, and shortly afterwards both players returned to the field of play. After a quick count of the players the referee signalled to get the game back underway.
The opening five minutes of the half were fairly quiet as both teams attempted to gain a period of possession and momentum upon which to build on, and the hosts were the ones to threaten first. They won a free-kick down the right flank, and the delivery was curled into the area. Heath came out to meet it but missed the ball, and a St Neots man headed it back across goal only for a Diamonds defender to importantly head away and then win a free-kick to relieve the danger. A minute later Rushden broke with Gyasi down the right, and he did well to reach the byline before playing it back for the supporting Hopkins. The front-man got the ball out of his feet before sizing up his effort, but the curling attempt towards the far post flew over the crossbar.
After losing Ashton to injury in the opening half, the visitors suffered another injury blow when Westwood took a knock and, despite treatment from the physio, was unable to continue. Cameron Gilchrist took his place in a like-for-like change for his first appearance of the season, but seconds later the Saints had another set-piece opportunity. This time they won a throw-in on the right, and Knight’s long pitch into the area was flicked on and then headed goalwards by a home head. It floated up and dropped towards the far corner, but Heath read the danger well and got up to tip the ball over the bar.
Shortly afterwards play broke down the other end and a neat Diamonds move ended in Hopkins striking at goal from outside the area only for Knight to block the effort. The pattern of the match, like in some stages of the first half, was fairly end-to-end at this stage with both sides threatening, and just after the hour mark the Saints came close to a leveller. Ofosu latched onto a loose ball on the left side before driving forward and cutting inside past Gilchrist and Dolman to generate space for a shot. He curled it with his right foot, and Heath was required to smartly parry the effort over the top of the goal.
The home winger was involved again minutes later as he was booked for halting another dangerous Gyasi run forward, the first of three cautions for the Saints during the game. This was indicative of Diamonds looking dangerous on the counter-attack whilst nullifying and stoically limiting the threat of the hosts down the other end, with Dolman and Westbrook in particular making many key interceptions, clearances and headers to help protect the clean sheet. Gyasi drew another foul and yellow card from the hosts, this time for full-back Matt Miles, as he threatened to trigger another pacey move forward, and then there were a couple of substitutions as Kasey Douglas replaced Ofosu and John Dean came on for the tireless Gyasi in the Diamonds’ final change.
The match ticked into the final ten minutes of regulation time, and it was testament to the visitors that Heath had only been tested twice in the entirety of the second half despite it being the Saints chasing the game. In fact it was they who went closest to scoring another goal when Hopkins did excellently to skip away from two defenders down the right before powering into the area and seeing an attempted cross blocked behind. Dean trotted across to take the kick, and his pinpoint delivery found the free Dolman only for the defender to be able to get over the ball meaning his header looped up and over the bar.
The hosts were still attempting to press and build any kind of possession, tempo and momentum to set up a grandstand finish, but they weren’t allowed to by Diamonds who were capably and effectively seeing out the game with the minimum of fuss. There was one scare in the 87th minute when a cross in from the left found a Saints forward to flick around the corner and towards goal, but the effort lacked power and ran through for Heath to easily collect.
The 90 minutes ended and stoppage time began with a persistent pattern of a move starting with the Saints keeper kicking it long, Diamonds clearing the danger and then the ball ending back with the home keeper for the pattern to start again, being set. Aside from one long-range effort by Douglas that sailed well wide of the far post, the away side defended stoutly and largely nullified any home threat, and the referee soon blew the full-time whistle to signal Diamonds’ first win in four, their first clean sheet of the campaign, their first away league win at Step 3 and their second league win of the season overall.
Full Time: St Neots Town 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
In many ways this represented a perfect away display by the Diamonds. They took the lead early on, threatened a second on several occasions and, though they ultimately weren’t able to add to their lead, they defended superbly throughout and restricted the hosts to only a few real chances and protected Heath well to help him only have three or four saves to make throughout. Credit goes to every player involved in what was very much a team performance but special mentions must go to Liam Dolman, who looked like he had never been away and was at his commanding best, and Jack Westbrook who was a calming and dependable influence in the centre of midfield throughout. The win lifts them to 11th in the early season table, still with a game in hand over many other sides in the division, and their next match sees them return to Hayden Road to take on Tamworth, who registered their first success of the league season on Bank Holiday Monday, on Friday evening (August 31st, 19:45pm kick-off).
Diamonds Man of the Match: Liam Dolman
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
St Neots Town
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Finley Iron
2. Jack Keeble
3. Matt Miles
4. Luke Knight (C)
5. Tom Wood
6. Taylor Parr
7. Harry O’Malley
8. James Peters
9. Dion Sembie-Ferris
10. Prince Matswunguma
11. Claudio Ofuso
12. Dan O’Laniran
14. Kasey Douglas (for Ofuso 73)
15. Leon Fulianty (for Matswunguma 83)
16. Harry Reynolds
13. Ben Heath
2. Callum Westwood
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Ashton
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Jack Westbrook
7. Joel Gyasi
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Albie Hopkins
11. Dan Clifton
12. Leon Lobjolt
14. Ty Ward
15. Blaize Punter (for Ashton 30)
16. Cameron Gilchrist (for Westwood 57)
17. John Dean (for Gyasi 79)
Goals: Farrell (pen 7)
Yellow Cards: Ofuso (65), Miles (72), Knight (88)
Yellow Cards: None
Referee: George Byrne
Assistants: Ellis Mills, Darren Lander