Russ Dunkley struck a late equaliser for AFC Rushden & Diamonds to ensure it is a real case of ‘game on’ in the race for the ChromaSport & Trophies United Counties League Premier Division.
The big frontman calmly lobbed over Holbeach United goalkeeper Nick Conroy to earn Diamonds a deserved point against their main rivals for the crown.
The 1-1 draw at Carters Park was, in the end, a fair result and ensures Andy Peaks’ men remain eight points clear of the Tigers, who have four games in hand.
But, as is the case with football, it could have been so different as Holbeach had an effort ruled out for offside just moments before Dunkley struck.
In general, it was a clash low on quality. A heavy pitch, which passed a morning inspection, probably didn’t help matters.
But that certainly didn’t make the game unwatchable. On the contrary, it proved to be a real battle, particularly as Diamonds forced the issue after a low-key first half when they failed to impress and fell behind to the only real chance.
Home skipper Danny Spencer headed over after 15 minutes while Dunkley did likewise at the other end.
But Holbeach drew first blood midway through the opening period.
Lee Beeson’s perfectly weighted cross from the right landed on the head of Jamie Clarke. His header was well saved by Matt Finlay but the Diamonds stopper was unable to prevent the frontman from smashing home the rebound.
The response wasn’t great. Indeed, Diamonds failed to trouble Nick Conroy for the remainder of the half with only debutant Tommy Berwick and Elliott Lamb-Johnson having shots blocked.
It was a different tale after the break. Holbeach seemed happy to sit on their lead while Diamonds set up camp in their opponents’ half.
Berwick had a first-time volley held by Conroy and then curled a free-kick narrowly wide.
But Diamonds’ most recent signing was out of luck just past the hour. A long throw was flicked on and Berwick arrived on cue at the far post. However, his vicious volley was sensationally blocked by Stacy Cartwright.
As the game wore on, it became more niggly with more than one moment of ‘handbags’.
But as Diamonds threw men forward, gaps began to appear at the other end and the hosts thought they had won it with a minute to go.
Clarke’s excellent header was brilliantly kept out by Finlay and as substitute Lee Dube stabbed home Craig Parker’s driven effort, the home celebrations were cut short due to an assistant’s flag.
And Diamonds took full advantage of the let off. As the game ticked into six minutes of stoppage-time, a ball forward was flicked on and Dunkley beat the offside trap.
Conroy advance and the striker remained the coolest man in the ground as he lobbed home to send the visiting fans into a frenzy.
There would be no more chances, although Diamonds’ hopes of chasing a late winner were curtailed when Adam Confue was sent-off for a second bookable offence.
No doubt, this was a point gained for Peaks’ side.
And while it may not be totally in their own hands, a good run between now and the end of the season will send them close. It remains a fascinating race.
Holbeach: Conroy; Allen, Miller, Spencer (sub B Brown, 37 mins), Cartwright; Beeson (sub King, 84 mins), Steadman, Duffy, Parker; Nolan (sub Dube, 64 mins), Clarke. Subs not used: Warfield, Pinner.
Diamonds: Finlay; Harris, Dolman, Ashton, S Brown (sub Turner, 85 mins); Lamb-Johnson, Confue, King (sub Gearing, 76 mins), Rogers; Dunkley, Berwick. Subs not used: Redding, Joseph, Butt.
Goals: Clarke (22 mins, 1-0), Dunkley (90 mins, 1-1).
Bookings: Lamb-Johnson, Duffy (both fouls), Confue (dissent), Ashton, Clarke (both unsporting behaviour).
Sending-off: Confue (second bookable offence).