AFC Rushden & Diamonds were narrowly defeated at Witton in the Northern Premier First Division South play-off semi-final on Tuesday evening.
The first half was largely tense and nervy, understandable in a play-off game, with both sides limiting each other in terms of concerted possession, momentum and clear-cut opportunities. A loose ball almost dropped for Diamonds top-scorer Nabil Shariff in the area before the keeper was able to collect, and for the hosts midfielder Will James saw a shot go harmlessly wide of the post. Rushden in particular were pressuring the Witton men quickly in the defensive and midfield areas, and they looked pretty comfortable for the opening 35 minutes without creating too much as an attacking force themselves. However, Albion upped the pressure in the final 10 minutes of the half and went close to scoring on a number of occasions. Firstly Anthony Brown hit a looped effort that forced Matt Finlay to tip over the bar, and then Thomas Owens curled a left-footed effort well over the top. Moments later a cross from the right found Owens in space in the area, but his downward header towards the corner of the net was superbly palmed away by Finlay. Seconds afterwards a cross from the left found Bradley Bauress to half-volley towards goal, and Finlay reacted brilliantly to tip the ball up and onto the crossbar before the danger was eventually cleared away. The half-time whistle was blown shortly later, with the late pressure on the Diamonds goal alleviated by the half-time break and all still to play for in the second period.
Ross Oulton was introduced at half-time in place of Ollie Brown-Hill, and the early exchanges of the half were very similar to those of the first half with both teams still searching for the all-important opening goal. Diamonds had a bit of pressure as Shariff shot wide and a couple of long-throw opportunities caused some danger, but it was the hosts who broke the deadlock in the 54th minute. A long ball over the top by full-back Anthony Gardner found striker Rob Hopley running in behind, and he beat Finlay to the ball to flick it past the keeper and into the back of the net. Though it was understandably a big setback to Diamonds’ game-plan, there still remained a lot of time to get back into the tie, and Farrell soon saw a shot parried after he had found room on the edge of the box. Rushden were dealt another setback shortly afterwards, though, as they were reduced to ten men. Midfielder Dan Quigely dived into a midfield challenge with Steve Tames as he attempted to win the ball back, but his feet left the ground. The referee, therefore, subsequently blew and issued a red card to the Diamonds man. To their enormous credit this didn’t seem to affect the visitors much, and they went on to control much of the late possession and territory as they strove for an equaliser. They had to ride their luck as a free header at the back post went wide of the mark for the hosts, defender Callum Westwood cleared an effort off the line and Will Jones had a header straight at Finlay, but Diamonds gave everything up the other end. Their best chance came when substitute Jack Bowen glanced a header wide from a Sam Brown cross, and despite Lorraine hitting a shot wide and Brown seeing a last-gasp effort fly over the crossbar, Witton defended stoically and were able to see out the game. They will go on to face Saplding United in the final on Saturday, and Rushden’s promotion hopes are ended. Diamonds, however, can hold their heads up immensley high after a performance of true heart, spirit and courage, with a never-say-die attitude on show throughout.
Diamonds manager Andy Peaks kept faith with the same starting XI that had started the previous two games. That meant that a 4-4-2 formation was utilised again, with Tom Lorraine and Nabil Shariff continuing their partnership up front, Ben Farrell and Dan Quigley making up the central midfield pairing and Brad Harris and Liam Dolman forming the heart of the defence. The substitutes were also the same, with Ben Heath, Kyal McNulty, Taylor Orosz, Jack Bowen and Ross Oulton making up the bench.
Both sides stepped out onto the Wincham Park playing surface to loud support from both sets of fans, and a keen sense of intrigue was felt amongst everyone. The hosts had finished 25 points ahead of the Diamonds in the regular league season and had defeated the visitors 2-0 in both fixtures between the two, and coupled with the fact that Witton had only lost once at home domestically all season, the travelling faithful and players knew they were in for a really tough examination. However, the play-offs are always known as a lottery and the semi-final at this level is a one-off game with both sides starting on a level-playing field, and so the Diamonds also had a bit of confidence ahead of the contest.
After the two captains had called for the coin-toss and a quick count of the players had been made, referee Lewis Smith blew his whistle for the start of the game. Diamonds were shooting away from their healthy travelling contingent for the opening period, and one long early ball forward towards their own goal almost found the advancing Will Jones for Witton but Dolman was across quickly to shepherd the ball back to Matt Finlay. Play swung down the other end and Shariff attempted to latch onto a loose ball inside the area, but home keeper Danny Roberts was out quickly to smother the danger.
The early stages were very cagey and tense, with both sides trying to feel their way into the hugely-important match and build periods of possession and pressure. The visitors had a chance to cross into the Witton box after 5 minutes when Callum Westwood got down the right, but his delivery looking for Lorraine was well caught by Roberts. The hosts responded with a couple of crosses themselves, the first of which sailed over everybody’s head out for a goal-kick and the second being confidently claimed by Finlay.
The first actual shot of the match was in the 14th minute, and was for the home side. They won a free-kick in a central position around 30 yards out, and though the initial kick was easily blocked and Rushden looked to clear the ball downfield, Jones ran onto the ball as it bounced. He sized up a shot, but it flew harmlessly wide of the target from the edge of the box.
The two sets of fans, segregated for this fixture, were in tremendous voice as they looked to inspire their respective side in the early exchanges. Witton were beginning to build a little pressure, but Diamonds were coping with it pretty easily and defending well when called upon. One such example saw the hosts win a throw-in on the left after 18 minutes, and the long pitch into the area looked like it would cause danger to the away backline, but Dolman rose superbly to head the ball away from danger. They then won a corner moments later, but the deep delivery found a stretching Scott Lycett and he could consequently only direct his header well off-target.
The general play was swinging between both teams as the two struggled to build a consistent rhythm and tempo, and it was the Diamonds who the next opportunity to threaten. Shortly after Witton had done so the visitors won a corner-kick also, but Shawn Richards’ delivery was straight into the hands of Roberts who collected comfortably. Rushden broke forward again moments later, but Lorraine’s attempted run down the right was halted by a trip from Anthony Brown, and the home defender was issued the first yellow card of the contest as a direct result. The subsequent delivery into the box from Ollie Brown-Hill was easily cleared though, and the scoreline remained at 0-0.
In a match that was very even and with both defences looking very strong, set-pieces were proving to be the best source of opportunities. Witton won another throw-in after good Diamonds defending, and another long-throw was launched into the heart of the visitors area. This time a home head did make contact with the ball, but the attempted effort looped comfortably over the crossbar. The half-hour mark ticked by, and so far Rushden had largely and comprehensively nullified the threat of a side who had scored a century of goals in the regular league campaign.
However, for the rest of the half the hosts completely dominated. After 32 minutes a sharp move down the left saw Jones get in behind and pull the ball back across the area, but thankfully for Diamonds it ran past a couple of red-and-white home shirts and was able to be cleared away. Moments later a long ball from the right channel found home striker Rob Hopley, and he superbly brought the ball under control via an outstretched right boot before running into the area. However, Dolman stuck with the Witton man and brilliantly blocked the ball away for a corner. The corner from the right was played right into the heart of the six-yard box where Finlay got a crucial punch on the ball, but a cross was played back into the danger area. It dropped for Brown, and his looping shot high into the air required the Diamonds keeper to tip over the bar as it dropped towards his goal. The resulting corner was well cleared away though, and the danger on the away goal was averted.
This was only a temporary respite though as the hosts surged forward shortly afterwards, sensing a breakthrough before half-time. Tom Owens cut in purposefully from the right wing as space opened up for a shot, but his effort curled over the crossbar. A minute later Brown-Hill was cautioned for a foul just inside his own half on the left side, and Bradley Bauress curled the ball into the middle looking for a Witton head. There was Owens all alone around six yards out, and his header towards the bottom corner looked for all the world to be heading into the net before Finlay dived to his left and brilliantly pushed the ball away. It ran to another Witton man though, and his cross back in looked really dangerous until Harris crucially intervened and headed the ball away.
Moments later the home side won a throw-in on the left, and the pitch in was flicked on towards the back post and Bauress who just had the run on Sam Brown. He fired a half-volley towards goal from around 14 yards out, but Finlay showed tremendous reflexes to push the ball up and onto the crossbar before it bounced away and was cleared to safety. After his crucial saves at Leek and at home to Newcastle had helped secure Diamonds crucial points in their play-off push, these two stops by Finlay were equally vital to keep the Diamonds level, and to keep them in the contest. The last chance of the half again fell to the hosts, as the visitors couldn’t find a way out from Witton’s building, incessant pressure since the half-hour mark. A neat exchange found a home man in space in the box, bit his shot was well blocked away before the subsequent corner was cleared.
The referee blew for the end of the half after one solitary minute of stoppage-time, a half which was tense and very even for the opening half-hour before Witton piled on the pressure only to be denied by two miraculous Matt Finlay saves. As the two sets of players made their way to the changing-rooms the game was poised on a kinfe-edge still, and was very much still all to play for.
Half Time: Witton Albion 0-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The two sides re-emerged from the changing rooms at the same time, and the largely sunny nature of the opening half had been replaced by a slight gloom as darkness began to appear in the evening sky. Ross Oulton had been out on the pitch practicing in his full Diamonds kit towards the end of the interval, and he came on in place of Brown-Hill before the second half got underway.
The plan from Peaks seemed to be to an attempt to get the Diamonds on the ball a little more after their lack of it in the late stages of the opening half, though the formation initially appeared to remain a 4-4-2 with Farrell moving out to the right. Within a couple of minutes the visitors were on the attack as Richards found Shariff on the left channel, but after getting to the byline his cross was mishit and dropped behind the goal. The Rushden top-scorer, searching for his 27th goal of the season, was involved again shortly afterwards when he collected a Quigley header, but his eventual shot on the turn floated harmlessly wide of the post.
Diamonds had indeed begun the second half well and mainly in control as they had more of the ball and resulting pressure. They won a throw-in on the right after 51 minutes which Brown trotted across to take, though his delivery into the area was comfortably cleared at the near post by a defensive header. Two minutes later he had another opportunity, from a very similar position, to launch a throw into the area, and this one caused a lot more danger for the hosts. It accelerated through the air reaching the head of Lorraine who flicked it on, and it could have dropped for any number of players in the area. It hit the unsuspecting Anthony Brown and again could have gone anywhere, but fortunately for the hosts it dropped wide of the near post and out for a corner. Quite a few Diamonds players threw their hands up to their head, as they knew how important that could have been.
The resultant corner didn’t beat the first man, however, and after the ball was cleared away Witton were able to regain possession. After a succession of passes in the midfield area the ball was played to full-back Anthony Gardner who pitched a long pass forward in behind the Diamonds defence. Rob Hopley timed his run perfectly to meet the bouncing ball and to just get to it ahead of the advancing Finlay, with his flicked effort passing the Diamonds stopper and running into the back of the net to give the hosts the lead.
Loud cheers and celebrations naturally occurred amongst the home players, management and fans, but everyone realised that there was still a long way to go in the game. Rushden responded well, and after they had earnt another corner on the right which had been cleared away, they forced Roberts in the Witton goal into action. A neat flick-on by Lorraine ran for Shariff with his back to goal on the edge of the box, and he in turn laid it off to the nearby Farrell who took a quick touch to control. He then hit his effort towards goal, but the Witton keeper dived full-length to his left to parry the ball clear.
The hour-mark ticked by, and with the hosts having kept 17 clean sheets in the regular league season Diamonds knew they had a tough ask to get back into the game and find a leveller. Their task was made even harder when they were reduced to ten-men in the 62nd minute. A neat one-two between Quigley and Oulton looked to have given the former room in midfield to move forward, but a good recover challenge by Owens hooked the ball a few yards away. Quigley, in his eagerness to regain possession and get Diamonds back on the attack, leapt into the 50-50 challenge with Steve Tames, and though he appeared to win the ball, the referee was quick to blow his whistle and issue a red card to the Rushden man.
This really did threaten the visitors’ positive and enterprising second half so far, but a quick tactical re-shuffle to a 4-3-2 formation was made and they, to their ultimate credit, didn’t appear to be affected by the dismissal. Witton had a golden chance to double their advantage a minute after the red card when a deep free-kick was played to the back post, but despite a free header for a home player the subsequent effort flew wide of the upright. Aside from that though, the pattern of the early stages of the second half was continued. Peaks made another change to his team after 68 minutes when Jack Bowen replaced Richards, and this meant Bowen would go up front to partner Shariff, with Lorraine dropping back into a midfield role.
Naturally the hosts began to find more room when they attacked, not only due to the sending-off but also because of the Diamonds beginning to push more men forward in search of an all-important equaliser. Tames hit a half-volley from the edge of the box that sailed over the crossbar, but the visitors still remained determined, positive and on the front-foot as the time continued to tick down. A Westwood cross from the right was cleared only as far as Brown, and although his header back into the area initially looked threatening, it ran away from a couple of players and was easily collected by Roberts.
74 minutes had elapsed when both sides had a clear opportunity to score. Firstly Haywood had a driven effort blocked behind for Witton, and the resulting corner from the left found a home head to direct an effort towards the far corner of the net. It sailed over a few white-shirts and had Finlay beaten, but Westwood was there in the right place at the right time to head the ball off the line and keep Diamonds hopes alive. Buoyed by this they advanced down the other end, and strong hold-up play by Shariff on the left allowed him to feed a pass to Brown who was in space. He took a touch before driving a cross towards the far post, and Bowen had the leap on Anthony Brown as he met the cross. Any firm contact would surely have hit the target, maybe even have found the back of the net, but instead it glanced off the substitute’s head and ran behind for a goal-kick.
The game was undoubtedly more open the longer it went on, and Witton were the next to threaten in troubling the scoresheet. They won a free-kick on the left wing, and an outswinging delivery found Jones in some room around 12 yards from goal. However, the delivery was slightly behind him, and so his directed header towards goal wasn’t too powerful and proved easy for Finlay to catch. Again Rushden were straight back on the attack after this chance, and they won a throw-in on the right. However, as was becoming a largely common feature in the match, Brown’s resulting long-throw was well cleared by the home defence who had defended stoically and strongly throughout the contest.
Still Diamonds pressed, harried and battled all over the pitch despite their adversity in the scoreline and in numbers on the pitch, and hugely evident in all ten men was a determination to give absolutely everything to the cause and in finding an equalising goal to keep their season alive. After Tames had hit a dangerous cross in from the right that was parried by Finlay and then cleared upfield by Brown, Diamonds created another half-chance. A ball by Dolman was well controlled by Shariff, and his turn and pass to Bowen was quickly played further on to Lorraine, and he tried to turn his man in the area before hitting a left-footed shot wide of the near post.
Long-throws had been a consistent feature of both side’s play in the game, and Witton had another opportunity to pitch one into the box in the 84th minute. The throw was helped on by a home player before it bounced down towards goal, but it eventually dropped wide and out for a goal-kick. The hosts were largely resorting to playing on the break in the latter stages, and Diamonds were the ones who were naturally trying to force the issue without creating too many clear chances. Moments later Jones for Witton was played in on the left side of the box after a quick break, but Harris came across superbly to tackle the midfielder and block the ball behind for a corner. The resultant set-piece was cleared away though, and hope still remained for Rushden.
In one last throw of the dice Peaks used his last substitution as Taylor Orosz came on in place of the hardworking Lorraine. The game moved towards the 90 minute mark, and four additional minutes were signalled by the fourth official. For the first of these Witton did well to keep possession in their attacking half, but Diamonds were eventually able to put enough pressure on the hosts to win a throw-in. Nearly every single player was to be found in the Diamonds attacking half, and the ball was worked downfield as the visitors hoped for one final opportunity to level the game. The chance was to come in the third minute of stoppage-time when a high ball forward by Dolman was flicked on by Shariff looking for Bowen. Despite three Witton men in attendance the striker did superbly well to put pressure on Gardner who mishit his clearance, and it ran away a few yards and perfectly into the path of the advancing Sam Brown. He was around 25 yards out from goal, and he arrived at a terrific pace to slam an effort towards goal. However, the shot rose and cleared the crossbar as it flew for a goal-kick.
Play restarted, but only seconds passed before Smith blew his whistle to call time on an engrossing contest. Understandably deep celebrations occurred amongst the home ranks at the significance of the result and at advancing to the play-off final, and there were undoubtedly clear signs of respect from both sets of management staff towards how the other team had played as they shook hands. The Diamonds players and coaches all went across to the terrace where the Diamonds supporters had been housed and from where had provided terrific support for their team, and as they eventually made their way towards the changing rooms they knew they couldn’t have given any more out there on the pitch.
Full Time: Witton Albion 1-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Witton are the ones who advance to the Northern Premier First Division South play-off final on Saturday, but only after being pushed every inch of the way by a battling, tireless and hugely determined Diamonds side. Credit must go to the hosts who, on the overall balance of the contest, deserved their victory, and who took their chance before defending superbly to see out the game. They will now face third-placed Spalding United in the final after the Lincolnshire outfit defeated in-form Stocksbridge Park Steels 3-2 after extra-time. For the Diamonds however, it is a gutting and devastating way to end the season, made even more difficult after now losing out in the play-offs on two consecutive occasions, and everyone connected with the club looked understandably and visibly distraught come the final whistle. However, a huge amount of pride can be felt for the way Diamonds never gave in in this contest, and for their never-say-die attitude despite falling behind and going down to ten-men. On another day they may have sneaked a draw to force extra-time or even a win with a little bit more luck, but it just wasn’t meant to be in the end despite a massively admirable effort to find an equalising goal. Expectations were unknown at the start of the season as the team stepped into unknown territory in a new league, but the way in which they responded to adversity throughout the season and in which they reached the play-offs despite it being an extremely competitive division is testament to the players, management staff and fans who were there every step of the way. They bounced back from losing their opening two games of the season to embark on a nineteen-game unbeaten run, coupled with another excellent run in the FA Cup, and despite a few defeats towards the end of the campaign the club showed tremendous resolve to regroup and to pick up vital wins, particularly at Leek and at home to Newcastle, to seal a top-five position and passage into the play-offs. Many memories will be taken from the entertaining, rollercoaster season, and the club will undoubtedly channel the hurt and disappointment from this defeat to again bounce back and return stronger ready for the challenge ahead in the 2017-18 season.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Matt Finlay
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Danny Roberts
2. Anthony Gardner (C)
3. Matty Devine
4. Scott Lycett
5. Anthony Brown
6. Prince Haywood
7. Will Jones
8. Tom Owens
9. Rob Hopley
10. Steve Tames
11. Bradley Bauress
12. Tolani Omotola
14. Danny McKenna
15. Karl Noon
16. Michael Wilson
17. Jon Ritchie
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. Taylor Orosz (for Lorraine 89)
15. Jack Bowen (for Richards 68)
16. Ross Oulton (for Brown-Hill HT)
Goals: Hopley (54)
Yellow Cards: Brown (23)
Yellow Cards: Brown-Hill (40), Westwood (45)
Red Cards: None
Red Cards: Quigley (62)
Referee: Lewis Smith
Assistants: Liam Corran, Kieran Johnson
Match Gallery courtesy of Stephanie Webb Photography Copyright Stephanie Webb Photography ©2017