Rushden & Diamonds 1 Kettering 2

Rushden & Diamonds 1 Kettering 2 (after extra time) (played at Kettering)

There is an old cliché in football that a "win can feel like a defeat" – but the Diamonds came away from Rockingham Road feeling the total opposite, as although they lost the game, it felt like they were the winners on the night of this Hillier Cup tie, despite going down to a 2-1 defeat. Their team included six players that are yet to taste full first team action, another that has only appeared as a substitute, and even their substitutes were youth team players, yet they held a full-strength Kettering side that is flying high in the Blue Square Premier for 90 minutes, and only lost to a goal in the second period of extra time.

The Poppies squad was almost identical to the one that faced Cambridge United at the weekend, with the addition of Jean-Paul Marna. That meant the Diamonds youngsters were facing the likes of Darren Wrack who has over 350 Football League appearances, and a strike partnership of Damian Spencer (250 Football League appearances) and Anthony Elding who was recently with Leeds United and Crewe. Moses Ashikodi was waiting on the bench to join a strikeforce that was facing the likes of George Artemi, who has just turned 17, and is still a first year apprentice at the club.

An impressive crowd saw the Poppies take to the field for the first time under the management of Lee Harper, who was watching from the bench.

The Diamonds lined up with Joe Day in goal, Jack Ainsley at right back, Simon Downer and George Artemi at centre back and Aynsley McDonald at left back. Matt Pattison was in right midfield, Connor Hayes and Nicky McNamara in central midfield with James Reid on the left. Nabil Shariff started up-front alongside Danny Mills.

The first half saw the Diamonds youngsters matching their more experienced rivals. The Poppies took the lead after 12 minutes when Damian Spencer headed home a Danny Thomas cross. The Diamonds equalised after 37 minutes when Nicky McNamara hit a shot from 30 yards that went in-off the underside of the bar. Both sides had chances for further goals, with Elding guilty of two bad misses, and Matt Pattison impressing with strong run, but rather wayward finishing. Up-front young Nabil Shariff was linking up well with his midfield – who were happy to play the ball to feet, resulting in some nice passing moves.

Other action in the first half saw Joe Day was called into action to save a powerful shot from Danny Thomas, and at the other end a mistake by Wrack saw Shariff shoot narrowly wide.

The second half saw far fewer chances, although the Poppies had the lions share of possession, after introducing Moses Ashikodi into the action at half-time, but they could not force Joe Day into many saves. The running of Connor Hayes and Aynsley McDonald helped to ensure their chances were mostly only half-chances, and Simon Downer marshalled the otherwised inexperienced back four well.

The score was thus still 1-1 as the game moved into extra-time, and it was perhaps at this stage that the extra fitness of the full-time professionals began to tell, against their rivals from the Diamonds Youth Team setup, coupled with others who were lacking match action in recent weeks. It was thus to the Diamonds XI’s credit that they managed to keep the scores level until midway through the second period of extra-time, when a cross from the right was met by an overhead kick from Damian Spencer which Joe Day did well to keep out, but this meant Ashikodi had a simple tap-in for the winner. The Diamonds brought on youngsters to replace Hayes, Mills and Reid, who were visibly tiring.

Both sides had penalty claims turned down in the latter stages of the game, and perhaps it was a sign of the Kettering fans nervousness that their first-team squad might slip to defeat against such inexperienced rivals that they challenged referee Miller’s decisions so vociferously – indeed there was an element of "cry wolf" about this, as after challenging so many obviously correct decisions they couldn’t highlight their protests when Jack Ainsley saw the ball brush his arm in the area.

Although the Kettering fans were happy to applaud their team off the pitch at the end, it was perhaps with a sense of relief that they had narrowly beaten such a young and makeshift team. The Diamonds fans and management on the other hand, could proudly applaud all 14 players who had fought so bravely against a group of players who have fought to second place in the Blue Square Premier, and most of whom who will face Leeds United in 10 days time.

The average age of the Diamonds players was only 19, with eleven teenagers in the 14 that played (and of the three "senior" players, Nicky McNamara had his 20th birthday last week). Paul Driver highlighted the benefits the youth team players are getting from their loan spells, and on the evidence of last night’s showing there are a number of prospects in the youth team setup.

The Diamonds next game is away to Salisbury City on Saturday.

Rushden & Diamonds: Joe Day, Jack Ainsley, Aynsley McDonald, Nicky McNamara (Capt), George Artemi, Simon Downer, Matt Pattison, Connor Hayes (George Cox 110), Nabil Shariff, Danny Mills (Sean Shields 110), James Reid (Lewis Hallford 100)

Subs Not Used:, Matt Evans, James Broadbent (GK)

Kettering Town: Niall Cooper, Darren Wrack (Simon Heslop 69), John Dempster (Capt), Damian Spencer, Jean-Paul Marna, Greg Taylor, Patrick Noubissie, Andre Boucaid, Anthony Elding (Moses Ashikodi HT), Danny Thomas (Francis Green 87), Exodus Geoghaghon

Subs Not Used : Lee Harper (GK), James Dance.

Goals : Spencer (0-1 12mins), McNamara (1-1 37 mins), Ashikodi (1-2 108mins)

Yellow Card: Ainsley (foul)

Referee: C Miller

Attendance: 611 (away 108)

Diamonds Man of the Match: Aynsley McDonald

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