VERDICT: Gutsy Diamonds escape with a point at the death
AFC Rushden & Diamonds signed off 2018 on a typically gutsy note as they created something out of almost nothing to secure a 3-3 draw against Biggleswade Town at Hayden Road.
It was a strange afternoon in truth.
After a cagey and somewhat uneventful first half, if someone had said that there would be six goals in the second period then you wouldn’t have believed them.
But, in the end, two of the top six in the Evo-Stik League South Premier Division Central went toe-to-toe and it was Biggleswade who looked to have landed the knockout blow when Jonny McNamara’s thunderous 30-yard strike put them 3-1 up with 11 minutes to go.
However, writing this Diamonds team off isn’t sensible these days.
They kept going and then, right at the death, they forced the visitors into a couple of mistakes and escaped with a share of the spoils as Ben Farrell held his nerve from the penalty spot.
Biggleswade would have been fuming with the way the afternoon ended but, overall, Diamonds could argue that they were worthy of the point as they once again showed that they belong in the upper reaches of the table.
Andy Peaks was forced into a change with Sam Brown ruled out with illness and the squad was tested again at half-time with Declan Rogers having to be withdrawn for similar reasons.
But those who were deployed let no-one down after the game burst into life after the break.
Chances were at a premium in the opening half but it was Biggleswade who created the better opportunities with Joe White dragging a shot wide early on while Matthew Ball was just off target with an ambitious 40-yard free-kick.
Biggleswade goalkeeper Sam Donkin was rarely tested at the other end, although Diamonds did get themselves into a some useful positions with Albie Hopkins being their biggest threat down the left.
However, it was the visitors who got themselves in front 10 minutes into the second half.
It was a moment to forget for Blaize Punter and Alex Collard as a breakdown in communication resulted in the two central defenders colliding and allowing White a free run on goal and he made no mistake with a low finish past Ben Heath.
Diamonds responded well, however, and the otherwise impressive Collard saw a header from a Farrell corner hacked off the line by White before the equaliser arrived on 67 minutes.
It was counter-attacking football at its best as Hopkins picked up the ball just outside his own penalty area. And just a few seconds later, the Oxford United loanee was finishing it off with a fine low finish after he latched onto Farrell’s perfect through-ball.
It was anyone’s game from there but Biggleswade were seemingly heading for all three points after they struck twice in as many minutes.
The warning signs were there when substitute Bradley Bell crashed a shot against the crossbar.
And the visitors got themselves back in front from the penalty spot after McNamara was felled in the area. It seemed soft but White stepped up to beat Heath from 12 yards.
Just two minutes later, the game looked like it was over when McNamara took aim from 30 yards and left Heath motionless as his shot looped over the goalkeeper and dipped under the crossbar.
It was a terrific strike and it seemed to suck the life out of Diamonds and the supporters.
But, as the game headed for stoppage-time, they were thrown a lifeline as David Longe-King caught Tom Lorraine with a high boot in the six-yard box.
Having been booked in the first half, the Biggleswade defender was sent-off for a second bookable offence and once the dust had settled, Farrell made no mistake from the spot.
Sensing an opportunity, Diamonds piled forward and the pressure told in dramatic fashion in the fifth minute of injury-time.
It was a comedy of errors for the visitors as Ben Walster’s sliced clearance handed possession to Ben Diamond on the left side of the area.
But, despite him going away from goal, Jack Bradshaw opted to make the challenge. Down went Diamond and another penalty was awarded.
And Farrell remained the coolest man in the building as he fired the spot-kick straight down the middle to secure a point, which had looked so unlikely just a few minutes earlier.
Character, guts and desire will take you a long way and, on this occasion, it was enough to help Diamonds extend their unbeaten run to seven matches.
And with that a fine 2018, which has seen Peaks and his players move up to the next level in such impressive fashion, is over.
On to 2019 and the tone could well be set by a blockbusting fashion at Latimer Park on Tuesday afternoon...
Diamonds: Heath; Reynolds, Punter, Collard, Hicks; Westbrook (sub Johnson, 82 mins), Rogers (sub Berry-Hargreaves, h-t), Farrell; Diamond, Lorraine, Hopkins. Subs not used: Dean, Curtis, Bowen.
Biggleswade: Donkin; Bradshaw, Gent, Longe-King, Walster; Makoma, Forbes; McNamara (sub Smith, 90 mins), Brooks (sub Bell, 49 mins), Ball (sub Fitzpatrick, 60 mins); White. Subs not used: Donnelly, Allinson.
Referee: Ruebyn Ricardo.
Goals: White (55 mins, 0-1), Hopkins (67 mins, 1-1), White pen (77 mins, 1-2), McNamara (79 mins, 1-3), Farrell pen (89 mins, 2-3), Farrell pen (90 mins, 3-3).
Bookings: Longe-King (foul), Hicks (dissent).
Sending-off: Longe-King (second bookable offence).
Northants Telegraph man-of-the-match: Albie Hopkins - the Oxford United youngster continues to make a big impression during his time on loan at Hayden Road. He was Diamonds’ biggest threat for most of the afternoon. Hopkins has plenty of pace, he has a bag of tricks and a good left foot. He showed tremendous composure when scoring the goal to bring his team level and continued to be the main outlet when Diamonds were looking to get forward. He will, no doubt, be learning plenty himself which makes this loan deal a good one for all involved.