Diamonds slipped to their first defeat since New Year’s Day as they were narrowly beaten by fellow play-off chasers Stratford Town on Saturday afternoon.
The first half, understandably given the importance of the contest, was pretty tetchy and close. The hosts had the better of the ball and the chances, with ex-Diamonds man Lewis Wilson coming close in only the seventh minute when his near-post flick from a corner was cleared off the line. Moments later Wilson Carvalho cut in from the left before his curling effort towards the far post was well parried away by Heath to his left, but Diamonds grew more into the half as it progressed and began to pose more and more of a threat going forward. In the 23rd minute Sam Johnson collected the ball halfway inside his attacking half before running forward and having a low shot easily held by the keeper, and only two minutes later a Declan Rogers free-kick from the right was flicked goalwards by Ben Diamond only for it to be straight at the keeper. Heath made another good save just after the half-hour mark when another ex-Diamonds man Ross Oulton won the ball in midfield, and a long ball was played forward to striker Mikey Taylor. He got in behind the Rushden defence before cutting back into the area and seeing an effort brilliantly tipped over the bar. Oulton had to be replaced as a result of going down following the challenge, and Wilson had a bobbling effort easily saved as the half ended with the game very much in the balance.
The second period began evenly, with Rogers and Johnson almost getting in behind for Diamonds before home midfielder Albi Skendi slashed an effort well wide of the target. The hosts then came within inches of taking the lead when a cross from the right went through Heath’s hands and cannonned off the crossbar before the ball bounced down on the line. Alex Collard did superbly to hook the loose ball away before it went in, and the resulting corner led to another one which was headed wide by Jamie McAteer. From the hour mark Diamonds increased their pressure and had a good spell that led to a number of free-kicks. Rogers hit one over the bar from 35 yards out, and another one found Collard who headed it across for Diamond, but his header drifted up and was easily collected. Stratford then almost scored when Carvalho flashed a low ball across from the left, and it ricocheted off Liam Dolman and towards goal before Heath was able to gratefully hold onto the ball. However, Stratford did take the lead with 15 minutes remaining when the ball ran nicely for substitute James Fry to thrash a low effort past a few players and past the despairing dive of Heath from just under 30 yards out. Ben Farrell, Sam Brown and Jack Bowen were all introduced from the bench in the hope of finding an equaliser, but the home side came close to sealing the game when Will Grocott was slipped in through on goal only for Heath to make an important block to stop the effort. Four minutes of additional time were signalled and, in the third of these, a loose ball dropped for Collard to hit a goalbound volley from just inside the area. The effort was blocked away, and there were huge appeals for a handball and penalty from players, staff and fans behind the goal alike. However, the referee turned these calls down, and he blew the full-time whistle moments later to consign Diamonds to their first league defeat in ten games.
Manager Peaks named the same starting XI for the third consecutive game, consistency that attested to the excellent form that Diamonds had been in of late. The only alteration came amongst the substitutes as Ben Acquaye was unavailable, and so only four substitutes of Sam Brown, Joe Curtis, Ben Farrell, and Jack Bowen were named on the bench.
The two sides took to the field at the Arden Garages Stadium on a cool and breezy day, with the stakes very high indeed. The hosts entered the fixture sixth in the table, and level on points with the play-off places. They had only lost two of their last thirteen home league matches, but conversely they had not won any of their last three games and had only scored in one of their last six. Diamonds were fourth in the table, and were level on points with their opponents having played the same amount of games. They had won their last three away league matches, were unbeaten in their last nine league games, and had only lost one of their last seventeen in the league. With only ten games remaining in the season, and with barely anything separating the teams in the table, everyone knew how important a clash this was for both sides. After the pre-match formalities had been completed, referee Richard Cattell got the eagerly anticipated match underway.
Only two minutes had elapsed when Diamonds threatened. A neat move forward saw Ben Diamond receive the ball in the centre around 30 yards out, but his thumping effort was well charged down by ex-Diamonds man Ross Oulton. The hosts swiftly broke down the other end, and another ex-Rushden man Lewis Wilson cut in from the right and seeing his effort partially blocked away before Diamonds won a free-kick.
Shortly afterwards, Wilson was involved again in the first big chance of the contest. Stratford won the first corner of the match on the right, and the near-post delivery found the perfectly-timed run of Wilson who flicked an effort towards goal. However, Jack Westbrook was in the prime position to clear the attempt away close to the goal-line at the expense of another corner. This one came to nothing though, and the scoreline remained level.
The hosts fashioned another good chance moments later in the 11th minute. Midfielder Albi Skendi, who would go on to dictate much of the proceedings from the middle, sprayed a pass out to Wilson Carvalho on the left. The tricky winger jinked and cut inside away from Zack Reynolds before curling a shot towards the far post. Ben Heath did well to get across to his left to parry the effort away, and the danger was then cleared. A few minutes later right-back Chris Cox saw a threatening low ball across the face of area importantly cleared away, and then Skendi had a shot blocked away as the hosts kept up the pressure.
Stratford had had the better of the opening exchanges as they had were retaining and utilising the ball well whilst looking dangerous through a number of pacey, direct attacks. Diamonds hadn’t been able to keep the ball for long periods and as result had not been able to exert much of an attacking threat. They did have a chance halfway through the half when Nathan Hicks slipped a neat ball into the feet of Sam Johnson, and he turned swiftly before setting his sights and hitting a shot from outside the area that home keeper Laurence Bilboe was able to comfortably hold.
Only a few minutes later, Diamonds had arguably their best chance of the half. They won a free-kick on the right after Lorraine was felled, and Declan Rogers moved across to take the set-piece. He whipped an inviting delivery into the heart of the area where Diamond met the ball but, unlike the last away game where he had scored a header, this headed effort went straight at Bilboe. On the half-hour mark Hicks powered away from Will Grocott in the middle of the pitch before hitting an effort towards goal from around 30 yards out, but the ball ran well wide of the post. Johnson then was able to latch onto a pass following a Rushden break, and his cross from the left initially appeared dangerous until it went just over the leap of Lorraine and out for a goal-kick.
The visitors had responded well to the early Stratford pressure and had begun to get more of a foothold in the game, but the hosts still represented a serious threat. In the 33rd minute they came close when Oulton won a challenge halfway inside the Diamonds attacking half to stop Diamond sprinting forward. The loose ball ran for Wilson, and he launched an excellent raking pass over the top of the Diamonds defence for striker Mikey Taylor to latch onto. He got onto it on the left of the area before he cut inside Alex Collard and curled a shot towards the far corner, but Heath anticipated it superbly and tipped it over the crossbar. Oulton stayed down as a result of the challenge and, despite some treatment, he had to come off to be replaced by James Fry to warm applause from both sets of fans. The resulting corner came to nothing in the end, and the game remained delicately poised.
Diamonds earnt a set-piece of their own six minutes before the end of the half as they won a free-kick on the right. Rogers again took the delivery looking for the run of Jack Ashton at the back post, but it sailed just over the full-back’s head and out for a goal-kick. Fellow defenders Liam Dolman and Collard were then forced to make key interceptions down the other end as first a promising and pacey home attack saw Dolman isolated against Grocott. The home attacker tried to push it around the centre-half and run onto it, but the Rushden captain used his strength well to serenely win possession back and then to clear away. In Stratford’s next attack a neat ball through from the edge of the box looked like it may pierce the away backline, but Collard made a crucial clearance before Wilson latched onto the loose ball to hit a bobbling shot that was easy for Heath to collect.
Four minutes of additional time were signalled at the end of a half that had passed by quickly, and that had been understandably edgy and on a knife-edge. In the first of these Heath reacted well and was alert to collect a through ball ahead of an overlapping Grocott run, and two minutes later Westbrook received the first yellow card of the contest as he halted a threatening counter-attack just short of the halfway line.
This proved to be the final action of the first period as the referee blew for half-time. It had been a 45 minutes that had seen some chances, the best of which had been created by the hosts, but that had left everything still to play for in the second half.
Half Time: Stratford Town 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Much of the talk during the half-time interval focused on who would be able to seize the initiative early in the second period, who would score the all-important first goal of the contest, and who may go for it first if the scoreline remained goalless. After the players emerged from the changing rooms and took their place on the pitch, the referee got the action back underway.
Diamonds got onto the front foot immediately, and it looked like Rogers would have a chance at goal when a cross from the right was cleared only as far as the away midfielder. He shaped to shoot on his favoured left foot before jinking into the box on his right, but Carvalho did well to track back and win the ball before clearing away. Stratford forged an attack of their own down the other end, and Skendi did well to run forward down the left before cutting inside and slashing an effort that ended up going out for a throw-in.
The hosts came within inches of taking the lead in the 53rd minute. Cox got down the right before cutting back onto his left foot as he looked to generate room for a cross. He eventually fired a ball in towards the near post, and Heath appeared to lose the flight of the cross as it cannoned down off the underside of the bar. It dropped down on the line and looked like it may roll in, but Collard crucially got back to hook it off the line and out for a corner. A few nearby Stratford players appealed that it had crossed the line, but the referee and linesman were unmoved. The subsequent set-piece from the left was cleared for another corner, and that delivery found the run of Jamie McAteer at the near post only for his header to be powered wide of the target.
This massive let-off inspired and invigorated Diamonds as they stepped up their pressure. Just before the hour mark a fast break saw Diamond lead a charge over the halfway line, and he superbly skipped past a challenge before running at the home back-four. He looked like he might shoot as he reached the edge of the area, but he instead played it to Hicks who in turn fed it back to Diamond. The striker then attempted to play in Rogers on the left of the box, but the pass was slightly overhit and it ran away for a goal-kick.
Reynolds was getting more and more opportunity to get forward as the time wore on, and moments later the visitors broke forward again through the full-back. He embarked on a strong and direct run towards the area that looked like it may result in an effort goalwards, but Carvalho did well to track the run and just nick the ball away. The loose ball then bounced awkwardly off the Stratford man, and there were a few shouts for handball only for these to be waved away by the referee. Diamonds kept up the pressure and won a free-kick around 35 yards out in a central position, but Rogers’ effort flew harmlessly over the bar.
A few minutes later the visitors won another free-kick as Lorraine was pushed over on the right wing. Hicks moved across to take the delivery, but his curling cross was just too far ahead of a group of onrushing Diamonds men and it ran out for a goal-kick. The away momentum was now beginning to build slowly but surely, and they won another set-piece opportunity on the right. Rogers floated the delivery to the back post where Collard headed it across for Diamond but, unlike at Halesowen where it had ended in a goal, the front-man’s header floated up and Bilboe was able to comfortably hold.
The home side had struggled to get forward for a little while, but with twenty minutes of normal time to go they were able to. Carvalho danced and weaved his way into a promising position on the left, and his flashed ball across the six-yard box cannoned off the shins of Dolman. It could have gone anywhere, and it rolled towards goal where Heath was able to gratefully jump and hold onto the loose ball before a Stratford man could force it home. Down the other end Rogers got into a crossing position on the left, and his curling cross looked threatening until Bilboe was able to claim it just ahead of the lurking Lorraine.
With both sides looking dangerous and the game entering the final 15 minutes, the game was very much for the taking and looking like it could go either way. Ultimately, it was the hosts who were to take the lead. A break down the left wing saw a cross played in, and it ricocheted out of the area and perfectly into the path of the onrushing James Fry just under 30 yards out. He arrived at the rolling ball and hit it first-time, with the effort flashing past a few players and past the despairing dive of Heath on its way into the bottom corner of the net. It was a fine strike, and the celebrations of the home players and fans alike showed how big it was.
Diamonds’ nine-game unbeaten run was now in serious jeopardy, but more importantly their play-off hopes were also at stake. Peaks reacted immediately by bringing Ben Farrell on for Reynolds, a change that saw Hicks revert to right-back, and the substitute was straight into the action by tigerishly winning a couple of challenges and setting Diamonds on the attack. They won another free-kick which was played in by Rogers, and it was cleared only as far as Lorraine in a promising position just inside the area. His first-time shot looked goalbound, but it was blocked away before it could trouble the keeper or the net and the ball was cleared.
The match entered the final ten minutes, and Rushden were naturally pressing with the hosts looking to hit on the counter-attack. The visitors made their last two substitutions as Sam Brown and Jack Bowen came on for Ashton and Rogers respectively, but it was Stratford who created the next big chance. A quick break caught Rushden cold and saw a two-on-one situation in the home side’s favour. A through ball was played into the path of Grocott who only had Heath to beat just inside the area, but the keeper flew out to block away the effort and to keep the Diamonds’ hopes alive.
The visitors won a few throw-ins that Brown was able to pitch into the area, but these with many balls forward were well dealt with by the stoic home defence. The time continued to tick down, with Stratford making a couple of changes to wind the clock down further, and the hosts were managing the game well and seeming relatively comfortable.
Four minutes of stoppage-time was signalled, and it was all hands on deck now for the Diamonds as they tried everything to summon up an equaliser. Another couple of Brown throw-ins were hacked away, and with every defensive clearance it appeared more and more likely that the visitors would be defeated.
However, there remained one final last-gasp chance. Diamonds won a throw-in down the left in the 94th minute, and everybody bar Heath and Hicks piled forward into the area. Brown’s delivery was flicked on at the near post but headed away, and it fell for Collard just inside the area. He met the ball full on the volley, and it was going on target until it was blocked away by a closing defender above head height. Huge appeals for handball and a penalty rang out from players, staff and the away fans behind the goal, but the referee waved his arms straight away and was adamant it was not a penalty. Collard was subsequently booked for his protestations, and that seemed to be that.
This late drama did prove to be the final action as, seconds later, the referee signalled and blew for the end of the game.
Full Time: Stratford Town 1-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
This was a tight and tense game for the majority with Heath making some excellent saves and the hosts also hitting the woodwork, but Diamonds had a strong spell in the second half and looked just as, if not more, likely to score than the hosts during this spell. It was a terrific strike that won the game, and it was always going to be one moment of quality or one bit of luck that was going to decide the close encounter. Diamonds ultimately didn’t have the luck or the judgement of the referee on their side when their late appeals for a penalty were turned down, and such games are ultimately decided by fine margins. Last time out against Alvechurch a late and massive appeal for a Diamonds penalty was turned down and ultimately, if that appeal and the one in this game had been given and the subsequent penalties been converted, they would be three points better off and still in the play-off places. Instead, Diamonds drop out of the top five as a result of their first defeat in ten games and, with Alvechurch and Coalville having games in hand, they could fall further behind the play-off places. However, they still remain firmly in the mix for an extension to their regular season, and they will not lose sight of their terrific recent form and their second half performance here that could easily have seen them claim a point. They have an opportunity to react almost immediately and to move back into the play-off spots as their next game is only two days away when they travel to face Rushall Olympic (Monday 11 March, 19.45pm kick-off).
Diamonds Man of the Match: Liam Dolman
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Laurence Bilboe
2. Chris Cox
3. Cody Fisher
4. Ross Oulton (C)
5. Jamie McAteer
6. Jordan Williams
7. Lewis Wilson
8. Albi Skendi
9. Mikey Taylor
10. Will Grocott
11. Wilson Carvalho
12. James Fry (for Oulton 35)
13. Ross Etheridge
14. Dan Creaney (for Grocott 87)
15. Nabil Shariff (for Taylor 90+1)
16. Kian Williams
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Jack Ashton
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Alex Collard
7. Sam Johnson
8. Declan Rogers
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Joe Curtis
14. Ben Farrell (for Reynolds 77)
16. Jack Bowen (for Rogers 82)
17. Sam Brown (for Ashton 82)
Goals: Fry (75)
Yellow cards: None
Yellow cards: Westbrook (45+3), Collard (90+4)
Referee: Richard Cattell
Assistants: Jamie Howe, James Clements