Diamonds were knocked out of the FA Trophy in the second qualifying round by Witton Albion on Saturday afternoon.
Rushden started brightly, though it was the hosts who threatened first when Rob Hopley had a header well saved by Ben Heath. In response Diamonds created an opportunity through Tom Lorraine’s powerful run which resulted in his shot across goal being held, and then Ben Farrell had a shot from distance parried straight to Lorraine who could only fire the rebound over the bar. Witton took the lead in the 20th minute when Tom Owens slotted a ball through for Cesaire Lingouba to run through and calmly steer a finish past Heath and into the far corner of the net. The rest of the half was competitive but lacking in clear-cut chances as Diamonds looked for a way back into the game.
They began the second half well and, after Lorraine had had a header saved, Jack Westbrook flicked a header towards the far post that came back into play off the crossbar. The hosts then hit the bar themselves shortly afterwards when River Humphreys flicked an effort at goal from a corner that cannoned off the woodwork, but they doubled their lead in the 70th minute when Zack Reynolds inadvertently directed a cross into his own net. Diamonds continued to battle and to try and pressure to get back into the game, but Witton defended solidly and were able to nullify much of the away threat. Lorraine did have a header superbly cleared off the line and Brown headed narrowly over from the resulting corner, but it was all in vain as the hosts saw out the game and move into the next round.
Manager Andy Peaks made six changes to the starting XI that had emerged victorious over Northampton ON Chenecks in the NFA Hillier Cup on Tuesday evening. Ben Heath, Jack Ashton, Liam Dolman, Ben Farrell, Nathan Hicks and Jack Bowen all returned to the side as Diamonds set up in a 4-3-3 formation, and there was a youthful look to the bench with Dan Clifton, Patrick Casey, Albie Hopkins, Louie Barrett and Nathan Pickworth being named as substitutes.
The two sides entered the Wincham Park playing surface with memories abounding of clashes between the teams in the 2016/17 season, in particular the play-off semi-final that had seen Witton emerge 1-0 winners and end up winning promotion. They had a perfect record against Diamonds having played three, won three, scored five goals and conceded none, but in this current campaign they sat 18th in the Northern Premier League Premier Division and had lost four of their last five home games in all competitions. They had had a successful FA Cup run though that had seen them defeat Spennymoor at home and FC United of Manchester away before succumbing to National League side Solihull Moors, and so Rushden knew they were in for a tough test. The visitors entered the clash 11th in the Southern Premier Division Central, and had only lost one of their last seven games in all competitions.
After the sides had shaken hands and the coin-toss had been conducted, a two minute silence was impeccably observed ahead of Remembrance Sunday and the 100 year centenary of WWI. Soon afterwards, referee Dale Baines blew to begin the match. The hosts created the opening opportunity in the fourth minute when full-back Matty Devine got away well down the left and whipped in an inviting cross. Striker Rob Hopley, who was the match-winner in the play-off clash of April 2017, rose to head goalwards, but Ben Heath dived to his left to make a good save.
Diamonds responded and fashioned their first opening a few minutes later. Tom Lorraine did excellently to muscle James Foley off the ball short of the halfway line, and the striker galloped forward before getting past Josh Wardle and running into the area. However, he was forced a little wide and so his eventual strike across goal was easily collected by home keeper Greg Hall.
The hosts were looking to turn the Diamonds defence around and force them onto the back foot with some quick, direct ball forward, and in turn the visitors were looking to build possession and exert some dominance over proceedings. One Nathan Hicks cross for Rushden was well defended and cleared by the home defence, and Ben Farrell then had a shot from outside the area awkwardly parried away only for Lorraine to lash the rebound over. Shortly afterwards the hosts then sprang forward to take the lead. After a neat and patient passing interchange halfway inside their attacking half Cesaire Lingouba played it forward to Tom Owens. Jack Ashton stepped out of defence to try and intercept, but the ball broke favourably to Owens who slipped it calmly through for Lingouba to steer a first-time effort past Heath and into the far corner of the net.
Ashton was booked only moments later for a coming together in midfield where the hosts claimed he had led with an elbow, but the referee disagreed and issued the defender a yellow card. This was indicative of large parts of the opening half that saw some midfield skirmishes and physical clashes, and showed how keenly competitive the contest was. In terms of clear-cut opportunities and goalmouth action there wasn’t much to note, with Diamonds regularly finding promising positions in the attacking third only for the final pass to sometimes let them down. This was shown by a Jack Westbrook pass towards the advancing Zack Reynolds that was slightly overhit, and then a Ben Diamond cross after a neat break by Hicks being collected by Hall.
The only other action of note in the half was Farrell being booked shortly before the interval, and soon afterwards Baines signalled the half-time whistle to call time on 45 minutes that had been well competed and pretty even, with Witton clinically taking their best chance when it came.
Half Time: Witton Albion 1-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
The respective sides made their way out from the changing rooms, with much of the half-time discussion focusing on if Diamonds could score their first ever goal against Witton and who would score the all-important next goal in the contest. After a quick count of both sets of players, referee Baines got the second half underway.
Play had barely restarted when the hosts had a good opportunity to double their advantage. A swift break down the left saw Owens play in Danny McKenna on the left of the area, but Heath did well to stand tall and save the low effort with an outstretched foot. Only a minute later Hicks found room to deliver a cross into the area after good interplay with Sam Brown, but Lorraine’s header looped up and towards goal which was easy for Hall to save and collect. In their next attack Jack Bowen got into the left of the area and fired a cross across goal and, though Hall initially spilled it and Lorraine closed in on the loose ball, the keeper was able to collect at the second attempt.
Diamonds had made a positive start to the second period and had begun largely on the front foot, and they came within inches of equalising in the 55th minute. They won a free-kick just outside the area on the right, and Hicks clipped in a dangerous delivery that found the leaping Westbrook. His header looked for all the world that it would find the top corner of the net with Hall rooted to the spot, but instead it hit the crossbar and bounced away to safety.
Witton threatened with a set-piece of their own on the hour mark when a corner from the left needed just a touch to cause danger, but it ran past everybody and out for a throw-in. Five minutes later they hit the woodwork themselves, and it was from another left-wing corner. Foley’s inswinging delivery found Wardle at the near post, and his flick found his defensive partner River Humphreys at the back post whose improvised effort came back off the woodwork and went out for a goal-kick.
The home side did not have to wait much longer to extend their lead though. In the 70th minute McKenna cut inside from the right flank and curled a dangerous delivery towards the far post. Zack Reynolds, conscious of a Witton man behind him, attempted to clear on the volley, but it came off the outside of his boot and flashed past a helpless Heath into the back of the net.
The goal threatened to end the game as a contest, but Diamonds continued to battle and to do their utmost to get back into it. Only three minutes after the goal they had an excellent chance to pull a goal back when a long free-kick by Heath saw Hall come charging out to try and collect, but he completely missed the ball. It dropped for the lurking Farrell who cleverly headed it across to Lorraine, and his looping header was goalbound only for the covering Wardle to get back and head it off the line. The resulting corner eventually dropped for the free Brown at the far post, but his lofted header towards goal just had too much on it and it went over the crossbar.
Peaks made a double change in the 77th minute by introducing Hopkins and Barrett for Reynolds and Lorraine respectively but, despite lots of possession and pressing, the hosts defended stoically to limit Diamonds and to protect their clean-sheet and lead. Dan Clifton was brought on for Farrell in the final ten minutes of normal time, but it was Witton who came closest to scoring again when Devine clipped a neat pass into the path of Owens whose strike was well held by Heath to his left.
A number of crosses and balls forward for Diamonds were all confidently repelled by the strong home backline and, after a few minutes of stoppage time, the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the game and to confirm Witton’s progress to the Third Qualifying Round.
Full Time: Witton Albion 2-0 AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Though Diamonds created some opportunities and never gave in, they were ultimately beaten by a well-organised and clinical outfit in Witton. Parallels can be drawn from last Saturday in Rushall who took their chances and then solidly defended their advantage whilst still representing a threat on the counter-attack, and Diamonds’ were just unable to break through in both games. Quite often the final ball was slightly lacking and some creativity and impetus was also in short supply, and once Witton had their two-goal lead they were able to see out the game rather comfortably. Diamonds have now failed to score against Witton in 360 minutes of football, and they equal their previous best run in the FA Trophy to the Second Qualifying Round back in 2016-17. Witton advance to the final qualifying round, the draw for which will take place on Monday lunchtime, and for Rushden they regroup and go again as they entertain Hitchin Town on Tuesday night (November 13th, 19:45pm kick-off) in the first of back-to-back home league games.
Diamonds Man of the Match: Nathan Hicks
Match Report by Ollie Mortimer
AFC Rushden & Diamonds
1. Greg Hall
2. Anthony Gardner
3. Matty Devine
4. Josh Wardle
5. River Humphreys
6. Liam Goulding
7. Danny McKenna
8. Tom Owens
9. Rob Hopley (C)
10. Cesaire Lingouba
11. James Foley
12. Michael Wilson
14. Will Booth
15. James Yates
16. Chris Noone (for Hopley 51)
13. Ben Heath
2. Zack Reynolds
3. Sam Brown
4. Jack Westbrook
5. Liam Dolman (C)
6. Jack Ashton
7. Jack Bowen
8. Ben Farrell
9. Tom Lorraine
10. Ben Diamond
11. Nathan Hicks
12. Dan Clifton (for Farrell 85)
14. Patrick Casey
15. Albie Hopkins (for Reynolds 77)
16. Louie Barrett (for Lorraine 77)
17. Nathan Pickworth
Goals: Lingouba (20), Reynolds OG (71)
Yellow Cards: None
Yellow Cards: Ashton (23), Farrell (40)
Referee: Dale Baines
Assistants: Jack Welch, Simon Robinson
Match Gallery courtesy of Stephanie Webb Photography Copyright Stephanie Webb Photography ©2018