AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 St Ives Town (Southern League Central Division)
A short history lesson for you… Rushden & Diamonds were formed in 1992 by former Dr Martens shoe guru Max Griggs, then President & Owner of the world-famous Northamptonshire based leather boot maker and one of the richest men in the UK…
Well he had previously purchased local part-timers Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds before merging them together and housing them in a fabulous stadium (Nene Park) with an ambitious plan to reach the football league, which they achieved by 2001, before Max sold the club for a pound to the supporters trust in 2005, and what followed was relegation to the Conference and eventual financial failings which led the Diamonds down the sorrowful path of entering administration in 2011 and expulsion, before a phoenix club, AFC, would rise from the ashes and take on the R&D name all be it, starting at the very bottom of the football spectrum, rehoused on borrowed grounds at the homes of first Raunds Town and Wellingborough Town before a latest groundshare with Rushden & Higham United which brings us to today.
On the contrary, St Ives Town have been around a lot longer, since 1887 they have scrapped around the non-league system with little ambition other to participate at amateur or semi-pro level, winning the odd Huntingdonshire Senior Cup along the way, but in recent years they have climbed to their highest echelons under long term Manager Ricky Marheineke, in 2016 becoming a step three side for the first time in their long history, ever since they have held their own in the Southern League top flight, these days split into two as the Premier Central, where AFC Rushden & Diamonds have also been a regular since 2018.
Interestingly since AFC’s new beginning, the club have played St Ives more than any other team, a derby of sorts, although the Cambridgeshire outfit play second fiddle to Bedford Town, perhaps even third fiddle to Kettering Town amongst some supporters’ ideology of adversaries, although the two sides did meet in a 2016 playoff final which the Saints won in extra time, to fuel the rivalry further.
History lesson over and fast forwarding to Monday 2nd January 2023 where the sun is shining, I’m out dog walking around Wollaton Park before a quick sausage sandwich at home and a trip down the A46, M1, A14 & A6 to a Southern League Central team that I’m yet to see play in the flesh.
It’s been a tough season for Rushden who sit bottom of the league having been beaten by Bedford 6-1 last time out, they have a new manager, their fourth of the season I’m told, in Chris Nunn, whilst St Ives have slipped since the last time I’ve seen them (win at Ilkeston), now languishing worryingly low all be it with plenty of points in hand above the drop zone.
I’m driving down the A6 through the fringes of Irthlingborough before coming to the once home of Rushden & Diamonds, the Nene Park Roundabout now has an Aldi on it opposite the former site of this once fashionable football league club, now derelict and run down the stands long gone, it is no more than over grown bushes and wasteland with the odd factory and office dotted around the periphery before the view improves crossing a long bridge over the River Nene.
I head along the ring road of Rushden before sat nav finally directs me off the A6, down Newton Road before turning right into a council estate, I hit the junction of Grafton Road and Hayden Road where I notice a couple of police cars and ambulances outside a house, ‘someone’s not had a great start to the New Year’ I frown, pulling up on the left no more than 100 yards from the ground, I watch a few players walking in as I sit on my phone to check my messages.
It's 1:45pm, I grab my laptop bag and head for the turnstile, walking towards the venue I can’t help feeling anyone above six foot can probably watch the game over the fence without paying, unfortunately I’m not that tall, the fence running parallel along the footpath, very close to the road, it feels like a real grassroots set up, and not one that should regularly accommodate more than 200 people. It must piss the neighbours off, I feel, when the likes of R&D play here against some of the bigger and better supported clubs in the division.
Walking through the turnstile I take out my mobile ticket and the guy on entrance tries unsuccessfully to zap me in. He’s got his smart scanner upside down so I end up doing it for him, before walking in to the sun blessed leafy enclosed arena where I head for the toilets and a cup of tea, I’m in a café behind the goal which is eerily creepy, dedicated to former Diamonds goalkeeper Dale Roberts who devastatingly hung himself in 2010, it has pictures and shirts on the walls in remembrance to his fine service as one of the clubs best ever players who died just 24 years young.
I’m at the corner flag as I look down on the pitch with my brew in hand, I’m reaching for my phone to take a picture of the quadrant as I’ve never seen one with so little grass on it, as an American guy walks up to me he notices I’m wearing my favourite Green Bay Packers hat, he’s got his New Orleans Saints hat on, we talk NFL for a while before he introduces himself as Bruce, he’s one of the media guys at Rushden & Diamonds and has learned every nickname of every football (or soccer) club in England.
Bruce shows me to the media seats at the front of a small metal stand down the touchline, its cramped just four or five rows high with plastic seats behind reserved for Directors, the sun is directly in my eyes as I attempt to look opposite at a big old unused terrace where the players changing rooms are housed, to the left two modern metal stands behind the goal, to the right an open concourse no wider than three feet, behind that are rows of three storey houses, all with fabulous matchday views, sadly nobody is peering out their bedroom windows today.
The ground is a real classic, hemmed in, but located in the middle of a housing estate I feel it has limitations, a step five venue with a capacity apparently of 1,500, landlords Rushden & Higham play in the Spartans South Midlands League with crowds nearer 50 than 500 (which is roughly todays attendance), the pitch is sloped slightly, but it’s muddy, really muddy, I say to Bruce “It could be a leveller today as St Ives like to knock it about”. The game only got the go ahead at 10:30am following a pitch inspection, it’ll churn up in minutes and disrupt the away teams passing style no doubt, which plays certainly in the hands of Rushden who will need to scrap for every advantage to gain a win.
Bruce welcomes the two teams in his American accent as he reads out the line-ups on the tannoy, he tells me he’s from Birmingham, but has lost his Brummy accent, it’s Birmingham Alabama, rather than the West Midlands where he’s from, he’s been in Rushden since around 2011, I blame him jokingly for the club’s demise ever-since.
There’s a minute’s silence for the recent tragic death of Cody Fisher who was murdered in a nightclub in Birmingham on Boxing Day. Fisher was a regular player in this very league with Stratford Town having previously played for Bromsgrove Sporting and Stourbridge, impeccably observed, apart from the St Ives media guy struggling to turn down his monitor screening Sheffield Wednesday v Cambridge, he finally manages to mute around halfway through the silence.
Just one new player in Rushden’s line up as centre half Luke Massingham is given a debut since signing from Thame United, the club have acquired three more players under new Manager Chris Nunn with more I'm told to come, but the rest haven’t been registered in time.
St Ives in orange start well and create a couple of chances, but as predicted they struggle with the surface as they look to pass it short, Rushden in yellow buoyed by a new boss are pressing high, hard working and up for the scrap, a goalkeepers clearance is hopelessly scuffed along the ground by James Goff in the Town net, it falls to the feet of striker Jenson Cooper who plays it straight back towards the middle of the goal for an early opener, unlikely for many who predicted a comfortable away win.
The home side are good value, they look really up for it and head and kick everything clear as St Ives mount a challenge, a couple of scary moments aside they seem to see off the danger of an equaliser, before a routine looking cross is spilled by goalkeeper Dean Snedker and former Diamonds striker Nabil Shariff, bundles a backheel over the line to bring the game back to level terms ahead of the break.
It seems despite the leveller, Rushden’s fans are hopeful at half time having seen their side put in one of their better performances of the season so far, Ngwa is a constant threat down the left, striker Jenson Cooper giving the St Ives back line a real workout, Conor Tee a talented number ten is one of the few footballers who can keep control of the ball on the bobbling pitch.
The second half is same vein, Rushden high energy and confident are scrapping on the front foot, I get the feeling St Ives don’t really want to be here, they have more quality, but less fight, Conor Tee goes inches from giving the home side the lead after crashing a stunning effort against the crossbar, at the other end though Town threaten via Baker & Shariff, Snedker making two stunning saves to make up for his earlier error whilst the away side miss a guilt edged opportunity for the win. Does the writing look to be on the wall?
Former AC & Inter Milan midfielder Edmund Hottor loses possession to substitute Kanga who picks the ball and drives before playing wide to Conor Tee, he delivers a low cross to the back post where Miguel Ngwa is waiting, he pokes home to send the home support into absolute scenes of raptures, just four minutes remaining and Rushden have stolen a remarkable, but deserved, much needed win.
The final few moments are seen out by a determined home side before the whistle is blown, by then, St Ives dejected are sorrowfully walking off the pitch whilst the Diamonds team and bench are huddled on the cut up playing surface before walking over to the crowd and milking the applause, Chris Nunn hugging the Directors over the hoardings as his lads punch the air.
Matchwinner Miguel Ngwa is a speedy winger with trickery, on loan from Northampton Town he could be heading back to Sixfields this month but it would certainly be in his new Managers interests to keep him if possible. Teenage striker Jenson Cooper worked tirelessly beyond his years whilst Conor Tee, a former Leicester City Academy star, added a touch of quality in the final third. Luke Massingham on debut was superb whilst Dean Snedker made up for a howler before half time to make important goal stopping contributions.
For St Ives, despite the glowing sun and bright kit, it wasn’t a day where their own flair players could shine, one of which, Dylan Williams who I was really looking forward to seeing play, dragged off shortly into the second half, best of a bad bunch was Miles Cowling who’s low centre of gravity helped him get out of sticky situations midst tricky conditions, striker Jonathan Edwards, subbed midway through the second half, shown glimpses of quality, but wasn’t at the races, fleet footed wide man Tyrone Baker but for a couple of moments was largely quiet, Patrick Casey at right back perhaps one of the few visiting players to come away from the match with any credit. The former Rushden defender having a good battle against Ngwa, who eventually, in the end, got the better of his opponent to score the winner.
Whether Chris Nunn’s new look team will gel in time to save the realistic threat of relegation is a big question hanging over the last and next four months of the campaign, not sure if he’ll have enough games to save Rushden from the drop, I feel if they stick with him regardless, he should certainly have the tools the next season to mount a promotion challenge, whatever division the side are in.
The new manager reminds me a bit of Tommy Brookbanks, more familiar to me, who’s done so well over the years at clubs like Hucknall, Coalville and Carlton Town, he brings a togetherness and has a laugh, a joke, and a moan with opponents and officials, is passionate and knows how to bring a dressing room together. Nunn spent 14 years at Biggleswade Town before a season at Kempston Rovers, if he’s at Rushden & Diamonds in twelve months time I have no doubt the club will be in good hands, and a lot higher in the league than they currently are.
As for St Ives, well they’ve slipped of late, which I feared when I watched them in October (the wintry conditions does not suit their style), three straight losses have them in a spot of danger, but they have fire power to lift them comfortably towards mid table, which is about par for their season, now looking like they’ve slipped out of the playoff race for good, they'll be hoping they don't slip further down the table from their precarious looking spot in sixteenth, no time to panic just yet, but the verdict going forward is surely, 'must do better' especially against those sides, like Rushden, who are scrapping for their lives below them.
AFC Rushden & Diamonds: Dean Snedker, Anthony Agemoh-Davies, Courtney Lashley, Kartell Dawkins, Ryan Hughes (Andy Kanga 60), Luke Massingham, Miguel Ngwa, Mitchell White, Jenson Cooper, Conor Tee, Peter Abimbola.
St Ives Town: James Goff, Patrick Casey, Johnathan Herd, Myles Cowling, Jordan Williams, Callum Milne, Nabil Shariff, Edmund Hottor (Charlie Johnson 88), Jonathan Edwards (Enoch Andoh 73), Dylan Williams (Kieran Higgs 53), Tyrone Baker.
3:00pm Kick Off. Monday 2nd January 2023, Hayden Road, Rushden (att 436).