Diamonds conceded a late equaliser, but crucially still hold their play-off destiny in their own hands, against Stamford on Monday afternoon at the Zeeco Stadium.
The visitors were quick out of the blocks and could have led inside the first minute when the returning Ollie Brown-Hill got to the left byline and pulled it back for Nabil Shariff, but the striker mishit his effort and the home keeper was able to parry the ball away. Shariff was involved again when he himself drove down the left wing before running into the box and finding Richards in space, though the winger’s effort flew well over the crossbar despite the promising position. Stamford came back into it after that, and though they failed to seriously trouble Matt Finlay in the opening half, they still contributed to a keenly-contested and well-fought first 45 minutes. Ex-RDFC man Jon Challinor almost latched onto a ball over the top of the Diamonds defence in the 22nd minute, but Finlay just came out to collect the ball and then saw Challinor head the ball out of his hands before backheeling it into the net. The referee’s whistle had already been blown though, and the Stamford man received a yellow card for his troubles. Tom Lorraine had just been challenged before he got a shot away shortly before this, and Diamonds continued to look dangerous despite not carving out many clear-cut opportunities. Challinor saw an effort go wide of the near post after the half-hour mark, and then Diamonds saw Richards hit a shot wide before Liam Dolman had a free-kick straight at Stamford’s keeper. It looked like the half would finish goalless as it drew to a close, but in the third minute of added-on time Diamonds took the lead. A Brown-Hill corner from the left found Shariff jumping behind two players who had missed the delivery at the near post, and he was able to direct a header towards goal that beat the home keeper despite his best efforts to palm it off the line.
Stamford started the second period well and almost levelled immediately when Challinor blocked a Brad Harris clearance before running into the penalty area. However the Rushden defender recovered superbly and blocked away his attempt for a corner. From a corner slightly later, in the 55th minute, the hosts were inches away from equalling when a curling delivery towards the goalline almost ended up in the net until Finlay beat the ball away under huge pressure from a home red-shirt. There were some appeals that the ball had crossed the line by home fans and players alike, but the calls were waved away. In response, Brown-Hill saw an inviting free-kick delivery just drop wide of the far post after a Stamfod man had headed it uo into the air, and then the winger saw a shot comfortably saved and another effort run wide of the near-post. The hosts were having more territory and representing more of a threat with balls in behind the Diamonds defence, and one away clearance fell invitingly to a red-shirt on the left of the box before the resulting effort trickled tamely wide of the post. Substitute Jack Bowen, introduced for Lorraine, had a curling effort just fly wide of the far post shortly afterwards, and with the contest more scrappy and becoming more tense by the minute the hosts sensed an equaliser. They got it in the 82nd minute when a strong run by substitute John King down the right saw his cross met by captain Jordan Smith, and his header zipped past Finlay before hitting the inside of the post and bouncing into the net. Diamonds then pushed for a winner in the closing stages, with a long-throw on the left just not falling kindly for a yellow-shirt and then Harris having a goal ruled out for offside against Dan Quigley in the build-up, but no winer was forthcoming and both sides had to settle for a draw. Basford’s stalemate at Carlton, however, means Diamonds hold onto fifth place and the final play-off position, and a win against Carlton on the final day will secure their passage into the end-of-season play-offs.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks made two changes to the starting XI that had importantly defeated Newcastle Town two days before. Richard Bunting, who had hobbled off in that game, hadn’t recovered in time, and so was replaced by the returning Ollie Brown-Hill, and Tom Lorraine started in place of Jack Bowen. It meant Rushden would line up in a 4-4-2 formation with Lorraine and Nabil Shariff up front, and Ben Farrell and Dan Quigley forming the central midfield partnership.
Both sides entered onto the tidy playing surface and with the sun high in the Lincolnshire sky. The visitors came into the game occupying the final play-off place, one point clear of Basford in sixth, and so knew it was imperative to at least match Basford’s result and head into the final match of the season still in control on their own destiny. The hosts, managed by ex-Corby and Holbeach manager Graham Drury, entered the contest 15th in the table and on the back of one home win out of their last five, but eager to round off their home campaign with a positive performance and result.
After a minute’s silence was impeccably observed for the passing of a long-standing Stamford supporter, referee Kevin Saunby got the game underway with Diamonds kicking towards the terraced end. Less than 30 seconds had elapsed when Brown-Hill quickly sped down the left to the byline before pulling a pass back for Shariff in the area. The striker, despite being in plenty of space, didn’t make the sweetest connection though, and Sam Donkin in the Stamford goal was able to push the ball away before it was eventually cleared further upfield.
The visitors carried their strong and energetic performance from Saturday straight into the early proceedings of this encounter, with their tempo quick and their pressuring of the opposition sharp. After the early good opportunity for Shariff, Rushden had another presentable opening in the ninth minute. Shariff was this time the creator as he, like Brown-Hill before, sped to the left byline after a neat turn before playing the ball towards the edge of the six-yard box. There was Shawn Richards arriving at pace and into space, but the ball hobbled up slightly before he was about to strike it, and so his resulting effort flew well over the crossbar.
Stamford then began to play their way into the game for the first time, and a couple of neat moves down the left required the Diamonds defence to clear away before the danger could develop. The yellow-shirted visitors themselves still continued to pose a threat when running at the home defence, and one moment saw the ball break through for Lorraine to run onto in the box before a vital challenge by Sam Hill stopped the attacker getting a shot at goal. Rushden were clearly quick to the ball in these early stages, and able to dictate a lot of the early rhythm and possession as a result
Although the home side did struggle to create meaningful chances in the half, their build-up play and exchanges of passes in midfield areas highlighted their ability to make inroads into the Diamonds defensive half. One long ball from halfway found ex-RDFC man Jon Challinor running in behind, but Matt Finlay was quick out of his goal to collect and hold. The midfielder-come-striker then decided to head the ball out of the keeper’s two-hand grasp, and as the ball bounced slightly away the referee signalled for a foul to the visitors and for a free-kick. Challinor, however, still flicked the ball into the unguarded net with a backheel, and Saunby waved the first yellow card of the afternoon in his direction.
The hosts kept up their increased pressure, though Diamonds’ defence marshalled by Brad Harris and Liam Dolman largely kept them at arms lengths and reduced their opponents’ efforts to long-range ones. This was exemplified when Challinor turned into space around 25 yards out from goal on the right, but with a couple of Rushden players ahead of him he rushed his shot, with it flashing harmlessly wide of the near-post.
Basford were still drawing at Carlton, and so it was as-you-were in terms of the play-off picture as the game ticked towards the 40th minute. Midfield skirmishes were becoming more and more frequent, and many attacks were being created down the wings, as the half wore on, and in the 37th minute these two features were noticeably demonstrated. A midfield battle saw Brown-Hill collect possession and play a neat pass out to Richards on the left wing, and he faced up Stamford full-back Curtis Hartley as he began to run at the defender. Richards cut in to begin with, then outside, and then back in again to generate some shooting space, but his resultant shot drifted wide of the near post.
Richards was involved again moments later after he picked up a loose ball following a right-wing throw-in, and in his attempt to flick the ball towards Shariff home defender Hill stretched out an arm to block the intended pass. The referee signalled a free-kick, and with it being around 23 yards out from goal it represented a decent opportunity. Dolman and Richards stood over the ball, and after the hustle was signalled it was the defender who stepped up to hit it. He curled it up and over the four-man wall, but Donkin was in the right place to catch the ball comfortably.
Diamonds had upped their pressure as they sensed an all-important breakthrough, but as stoppage-time began it seemed that the visitors would have to settle for a goalless opening half. They won a throw-in in a dangerous position on the left, very much in Sam Brown territory, but before it could be taken the referee had to stop play as an incident developed close to the home bench. It took a few moments to sort out, but after discussions with the linesman and both managerial staff Saunby blew for the game to recommence. Brown pitched a delivery into eh heart of the penalty area, and after a couple of flicks it fell for Brown-Hill on the right, but he couldn’t generate room for a shot. The ball bounced towards Farrell, but before he could pull the trigger the ball was nicked away from him and out for a corner. Brown-Hill moved across to the right to take the kick, and his inswinging delivery passed a couple of runners at the near post before it reached Nabil Shariff to head down and into the back of the net. Donkin was close to clawing it off the line, but he could only help it further into the goal, and Diamonds suddenly had the lead.
This was to be the final action of note in the half as Saunby soon blew for half-time; a half in which Diamonds had edged possession and chances at goal, and one in which they thus deserved their one-goal advantage from.
Half Time: Stamford AFC 0-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The two teams re-emerged from the changing rooms with clouds now dominating the sky, but with the air still being warm. A high sense of intrigue was still felt by many of the game’s 632 attendees with the single-goal lead held by the Diamonds being only a slight one, and one which ensured the next goal of the contest would be vital. No changes were made by either manager, and so referee Saunby blew for the start of the second-half soon afterwards.
The half wasn’t even three minutes old when Stamford had a presentable chance to get back into the game. Harris attempted a clearance downfield after the ball was worked back to him, but his attempted long ball was blocked by Challinor and span ideally for the home man to run onto. He advanced into the penalty area, with Diamonds full-back Callum Westwood doing well not to foul by running into the back of him, and hit a goalbound shot that would have troubled Finlay if Harris had not superbly recovered to block away for a corner. The resultant set-piece was straightforward for the visitors to deal with though, and an early scare had been survived.
As was a feature for much of the second half, the hosts began to play at a slightly increased tempo and to pressure their opposing numbers higher up the pitch. Diamonds, though still being able to get their foot on the ball on a regular basis, began to be turned round by balls into the channels and in behind the defence, with Stamford gaining more of a foothold in the contest as a direct consequence. They came mightily close to an equaliser in the 54th minute when, after Dolman was required to head a dangerous cross from the left away for a corner, a whipped delivery from the left curled towards Finlay and towards the goal-line. A home attacker was putting deep pressure on the away goalkeeper as it accelerated through the air, but Finlay superbly palmed the ball away before the ball was hacked further clear from danger. Hartley and Jake Duffy led the protestations about the ball crossing the line towards the linesman the next time the ball went out of play, but the decision stood and the score remained in the visitors’ favour.
This was a narrow escape for Rushden and showed how tenuous their lead was in a game of such high stakes. They responded by winning a throw-in in their attacking half, and Westwood threw it into Shariff’s path for the striker to swiftly turn and draw a foul from a nearby defender. The free-kick was in a promising position just outside the box on the right wing, and Brown-Hill took it upon himself to whip the ball into the middle. He stepped up and curled in an inviting delivery that looked like finding Shariff in front of goal before a Stamford head just got to it first, and it looped up and just dropped wide of the far post. The following corner came to nothing however, and the hosts were easily able to avert the danger.
The Diamonds visibly stepped up their attempts to find a second goal to give them somewhat of a cushion over their opponents, and they created a couple of half-chances around the hour mark in their search to double the advantage. Firstly Brown-Hill, who had looked dangerous when running with the ball, skipped into room 25 yards from goal but had a curling effort easily held by Donkin, and then Shariff almost bundled his way in on goal moments later before it bounced off a defender to the lurking Lorraine. However, his shot was slightly rushed with red-shirts trying to block his attempt, and so it sailed wide of the far post. The visitors, though looking dangerous when attacking, were struggling to create many clear-cut chances in a second half that had been bitty, edgy and not free-flowing, and the hosts’ defence was well-marshalled by ex-Diamonds man Delroy Gordon who helped keep the away chances to a premium.
Still, the hosts weren’t able to create too much themselves either, as Harris and Dolman in particular defended manfully and stoically when called upon. The atmosphere was tense and the game was still very much on the proverbial knife-edge, and so Peaks took it upon himself to add some more firepower to the Diamonds side by bringing on Jack Bowen for Lorraine in the away side’s first alteration. Stamford were the first ones to have a chance following the substitution, though, as a ball in from the right side saw Harris head away under pressure, but only to a red-shirt lurking on the left side of the box. He had plenty of time to set himself, but thankfully for the visitors his effort slipped wide of the near post.
A couple of home substitutions were then made, with Rogan Mcgeorge and John King being introduced, as they began to sense an equaliser more and more the longer the scoreline stayed as narrow as it was. The game ticked past 75 minutes with Diamonds battling manfully in midfield and looking to break forward with pace when they had the opportunity, and one such case saw a neat ball played into the path of Brown-Hill as he tried to force his way into the area. A defender blocked the ball away, but it only dropped for Bowen out on the left side. With limited options in the middle he hit a shot almost instantly after it had ricocheted to him, but his effort curled just wide of the far post with Donkin beaten as he tried to scramble across.
One more change was made by either side, in Diamonds’ case Taylor Orosz for Richards, and it was two of Stamford’s substitutes who helped to create the next chance. Mcgeorge did superbly well to win a throw-in off Farrell as it looked like the Stamford man would be closed out with a couple of yellow-shirts around him, and the throw-in was quickly taken. It was swiftly worked to King on the right, and he sped down the wing before crossing into the middle. Home captain Jordan Smith found himself in space in the middle of the box, and he flicked a header towards the far post that Finlay desperately tried to reach, but it hit the inside of the post and nestled in the back of the net. The reaction of the home fans behind the goal, and the Stamford players and coaching staff alike, showed how much it meant to them, and Diamonds had work to do again.
Basford were still being held at Carlton, and Newcastle were leading Leek, meaning the visitors would still hold their play-off chances in their own hands going into the final game at this stage. However, time still remained for that all to change, and so Rushden pressed for a winner. This left them slightly open at the back as the game became more stretched, and within the space of a couple of minutes Stamford got away down the left and then the right before crossing into the area. Firstly Brown and then Harris crucially cleared away, however, and helped allow Diamonds to try and push for an important winning goal.
Stamford’s rearguard was still proving difficult to breach though, as attack after attack broke down amidst a body of red-shirts. For the majority of the time after the equalising goal the Diamonds were camped in the home half, but a mixture of the hosts defending superbly well and the visitors slightly rushing some of their passes and attacks meant the scoreline remained tied as stoppage-time began. Rushden won a free-kick in the first added-on minute just inside their own half, and Finlay dispatched it deep into the home penalty area. Quigley headed the ball across, and after a couple of bounced it dropped for Harris on the edge of the box. He hit an effort that flew through a pile of players and flashed past Donkin into the back of the net, and it seemed that the Diamonds had a winner as many fans began to celebrate. However, the referee’s whistle had been blown, and the offside flag raised, against Quigley as he won the header, and so the goal was ruled out.
A couple more long balls looking for the rank of yellow-shirts piled forward in the opposing half were well headed away and dealt with by the home defence, and after another couple of minutes of unsuccessful attacks the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the contest. Seconds before the full-time whistle Basford’s match had also finished at Carlton, and they had been held to a goalless draw, meaning that the Diamonds held on to the final play-off position and to the control of their play-off destiny.
Full Time: Stamford AFC 1-1 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
In a game that was largely tight and edgy, especially in the second period, Diamonds will be majorly disappointed that they were not able to close out the victory, but the most important thing is they are still masters of their own fate. If any player, management staff or fan had been offered the position of having to win the last game of the regular season to reach the play-offs, then many if not all would have jumped at the opportunity. In a season where Rushden were stepping into uncharted territory in terms of opposition and the league itself, and in a season that has had many ups and admittedly some downs, the club has done tremendously well to be at this stage close to the end of the season. Newcstle’s victory over Leek means they move level on points with Basford, and one point behind the Diamonds. Basford and Newcastle must play each other in their last game of the season on Saturday, and whilst a draw would be the most favourable result for Rushden, they themselves know what they have to do regardless of scores elsewhere: beat Carlton at the Dog & Duck, and fifth place will be theirs. This match will take place on Saturday April 25th, 3pm kick-off, and after Shaw Lane were confirmed champions of the division (congratulations goes out to them from everyone connected to Diamonds), Rushden know that they would face Witton Albion away in the play-off semi-final if they were to make it. However, there remains a big job to be done on Saturday before any thoughts can be turned to the play-offs, and so attentions now turn to the final game of the regular and what-has-been a rollercoaster league season in what will be Diamonds’ last ever scheduled home game at the Dog & Duck.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Nabil Shariff
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Sam Donkin
2. Curtis Hartley
3. Liam Marshall
4. Mahmoud Juma
5. Delroy Gordon
6. Sam Hill
7. Laurie Wilson
8. Jake Duffy
9. Grant Ryan
10. Jordan Smith (C)
11. Jon Challinor
12. Chris Hollist
14. Rogan Mcgeorge (for Duffy 76)
15. John King (for Ryan 72)
16. Jack Oldham
17. Jamie McGhee (for Wilson 80)
17. Matt Finlay
2. Callum Westwood
3. Sam Brown
4. Brad Harris
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Ben Farrell
7. Shawn Richards
8. Dan Quigley
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Nabil Shariff
11. Ollie Brown-Hill
12. Kyal McNulty
13. Ben Heath
14. Jack Bowen (for Lorraine 64)
15. Taylor Orosz (for Richards 80)
16. Ross Oulton
Goals: Smith (82)
Goals: Shariff (45+3)
Yellow Cards: Challinor (22), Juma (45+1), Marshall (74)
Yellow Cards: Harris (25), Farrell (70), Shariff (90+4)
Referee: Kevin Saunby
Assistants: Jerzy Banasik, Wayne Brown