AFC Rushden & Diamonds edged out Corby Town 3-2 in what proved to be an entertaining local derby at Hayden Road.
In the end, it was Diamonds who progressed in the BetVictor Southern League Challenge Cup but they were made to work hard for it after an impressive second-half showing from the lower-ranked Steelmen.
Diamonds boss Andy Peaks opted to make a few changes and there were some encouraging signs from his young guns while teenagers Rhys Kelly and Will Jones – products of the Diamonds academy – both got a taste of first-team football before the night was out.
There wasn’t much messing about from the Steelmen as they fielded a strong line-up to get the legs going again after a 10-day break from match action.
It all added up to produce a competitive clash that certainly kept the brave souls who ventured out on the first day of October interested for the whole evening.
The first half belonged to Diamonds.
They settled quickly but it wasn’t until the 23rd minute that the deadlock was broken when Jack Bowden stabbed home from close-range after a good run and shot from Nathan Hicks.
The Steelmen struggled to get going in the early stages and they were well and truly on the back foot when, on the half-hour, a free-kick 25 yards from goal presented an opportunity for Jesse Akubuine.
And he capped his first start for the club with a fine, curling effort which was too good for a clearly struggling Dan George after the Corby goalkeeper had suffered a dead leg early on.
The second goal seemed to spark the Steelmen into life and Steve Diggin forced Niall Cooper, given a chance between the sticks by Andy Peaks, into a good low save.
However, it was all a bit too comfortable for Diamonds in the opening period.
That was a feeling that was clearly shared by those in charge of the Steelmen as they emerged for the second half with a performance that looked to have come about thanks to a half-time rocket.
Right from the restart, the Steelmen looked sharper and they got themselves back into it quickly when the lively Revarnelle James broke away down the right and his low cross was converted by assistant-manager Elliot Sandy.
Cooper came to the rescue for Diamonds as he kept out Jordon Crawford’s final shot after he had raced clear following a brave flick from Diggin.
Sandy also had a big shout for a penalty waved away as Corby continued to turn the screw.
But Diamonds were to grab what proved to be the winner on 72 minutes.
The outstanding Matthew Slinn had already seen a free-kick cannon off the post after everyone had left it alone.
But he wasn’t to be denied on his next opportunity. He took aim from the deadball on the left and, with George struggling with his movement, he was unable to keep it out.
The game could have been put to bed had Ben Acquaye got on the end of Hicks’ low cross after a quick free-kick played him in.
Instead, it was game on with 11 minutes to go when former Diamond John Dean crossed from the left for the Steelmen and Sandy was there once again to apply the finishing touch.
With the game now wide open, Corby tried to push for an equaliser but, aside from Dean’s cross hitting the roof of the net after an excellent run from inside his own half, they never really threatened to find it.
Joint-bosses Gary Mulligan and Ashley Robinson will have taken heart from their team’s second-half display – had they started in that fashion things might have been different.
But it was Peaks and his young guns who were celebrating at the end – the short, medium and long-term future of Diamonds looks in good hands if this small bit of evidence is anything to go by...
Diamonds: Cooper; Reynolds, Collard, Ashton, Casey; Akubuine (sub Kelly, 83 mins), Hicks, Slinn, Acquaye; Bowen (sub Jones, 87 mins), Dove (sub Lorraine, 74 mins). Subs not used: Dolman, Heath.
Steelmen: George; Westwood, Wise, Mulligan (sub Ling, 64 mins), Warburton (sub Ireland, 87 mins); James, Burgess, Duffy, Crawford; Diggin (sub Dean, 69 mins), E Sandy. Subs not used: S Sandy, Robinson.
Referee: Daniel Robinson.
Goals: Bowen (23 mins, 1-0), Akubuine (30 mins, 2-0), E Sandy (48 mins, 2-1), Slinn (72 mins, 3-1), E Sandy (79 mins, 3-2).
Bookings: Duffy, Lorraine (both dissent), Burgess, Dove (both unsporting behaviour), Westwood (foul).
Northants Telegraph man-of-the-match: Matthew Slinn – there were a number of contenders from both sides with Revarnelle James impressing on the right wing for the Steelmen while the man who was charged with dealing with him, young Patrick Casey, looked comfortable at left-back. But another of Diamonds’ youngsters Matty Slinn really stood out. While the pace of the game was frantic at times, Slinn retained a cool head. He did the simple things well. He passed the ball well and even popped up with what proved to be the winner from a free-kick. But he retained control of the midfield at good times, not an easy task with the likes of Joe Burgess and Jake Duffy buzzing around you.