OPINION: Replicating last season will be tricky but Burgess’ Diamonds are an unknown quantity

Sport reporter Jon Dunham takes a look at what might lie ahead for AFC Rushden & Diamonds in the 2022/23 Southern League Premier Central campaign.

Friday, 5th August 2022, 7:30 am
Andy Burgess is gearing up for a first full season in charge of AFC Rushden & Diamonds
Andy Burgess is gearing up for a first full season in charge of AFC Rushden & Diamonds

Andy Burgess stands ready to begin his first full season in charge of AFC Rushden & Diamonds.

This does mark the start of a new era at Hayden Road, even though Burgess was at the helm for the last couple of months of last season following long-serving Andy Peaks’ departure to Southern League Premier Central rivals Tamworth.

There’s no doubt about it, the 2021/22 campaign was an excellent one for Diamonds, even if it did end in bitter disappointment when they missed out on a play-off place on the final day.

Jenson Cooper is one of the new faces amongst the Diamonds squad. Picture courtesy of Hawkins Images

But replicating that might be tricky as Burgess begins the new season having had to rebuild the squad.

We know Diamonds can’t and won’t spend beyond their means, that’s not what this club was formed to do.

There’s a strict budget in place and it is a budget that, whether people want to hear it or not, Peaks always seemed to make very good use of.

It’s up to Burgess to try to do the same.

While players key to their success last season including the long-serving Liam Dolman, Alex Collard, Nathan Tshikuna and Sam Warburton have headed for the exit door, Diamonds have managed to hold on to important ones as well.

Dean Snedker is unquestionably one of the best goalkeepers at Step 3 if last season is to be used as evidence, Patrick Casey is a young player who is only going to get better while the likes of Jesse Akubuine, Ryan Hughes and Connor Furlong have shown themselves to be more than capable.

Throw in the experience of the returning Nathan Hicks and the fact that Fernando Bell-Toxtle is due to be back in September and there is a decent enough crop there for Burgess to rely on.

The unknown quantities come in the form of the summer signings but, already, there have been impressive displays in pre-season from the likes of Courtney Lashley, Evangelos-Nikalaos Empochontsif, who has been awarded a contract, and forward Jenson Cooper.

And we can also expect Burgess to hand opportunities to those coming through the ranks at Diamonds with a number of youngsters having signed Southern League forms.

Having broken through in the same manner as a player, the manager knows better than anyone that an opportunity can only be taken if it’s given in the first place.

The squad, however, is young and inexperienced and Step 3 could well provide a brutal introduction.

There are some good, experienced players and managers in the division and it will be up to Burgess to find a way to grind out results while also trying to ensure his team sticks to their principals.

A fine attacking player during his career, Burgess has made no secret that he wants his team to be attack-minded and it will be fascinating to see how he puts that into action.

There’s no question that Burgess is taking this role seriously.

He’s got former team-mate Chris Willmott alongside him and staff with important roles to play when it comes to fitness and recruitment.

The manager clearly has a passion for the club given his long-standing links with the old Rushden & Diamonds. He’s well liked by the fanbase and he knows the game.

His squad is very much an unknown quantity, which makes it tricky to plot how this season may pan out.

A good start will be important. With young players, installing confidence and belief is half the battle and the best way to do that is by picking up good results from the off.

The hope is that we see Burgess grow as a manager and his young players growing with him.

The campaign might not produce the same outcome as last season but, if there’s one thing we know from Burgess’ demeanour and what he says when he speaks so well in the media, it won’t be for the lack of trying.