VERDICT: The 10 of Diamonds hit back to seal a well-deserved point
The 10 men of AFC Rushden & Diamonds produced a stirring fightback to earn what could prove to be a crucial point as they drew 1-1 with fellow play-off contenders Hednesford Town at Hayden Road.
Andy Peaks’ game plan had to be ripped up after just three minutes when Ben Acquaye was sent-off for an alleged elbow.
The incident happened in a break of play and while everyone appeared mystified with the decision, referee Gareth Davis was in no doubt as he brandished the red card.
Understandably, that early controversy threw Diamonds off course but they soon regrouped and ensured the first half passed without much incident until the stroke of half-time.
Defensively, the hosts were sound as they restricted Hednesford to scraps in the final third despite the visitors enjoying the majority of possession.
Diamonds actually carved out the first real chance late in the half when the outstanding Jesse Akubuine drove to the by-line and then crossed for Nabil Shariff whose first-time shot was straight at Shaun Rowley.
However, one of the rare occasions in which Diamonds switched off allowed the Pitmen to open the scoring just before the break.
A free-kick was sent into the area from deep, it was headed on and Danny Glover’s header was well saved by Ben Heath but the striker pounced on the rebound and fired home.
It left the 10 men with something of a mountain to climb.
But no-one should have worried as what followed in the second half was a near-perfect execution of how to play with a numerical disadvantage.
Diamonds took no chances, they defended their area and then, slowly but surely, began to put pressure on the visitors who seemed happy to sit on their lead.
The tone was set by Akubuine, who epitomised the incredible energy put in during the second period, and he set Shariff up again with the frontman’s well-struck effort being batted away by Rowley.
Diamonds did, of course, have to remain focused in defence and Heath made a smart stop to deny Osebi Abadaki before young defender Patrick Casey produced a goal-saving block on the line when Glover was left with the goal at his mercy after good work from James Hurst.
But, at the other end, Diamonds were knocking on the door.
Jack Ashton was out of luck when his header from a Ben Farrell corner bounced off the top of the crossbar before Rowley produced two good saves to deny Nathan Hicks and then Sam Brown who both took aim from the edge of the area.
But timing is everything and Peaks deserves plenty of credit for biding his time before throwing Tom Lorraine, Jordan Macleod and Ryan Dove into the action.
And it was two of those three who combined for the deserved equaliser with six minutes to go.
Lorraine did the leg work as he burst into the right channel. He sent the ball low across the goal and Dove, who had only been on the pitch two minutes, was on hand to bundle home from close range.
The celebrations told the story but there was still work to do and Dolman produced a superb block to deny Glover after he turned in the box.
But it was Diamonds who so nearly snatched all three points at the death when a free-kick found its way to Ashton at the back post and his shot was well saved again by the impressive Rowley.
In the end, and under the circumstances, it was a point gained and that was the very least Diamonds deserved for their second-half display in which they carried no passengers.
It’s now just one defeat in 10 and six unbeaten for Peaks’ men in the BetVictor Southern League Premier Central.
They are right in the play-off shake-up and if they show the same guts, determination and ability to carry out a plan for the remainder of the campaign then finishing in the top five is more than achievable.
Diamonds: Heath; Casey, Dolman, Ashton, Brown; Farrell, Hicks (sub Macleod, 78 mins); Gosnal-Tyler (sub Lorraine, 74 mins), Akubuine, Acquaye; Shariff (sub Dove, 82 mins). Subs not used: Kelly, Munro.
Hednesford: Rowley; Curly, Gatter, Bailey, Griffiths; King, O’Hanlon (sub Sanali, 74 mins); Reid, Hurst, Abadaki (sub Hodge, 84 mins); Glover. Subs not used: Fry, Jones, Veiga.
Referee: Gareth Davis.
Goals: Glover (44 mins, 0-1), Dove (84 mins, 1-1).
Bookings: Abadaki (kicking ball away), Bailey, Ashton (both fouls).
Sending-off: Acquaye (violent conduct).
Northants Telegraph man-of-the-match: Jesse Akubuine - there were plenty of contenders on a night when every player in a white shirt put a shift in. But the midfielder was the standout performer. He covered every blade of grass, he didn’t stop all night and when the ball was at his feet he was a threat. This boy is a star in the making.