VERDICT '“ Shariff strikes to secure a priceless win for Diamonds
Nabil Shariff was the late hero as AFC Rushden & Diamonds bloodied the nose of one of the big rivals in the battle for top-five supremacy in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Division One South.
There was a real big-game feel about the clash with Leek Town at the Dog & Duck and rightly so.
The scrap for the play-off places is and will continue to be close and, with the visitors starting the day a point but just three places behind the fourth-placed Diamonds, the 2-1 success for Andy Peaks’ men could well prove to be priceless.
However, and please pardon the cliche, this was an absorbing contest that could have gone either way with both teams having their chances.
In battles such as this, so much comes down to decisions that are made and whether a team’s big players come to the part.
On this day, Diamonds were able to enjoy both.
Boss Andy Peaks’ timing in bringing Tom Lorraine and Ross Oulton into the action couldn’t have been better as Diamonds powered on towards the finishing line after their introductions.
And, in Shariff, they have a striker who can make the difference when the margins are so small.
He was out of luck when he struck the post early in the second half but made no mistake with his second chance of the game as he fired his team to a crucial success that leaves them in control of their own destiny with nine games to go.
There really wasn’t anything to choose between the two sides in the opening half.
Leek started brightly and had early claims for penalty for handball against Brown waved away but Diamonds grew into it and dominated long spells of possession without creating anything clear-cut, Taylor Orosz’s overhead-kick going over the bar the closest they came.
But, after plenty of sparring, Leek fired the first warning shot when Chris Budrys saw a header from a free-kick smack off the crossbar with Diamonds able to clear.
It was a let-off the hosts took full advantage of as they opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time.
Liam Dolman lofted a high ball into the area, Shariff nodded it on and Ben Farrell, who produced an excellent all-action display in the middle of the pitch, arrived at the far post to stab home.
Diamonds were unfortunate not to give themselves some breathing space early in the second half when Shariff’s neat turn was followed by a fierce strike which cannoned off the post and Alex Morris came to Leek’s rescue as he cleared Farrell’s follow-up off the line.
The visitors came close to an equaliser soon after when Tim Grice flicked Rob Stevenson’s left-wing cross narrowly wide.
But Leek did get back on level terms on 68 minutes when Darren Chadwick volleyed home off the underside of the crossbar after a corner had been flicked on at the near post.
The visitors should have been in front less than a minute later. A flag went up as two players went through on goal but substitute Sam Grimshaw was definitely onside and carried on as the referee overruled his assistant but the Leek man could only blaze over with just Ben Heath to beat.
Peaks made his mark by throwing Lorraine and Oulton into the action, it gave Diamonds some renewed purpose.
And it was Lorraine who did the leg work for the winner as he got away down the right and pulled the ball back for Shariff. He still had plenty to do but, again, he turned his marker and this time his effort flew into the net.
Diamonds had to negotiate a late flourish from Leek in which Grimshaw volleyed just over the bar.
But the hosts held on to clinch a crucial win in the battle for the play-offs.
There’s still plenty of work to do, of course, but Diamonds showed they are more than capable of winning the big games when they come along.
They go into the final nine games knowing their fate is in their own hands, what more could you ask for?
Diamonds: Heath; Westwood, Dolman, Brown, Ford; Orosz (sub Oulton, 75 mins), Bunting, Farrell, Richards; Bowen (sub Lorraine, 75 mins), Shariff. Subs not used: Finlay, Leslie, Koriya.
Leek: Chapman; Smith, Francis, Chadwick, Morris; France, Williams, Maguire (sub Malarkey, 87 mins), Stevenson (sub Beaumont, 87 mins); Grice (sub Grimshaw, 64 mins), Budrys. Subs not used: Faulkner, Danylyk.
Referee: Wayne Cartmel.
Goals: Farrell (45 mins, 1-0), Chadwick (68 mins, 1-1), Shariff (84 mins, 2-1).
Booking: Francis (deliberate handball).