VERDICT '“ Play-off heartbreak as Diamonds' hopes are ended
AFC Rushden & Diamonds hopes of a second successive promotion ended in heartbreak as St Ives Town gained a place in next season's Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Division.
The Saints triumphed 2-1 after extra-time in the Division One Central play-off final in front of a record crowd at their ProEdge Westwood Road home.
And, as boss Andy Peaks and his players trudged off in the pouring rain at the end while their opponents danced in it, they were no doubt already beginning to reflect on what might have been.
Truth be told, Diamonds had the game won.
A nervy, edgy and tense affair provided little quality until the game burst into life late on.
Substitute Elliot Sandy headed Diamonds in front on 81 minutes and they looked set to hold on for promotion until they switched off from a short corner with Danny Watson on hand to send it into extra-time.
In the first period of that, Seymour-Shove grabbed what proved to be the winner with an excellent 20-yard strike and, despite some late pressure, Diamonds were unable to respond.
It was a devastating end to an afternoon and a campaign that promised much and delivered plenty, even though they were unable to finish the job.
Peaks was forced into one change with Andy Hall replacing the suspended Claudiu Hoban after he was sent off in the semi-final success at Royston Town.
But little was seen of Diamonds as an attacking force in what proved to be a very tense first half.
Both sides, understandably, seemed more concerned about not making a mistake more than anything else and that ultimately contributed to a low-key opening period.
Hall shot high over the bar early on while Luke Knight did the same at the other end after a corner was only half-cleared.
Lewis Leslie was unable to get on the end of a good Jack Bowen cross from the right after the striker had created the opening for himself.
But, as the half went on, St Ives took more of a grip on proceedings with their best chance being when Watson got to a Knight cross ahead of Matt Finlay but could only send his shot over the crossbar.
St Ives suffered a blow before the break when skipper Knight was forced to depart with a nasty facial injury after a challenge from Dan Quigley, for which the Diamonds man received a booking.
The hosts were quick out of the blocks in the second half with Ben Seymour-Shove firing into the side-netting just 16 seconds after the restart.
But Diamonds were much better and Shawn Richards had an effort blocked in the area before Steve Gentle made an excellent last-ditch challenge to clear the danger when the ball almost broke for Leslie 12 yards from goal.
Phillips sent a powerful header wide at the other end before Peaks made his first move by throwing Sandy into the action at the expense of Hall.
Bowen probably should have done better when the ball fell for him following a free-kick but the frontman was unable to get a proper connection on it.
When Watson shot straight at Finlay after cutting in from the left, it didn’t look like a goal was going to come from anywhere.
But then, with nine minutes remaining, it looked like Diamonds’ moment had arrived.
Richards whipped over a corner from the left and Sandy rose unmarked to plant his header into the bottom corner to spark wild scenes of celebration from the visiting fans.
From there, it was simply all about concentration but, with two minutes to go, St Ives grabbed the equaliser.
A short corner was played to Harry O’Malley and his excellent cross was converted on the volley by Watson at the far post to force an extra 30 minutes.
And, having been two minutes from defeat, St Ives took the lead for the first time in the opening period of extra-time.
Seymour-Shove won the ball on the edge of the area, beat a defender and then hammered a superb strike past the helpless Finlay.
Liam Dolman was there to sweep up the danger after Watson sent a weak lob over Finlay just before the half-time break, which saw Peaks throw on Nabil Shariff for one last effort.
Shariff flicked a header over the bar and then Tom Liversedge’s header was blocked as Diamonds piled the pressure on.
But a clear-cut chance never really came, although there was an almighty shout handball in the penalty box at the death after Sandy’s effort appeared to strike the raised hand of an opponent.
The decision didn’t come and that was the final action as the hosts celebrated their promotion in the rain while Diamonds were left inconsolable.
There really is no better way to win and no worse way to lose than in the play-offs.
Once the dust has settled, Peaks and his men should be able to reflect on a fine first season at the level.
And then the attention can turn to coming back even stronger next time...
St Ives: Trebes; O’Malley, De’Ath, Gentle, Jarrold (sub Moyes, 87 mins); Seymour-Shove, Higgs, Knight (sub Warwick, 44 mins), Draycott (sub Sinclair, 87 mins); Watson, Phillips. Subs not used: Brown, Rogers.
Diamonds: Finlay; Kennedy, Dolman, Ashton, Lee; Quigley, Harris; Hall (sub Sandy, 67 mins), Leslie, Richards (sub Shariff, 105 mins); Bowen (sub Liversedge, 93 mins). Subs not used: Manship, Parsons.
Referee: David Spain.
Goals: Sandy (81 mins, 0-1), Watson (88 mins, 1-1), Seymour-Shove (97 mins, 2-1).
Bookings: Kennedy, Quigley, Liversedge (all fouls), Leslie, O’Malley (both kicking ball away).