Rushden & Diamonds 1 Oxford United 1

The Diamonds battled to a draw with Oxford United in the first leg of the play-off semi-final at Nene Park with the game ending 1-1. The visitors dominated the first quarter, and took the lead just before the half-hour mark when a cross from the right was not dealt with, and James Constable was able to turn and fire low into the right-hand side of the net. The Diamonds performance improved considerably after that goal, and they equalised shortly after the break when an incisive ball from Paul Terry found Mark Byrne who fired high into the net. The final result was a reasonable one given the Diamonds recovery from their slow start, and the team will start on level terms for the second leg, bringing back memories for Diamonds fans of their previous two-legged playoff semi-final against Rochdale.

Justin Edinburgh chose the team that was perhaps expected, with Farrell, O’Connor and Tomlin up front, and Simon Downer returning to the back four. Cliff Akurang and Jefferson Louis provided the striking options on the bench.

Oxford manager Chris Wilder also chose to play a 4-3-3 formation with Constable, Midson and Matt Green up front.

After a fairly quiet first ten minutes, with neither keeper called into action, the visitors began to dominate proceedings, and started to create chances. The best chance fell to Matt Green, who tried an overhead kick as the ball flew over Jamie Stuart’s head and toward the centre of the penalty area, but his effort was over the bar. Curtis Osano managed to get forwards on two occasions, and from one run down the right he hit a low square ball to Mark Byrne after collecting a pass from Tomlin, but Byrne’s shot was blocked.

A Mark Byrne cross from the left found the head of Craig Farrell, but his flicked effort was wide of Clarke’s left hand post.

The U’s took the lead their pressure deserved after 29 minutes when a Batt cross found James Constable and Simon Clist on the edge of the Diamonds box. Although there initially looked to be little danger, the Oxford striker took control of the situation to swivel and hit a powerful shot low into the right hand side of the net, giving Roberts no chance.

Given the domination of the visitors to that point, there was concern that the Diamonds might go down to their first defeat by two goals or more since the first game of the season, and given them a mountain to climb in the second leg, but the goal seemed to energise the home side, and they started to play the ball around the Oxford defence. One such attack saw good work from Craig Farrell to deceived Batt and set up Aaron O’Connor with a good shooting chance but his shot skewed off the recovering Batt for a corner.

A fine move involving Tomlin and Byrne saw O’Connor head over from just outside the six yard box, but at the other end Dannie Bulman fired a powerful shot just wide that would have tested Roberts. Farrell continued to create chances for others, and Lee Tomlin shot wide from one of them.

 

Half-Time: Rushden & Diamonds 0 Oxford United 1

After such a disappointing start to the game, the half-time team talk was key to whether the Diamonds could build on their improved performance of the last 10 minutes of the half, and use their passing game to keep the visitors under pressure.

It was quickly clear the Diamonds had the determination necessary to get back in the game, with Aaron O’Connor finding space in the area but shooting wide, before the move that created the Diamonds equaliser. Oxford midfielder Adam Chapman went to ground under a solid challenge near the centre circle, but his team-mates seemed to have forgotten the old adage of playing to the whistle, as they once again directed their attention to the referee, but Mr Coote was not swayed and waved play on. Paul Terry took possession and hit a slide-rule pass into the path of Mark Byrne who took a touch before firing a powerful shot high into the net. The visitors continued their protests, but Mr Coote stood firm.

The Diamonds brought on ex-U’s forward Jefferson Louis to replace another – Craig Farrell – and he almost had an immediate impact when he burst towards the Diamonds fans on the Peter De Banke terrace and exchanged a 1-2 with Aaron O’Connor before seeing his shot blocked. Farrell had missed a number of games recently, so was beginning to tire, and similar changes were made during the half to replace Lee Tomlin and Simon Downer who had also missed games recently.

Paul Terry was rivalling Mark Byrne and Jamie Stuart in the man-of-the-match stakes, but he was guilty of a clumsy challenge on the edge of the box, but Adam Chapman fired the free kick over the bar.

Jack Midson had a chance to get on the scoresheet, but his shot on the turn was deflected wide.

Referee Coote was having to cope with many of his decisions being contested by the visitors, as well as being questioned by the U’s players about his degree of punishment meted out when he awarded yellow cards to three Diamonds players, but on the whole he remained in control of the game, and wasn’t intimidated by these actions. However his authority was called into question when he allowed the Oxford captain Constable to seemingly dictate where the Diamonds keeper Dale Roberts should take a free kick, moving the ball several yards to Roberts left, even though the referee was signalling for the kick to be taken.

There was a late chance for Aaron O’Connor as he found space on the edge of the area to get in a shot that was blocked by Batt, but perhaps that would have produced an unfair final scoreline.

Full-Time: Rushden & Diamonds 1 Oxford United 1

The Diamonds now have to check on the fitness of those players who had to be substituted as they prepare for the return leg on Monday afternoon.

Teams:

Rushden & Diamonds: Dale Roberts, Curtis Osano, Kurt Robinson, Max Porter, Jamie Stuart (Capt), Simon Downer (Shane Huke 89), Mark Byrne, Paul Terry, Aaron O’Connor, Craig Farrell (Jefferson Louis 60), Lee Tomlin (Cliff Akurang 74)

Subs Not Used: Joe Day (GK), Matt Pattison

Oxford United: Ryan Clarke, Damian Batt, Mark Creighton, Jake Wright, Anthony Tonkin, Dannie Bulman, Simon Clist, Adam Chapman, Matt Green (Alfie Potter 67), James Constable (Capt), Jack Midson (Kevin Sandwith 90+4)

Subs Not Used: Billy Turley (GK), Sam Deering, Rhys Day

Goals : Constable (29mins), Byrne (51mins)

Yellow Cards: Downer, Tomlin, Terry

Referee: Mr D Coote (Notts)

Attendance: 4537 (Away 2333)

Diamonds Man of the Match sponsored by First Defence Solicitors: Mark Byrne

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