VERDICT: Play-off race is well and truly on as Diamonds sparkle again

Sam Johnson is mobbed by his AFC Rushden & Diamonds team-mates after he scored the second goal in the fine 2-0 victory over Stratford Town at Hayden Road. Picture courtesy of HawkinsImages
Sam Johnson is mobbed by his AFC Rushden & Diamonds team-mates after he scored the second goal in the fine 2-0 victory over Stratford Town at Hayden Road. Picture courtesy of HawkinsImages

Just in case anyone still had doubts, AFC Rushden & Diamonds delivered a clear message that they are in the Evo-Stik League South Premier Division Central play-off hunt for the long haul as they saw off third-placed Stratford Town 2-0 at Hayden Road.

A superb second-half display was the key to success as Diamonds eventually ran out deserved winners to move to within two points of the top five and to within three of Stratford themselves as the race for those spots comes to the boil.

Hayden Road has certainly been a happy hunting ground for Andy Peaks and his men this season.

They have been beaten just once on their own patch and they hit back from the disappointment of a 1-1 draw with Leiston at the weekend in fine style as they sent another of the high-flyers packing.

That’s not to say they had things all their own way because they didn’t.

Stratford, particularly in the first half, showed why they are right up as the counter-attacked with blistering pace and created the best chance of a high-paced opening period.

But a tactical tweak that saw Ben Diamond moved into a more central role paid dividends for Diamonds as they built on a bright start to the second half and went on to secure another highly-impressive victory.

Clear-cut chances were few and far between in the first half but it was still a very watchable contest as both sides gave as good as they got.

But Stratford shaded things and looked the more likely to break the deadlock. And they almost did five minutes before the break.

Former Diamonds man Nabil Shariff was left with a clear sight of goal after the ball had been nodded into his path. But he shot straight at Ben Heath who made a good save to keep the scores level at half-time.

Diamonds came out with renewed vigour in the second period and they were straight onto the front foot.

The hard-working Tom Lorraine was denied by a fine last-ditch challenge from Christopher Cox before Nathan Hicks saw his shot on the turn palmed away by visiting goalkeeper Ross Etheridge.

But the breakthrough arrived on the hour. A corner was cleared as far as Hicks whose pinpoint cross was flicked on by Diamond.

His header was parried by Etheridge but Lorraine picked up the pieces and teed the ball up for captain Liam Dolman to fire home from 12 yards.

That was a worthy reward for the Diamonds skipper who produced an outstanding display at the back. Indeed the whole of the home back four put their bodies on the line to get blocks in as Stratford tried to rustle up a response.

But Diamonds got the cushion they were looking for with 20 minutes to go.

A ball over the top caught the Stratford defence square and the lively Sam Johnson raced clear before producing an excellent first-time finish from the edge of the box which found its way in with the aid of the inside of the post.

From there, it was all about game management and aside from one or two moments, Diamonds saw things out in impressive fashion.

Cox’s cross from the right skimmed the crossbar and Daniel Creaney also saw a header clip the woodwork while Heath was equal to a late free-kick from former Kettering Town man Wilson Carvalho.

But, in the end, Diamonds were good value for their victory as they once again showed they have what it takes to compete with and beat their fellow contenders in this fascinating race for a top-five finish.

There are 12 games to go and Peaks’ team are right in the hunt. And is more displays like the one they served up in the second half of this game follow on, then they won’t be far away.

Diamonds: Heath; Reynolds, Collard, Dolman, Ashton; Westbrook, Hicks; Diamond, Rogers (sub Bowen, 86 mins), Johnson (sub Farrell, 82 mins); Lorraine. Subs not used: Dean, Acquaye, Brown.

Stratford: Etheridge; Cox, Wilson, Skendi, Isaac; Oulton, Fry (sub Kian Williams, 73 mins); Shariff, Grocott, Carvalho; Creaney. Subs not used: Shergill, Fishwick, Kai Williams, Njie.

Referee: Olly Mackey.

Goals: Dolman (60 mins, 1-0), Johnson (70 mins, 2-0).

Bookings: Oulton, Creaney (both fouls).

Northants Telegraph man-of-the-match: Liam Dolman - not for the first time, the Diamonds skipper led by example. Defensively, he did what you would expect. He won the physical battle with Daniel Creaney, he headed and kicked everything in sight and he marshalled the troops in his usual manner. And when Diamonds were looking for a breakthrough, Dolman was there to hammer home the opening goal. When he plays well, the team plays well and thankfully, he doesn’t have many off days.

Attendance: 399.