COMMENT '“ Heartbreaking end shouldn't detract from a season of progression for Diamonds
When AFC Rushden & Diamonds look back on the 2015-16 season, they will be able to reflect on another campaign of progression for the club.
At this stage, it may still be a hard thing to do with the Evo-Stik Southern League Division One Central play-off final defeat at St Ives Town still fresh in the memory.
But time does heal all wounds and while that heartbreaking loss was a bitter pill to swallow, Andy Peaks, his staff, players and the supporters should be content with things developed.
Having won the United Counties League Premier Division title a year ago, Peaks assembled a squad that looked, on paper at least, capable of making the step up with few problems.
Indeed, there weren’t that many changes. The manager wanted to give his title-winning squad a chance to show what they could do.
And they wasted little time in finding their feet.
A fantastic start to the season saw Diamonds remain unbeaten in the league until they suffered a 1-0 loss at Godalming Town in the middle of November.
And during that run, they picked up some notable wins with a 1-0 home success over Aylesbury - the runners-up in the previous season - being clear proof that Diamonds were capable of exchanging blows with the best the division had to offer.
Along the way, they also enjoyed a fine run in the FA Cup.
They reached the fourth qualifying round for the first time in their history with the 2-2 draw at Barwell being one or the memorable moments of the season when captain Liam Dolman struck a stoppage-time equaliser.
They missed out on a place in the first round proper as Barwell triumphed 1-0 in the replay in front of over 1,000 fans at the Dog & Duck.
But things remained steady in the league. Actually, for a long time it was better than that.
They were top of the table early in the new year and were well-placed for a tilt at the title during the final few months of the season.
When they beat St Ives 2-0 at home on February 16 hopes of a second successive automatic promotion were alive and well.
Unfortunately, a blip was just around the corner and the 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Kings Langley just a few days later proved to be the start of it.
Four straight defeats, which ultimately cost them the title, followed and as Peaks made changes to his squad, there were some questioning whether they would be able to hang on for a top-five finish.
Those questions were answered in emphatic style as a strong finish to the regular season secured fifth place and set up a play-off semi-final at runners-up Royston Town.
It would prove to be a night to remember as Diamonds served up their best performance of the season with goals from Jack Bowen and Dolman securing a memorable 2-1 success.
The final, played out in front of over 1,500 people at St Ives’ ProEdge Westwood Road ground, wasn’t a game that carried a five-star rating.
But when Diamonds took the lead nine minutes from the end thanks to an Elliot Sandy header, the dream was alive and well.
However, it wasn’t to be as the hosts levelled late on and then won it in extra-time to leave Peaks, his squad and their followers devastated.
An added bonus of a 2-1 win over local rivals Kettering Town in the NFA Hillier Senior Cup final helped cushion the blow and at least sent everyone off into the summer with a spring back in their step.
It’s easy to forget that Diamonds are a club still very much in their infancy.
Lessons are being learned both on and off the pitch all the time and in Peaks they have a manager who demands hard work more than anything but who also wants his players to be able to express themselves whenever they get the chance.
Another season at this level – whether that be in the Southern League or Northern League – may not be a bad thing when it’s all said and done.
The key is that Diamonds are trying and, so far, succeeding in trying to do it right.
No matter what league they find themselves in when August rolls around, you can be sure they will be challenging at the right end of the table once again…