Rushden & Diamonds 1 Aldershot Town 1

Rushden & Diamonds finished the season with a draw against Blue Square Premier Champions Aldershot Town in an entertaining game at Nene Park. Only a Red Card challenge by a Shots defender deprived the Diamonds of a chance to end the season with a win. The Shots were backed by a large following, who were in party mood, and both sets of fans will have enjoyed the entertainment on the pitch, albeit the goal tally did not match the level of chances created..

As well as end-of-season pride, there was the potential before the game for two seasonal records to be set – Jon Challinor had appeared in every one of Diamonds 45 league games prior to Saturday, but his injury at Grays on Thursday evening meant that he lost his "ever-present" tag at the final hurdle – as well as missing a chance to play against his old club.

Michael Rankine had been a contender for the most appearances record until his concussion against Exeter meant he missed the final three games of the season – but despite missing these games he was still able to finish as the Diamonds top scorer in all competitions – with 19 goals to Simeon Jackson’s 18.

As a result of those two players missing, Garry Hill was able to name another youthful looking line-up – although the starting line up did not contain all eight of the players under 22 that had been seen on the pitch at the final whistle on Thursday evening, in what was one of the most youthful Diamonds sides in their league history, with an average age of only 21.

For this game Hill brought back Burgess for the injured Challinor, Corcoran and Woodhouse for Gooding and Platt, with Corcoran playing in a midfield five as the striker crisis meant that Sam Smith was the only fit striker available.

Goalkeeper Martyn Margarson continued in goal, making his home league debut. Before the game various awards were handed out, with Andy Burgess winning the Fans award, the Press award and the former-RDFCNet award.

Shot’s manager Gary Waddock had seen his team top the 100-point mark on Tuesday night, as well as receiving the Championship Trophy, but he stuck with the players who had featured for most of the season, although the injured Nikki Bull was replaced by penalty-save expert Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz.

The Diamonds kicked off towards the AirWair end, and started the game very brightly, making all of the early running with some direct play down both wings. Andy Burgess and Curtis Osano were getting some joy down the right, and an interchange between the two saw the defender make a run into the box, but he couldn’t get his shot away.

On the left side Howell and El Kholti were also finding some space, and El-Kholti took advantage of this to hit a shot the Jaimez-Ruis did well to save. A few minutes later the same partnership combined to see an El-Kholti cross headed over by Corcoran.

Michael Corcoran was making a good impression in midfield, he and Burgess combining to give Corcoran room to hit a cross from the right, but his delivery let him down, although he did force a corner.

The Diamonds had a shout for a penalty on 14 minutes as an El Kholti cross hit the arm of Ricky Newman, but referee Scott waved away the claims. At the other end Dean Howell did well to clear a Lewis Chalmers shot off the line.

On the 15 minute mark the Shots should have taken the lead, as a ball in from the left found Ben Harding with space and time towards the right of the penalty box, but although Martyn Margarson did well to parry the shot, low to his right, it appeared to present a simple chance to John Grant, but somehow the striker blazed the ball over the bar.

A few minutes later Andy Burgess tried to link up with the Howell / El-Kholti partnership on the left, but his poor ball back to Howell saw the Shots able to latch onto the ball and make a quick break, forcing Chris Hope to wrestle John Grant to the ground and pick up a yellow card.

Joel Grant was getting some joy down the left for the Shots, and it was his cross that found John Grant in space in the area mid-way through the half – but this time the striker could only head the ball into the arms of the impressive Margarson, who was having his best game for the club to date.

Sam Smith was ploughing a lone furrow through the middle at times, although the newly shorn Woodhouse and Shaw were both getting through an impressive amount of work in closing down their Shots opponents. Smith turned provided on the half-hour as he hit a swirling cross from the right corner of the box that the Shots goalkeeper did well to deal with. Smith had a chance of his own a few minutes later as good work from Howell and Burgess saw the latter find Smith in some space in the box, but his shot sliced wide of the right hand post.

Burgess tried his luck from long range, but at the other end the Shots wasted two further decent chances, the first a free kick on the edge of the area, and then a Joel Grant run on the left found Soares, and his cross-shot was well cleared from under his own bar by Howell.

An entertaining half ended with the scores even.

Half time: Rushden & Diamonds 0 Aldershot Town 0

The match continued very much in the same vein in the second half, with both sides getting into the final third regularly, but without too many clear-cut chances. One of these did fall to Abdou El-Kholti early in the half, as he was found in space on the left side of the penalty box by Andy Burgess, and his powerful volley struck the far post, and then he could only head the rebound into the Shots goalkeepers arms.

Joel Grant continued to present the main threat for the Shots, but the Diamonds defence were covering each other well.

Both Curtis Osano and Tom Shaw had shots that were blocked before the Shots had their first chance of the half from a freekick from out on the right, taken by Harding, and the ball as the ball headed towards the far corner, John Grant could only get underneath it with his head, flicking it over and wide when it appeared easier to score.

On 64 minutes Garry Hill made his first change, bringing on Lawrence Lambley, and was immediately rewarded as the Shots tried to adjust, and an Andy Burgess cross found Abdou El-Kholti on the left, and he squared to Sam Smith who knocked home his first league goal.

Lambley was playing wide right, with Michael Corcoran dropping back into defence to replace Osano at right back, but Corcoran it was that gave away a penalty as he brought down Joel Grant just inside the box. His namesake John Grant knocked home the penalty to Margarson’s right.

On 80 minutes Martin Margarson made an excellent save, catching a Soares shot, and at the other end Jake Beecroft had a great chance for the Diamonds as his first touch wrong footed his marker in the area, but his shot was dealt with by the Shots goalkeeper.

As full-time neared both sides continued to press, with Margarson saving again from Mendes who should have done better after latching onto a low Joel Grant cross. However, it was the Diamonds who came nearest to clinching the winner, as a raid down the left was switched infield for the speedy Lambley to run onto. Just before he reached the area he was hauled down by Anthony Straker, and although it was unfortunate that a red card had to be shown on the Shots’ day of celebration, the referee had little choice. Tom Shaw could only put the free kick tamely over the bar, one of the few times he had disappointed all afternoon. The game ended with Andy Burgess playing up front for the Diamonds, but as referee Scott blew the final whistle both sides would have felt a draw a fair result as they acknowledged the cheers of their support.

The Diamonds run of three defeats in a row came to an end with a draw against the Champions, with their celebrations bringing back memories of a day in Chester almost six years ago.

Full-time: Rushden & Diamonds 1 Aldershot Town 1

The Diamonds season isn’t quite over, with the Hillier Cup Final against Brackley to be played at Nene Park on Tuesday evening – 29thApril, but the Blue Square Premier campaign has now ended. The season has been a rare season where the club was not involved with the promotion or relegation picture from well before the end of the season. Memories of the Rankine goal at Aldershot, the Kelly goal at Bristol, or the wins against Macclesfield and Oxford will linger until the pre-Season friendlies begin again in July.

Teams:

Rushden & Diamonds (White): Martyn Margarson, Curtis Osano (Lawrence Lambley 64), Dean Howell, Chris Hope (Capt), Michael Corcoran, Phil Gulliver, Andy Burgess, Curtis Woodhouse, Tom Shaw, Sam Smith (Jake Beecroft 82), Abdou El-Kholti (Conal Platt 89)

Subs Not Used : Andy Gooding, Ben Nunn

Aldershot Town (Navy Blue) : Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, Rob Gier, Anthony Straker, Ben Harding, Ricky Newman (Scott Donnelly 45), Anthony Charles, Louis Soares, Joel Grant, John Grant, Rob Elvins (Junior Mendes 57), Lewis Chalmers

Subs Not Used : Nikki Bull, Ryan Williams, Danny Hylton

Goals: Sam Smith (65), John Grant (Pen) (72)

Yellow Cards: Hope, Soares

Red Cards Anthony Straker

Referee: Mr G Scott

Attendance: 2197 (816 away)

Man of the Match chosen by Gareth Roberts (Carlsberg) : Sam Smith

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