AFC Rushden & Diamonds earned a creditable goalless draw in last night’s top of the table clash in the Northants Senior Youth League against a strong and well-organized Woodford United side.
Diamonds started the game playing down the hill in the direction of the A45 lining up in a 4-4-1-1 with Jeron Thompson, making his first league start for the Diamonds, leading the line and Levi Freeman taking up a deeper role in between the midfield and attack. As the last stragglers of the 406-strong crowd made their way through the gates it was Woodford who started the better, with a couple of early moves putting pressure on the AFC back line. From one such move, the visitors won a free kick not far from the edge of the Diamonds 18 yard box but this was well cleared by a tightly-marshalled defense. It was then Diamonds turn to exert a little pressure as excellent combination play from Thompson and Freeman yielded a corner, however this ultimately came to nothing and play returned to the other end of the field where another similar Woodford set piece was again well-cleared by the AFC defense.
The game then seemed to enter a scrappy phase with neither side able to gain control of proceedings and chances for both sets of attackers few and far between. Woodford’s first real effort came on around 15 minutes, when a forward found time and space to run at the Diamonds back four, jinking the ball neatly wide of a closely attentive defender but ultimately dragging his shot wide of the right hand post. A few minutes later, Diamonds had a half-chance of their own, a free kick just inside the Woodford half near to the left hand touch line was swung into the box by skipper Danny Bird and only just evaded a couple of rising heads before creeping past the far post.
Woodford were enjoying a lot of possession in the Diamonds half, but were unable to really slice through the resilient Diamonds who didn’t give them much time on the ball and restricted the increasingly frustrated yellows to only a couple of corners. From one of these corners, the Diamonds almost took the lead. After claiming a header from a Woodford attacker well, AFC keeper Ashley Foulger punted the ball far downfield with it landing perfectly between the opposition back four and their keeper O Milne. Rushing out of goal to clear, Milne could only volley the ball to Jeron Thompson who unfortunately sliced his attempt to lob a scrambling keeper and centre back. Blake Helsdown had been getting little change out of the opposition left back and mid-way through the half had asked him to swap sides with Alex McDonald. This almost paid off on 34 minutes as the Diamonds players pressed the ball on the Woodford right, winning posession and finding Levi Freeman with a little space, the Diamonds forward pulling his long-range effort wide of the left hand post.
HT: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0, Woodford United 0
Manager Mark Starmer re-shuffled his charges at halftime, replacing Matti Ellis with Ryan Ellmer who took up the right back role and allowed Ashley Meeks to slot into the centre of midfield. Zack Moon was also asked to play out wide and Freeman joined Thompson up front as the Diamonds lined up as a conventional 4-4-2. After the early exchanges in the half yielded little for either side, the balance of play began to tip towards Woodford who enjoyed a spell of dominance with a couple of decent chances. The first of these came on 57 minutes as a Woodford goal kick bounced unfortunately for Danny bird allowing D Paul through on goal, but the front-man didn’t strike his effort cleanly and it rolled harmelssly past Foulger’s left-hand post. A minute later, there was another good chance for a Woodford opener as a mix-up in the Diamonds defense as they tried to clear their lines allowed a Woodford striker a clear shot on goal, but once again the effort was scuffed harmelssly wide. Seemingly intent on pressing the self-destruct button, the Diamonds presented the visitors with yet another opportunity as a poor back-pass from midfield went straight to a Woodford forward allowing his a run on goal, but Elliott Ames recovered the situation well, getting goal-side of the opposition player just as he was about to pull the trigger.
Perhaps this let-off was wake-up call the home side needed and as Jeron Thompson, who had run himself into the ground for the AFC cause, was replaced by Lewi Williams they began to assert themselves in the game once more. Ashley Meeks was finding a lot of space by breaking from the middle of the park out to the right-hand side and the midfield four seemed to enjoy playing with a slight fluidity and were taking up each-other’s roles well. On 70 minutes the Diamonds almost worked themselves an excellent opportunity as Freeman chased a lost cause down the left hand side of the pitch, picking up the ball and dribbling past three defenders. The fourth and final man got in an excellent challenge but the ball dropped in front of Ashley Meeks who was following up, a Woodford player diving in front of his fierce shot and deflecting it away for a corner. From this corner, however, there was immediate danger to the AFC goal once more as a long clearance bounced over the top of the Diamonds centre backs and dropped nicely in the path of a Woodford striker who rounded last Ames well before drawing a fine, sprawling save from Foulger. Two minutes later, the Diamonds keeper was again called into action, rising will in a crowded box to collect a dangerous Woodford free kick.
On 80 minutes, Ashley Meeks once more had a decent opportunity as Blake Helsdown won the ball well on the left hand side and laid it invitingly for his midfield compatriate. Meeks obligingly controlled the ball before volleying towards the bottom left hand corner of the Woodford goal but once more the ball crept wide of the post. A minute later at the other end, it was the Diamonds turn to breathe a sigh of relief as a Woodford through from level with the edge of the AFC 18 yard box allowed a forward to get in front of Foulger with a stooping header, but the resultant shot was well-blocked by a couple of Diamonds bodies who threw themselves in front of the ball.
Foulger in the Diamonds goal was having a busy second half and on 89 minutes made another vital contribution. A Woodford corner from the right looked like it was going to creep under the bar at the far post, but found the AFC stopper at full stretch to tip the ball away from the top corner. The last few minutes were nervous for both set of fans and as the game entered time added-on, first Levi Freeman went on another excellent run, picking up the ball on the half way line and dribbling all the way to the opposition penalty area but taking too long to get a shot away. Next Woodford won a free kick in a dangerous position, a decision which appeared curious to AFC supporters as it seemed like the foul from which it came happened a couple fo seconds after Danny Bird has been clearly taken out by a man in yellow. From this set piece a fierce shot rose up and over the defensive wall and then down towards the bottom left-hand corner of the goal but happily for Diamonds fans stayed out, probably passing within an inch of the post.
Deep into extra time, there was time for one more Diamonds attack. Ashley Meeks picked up the ball midfield and ran to the byline, his tricky cross only just evading a couple of AFC players as a half clearance was pushed away to the right for Meeks to hit the ball in once more, but this effort was charged down and dropped to the left hand side of the box. A fierce flurry of feet and blocked shots followed with the ball finally trickling out to the left hand side of the pitch and a final Diamonds cross cleared comfortably by the relieved visitors.
The final whistle sounded soon after as both sides were warmly applauded off the pitch, the crowd showing their appreciation from what had been a sterling effort from all participants in what was, despite the lack of goals, a very entertaining match.
FT: AFC Rushden & Diamonds 0, Woodford United 0
After the game Mark Starmer praised his team’s effort and commitment and said that Woodford had been their sternest test yet. A useful precursor perhaps for what promises to be another difficult game, away at AFC Kempston Rovers on Thursday September 15th with a 7:45 pm kickoff.