Spalding United 1,
Rushden & Diamonds 2
Ultimately, the sending off of Spalding centre back Nathan Stainfield early on in the game means we cannot really tell who is the better of these two impressive sides.
But I will stick my neck out and say the craft, skill, fight and talent on show came from the teams that will finish first and second in the United Counties League premier division this season.
In the Tulips squad were five players with UCL winners’ medals, and in the Diamonds squad three, plus in Jamie Stevens, Lewis Webb and Richard Bunting, the last three captains to lift the league trophy were on the pitch.
Add to that the most feared strikers in Andrew Tidswell and Russ Dunkley and probably the meanest central defence in Stevens and Stainfield, and there were always the ingredients for a cracker.
With Spalding chasing an 18th consecutive victory and Rushden a tenth, something had to give and it was the visitors – cheered on by over 200 fans – who looked most likely early on.
Powerful striker Dunkley was involved in everything as the visitors started brightly with the strong wind behind them and he quickly saw a stabbed effort just evade the post.
At the other end Tidswell put Dan Cotton away but Jamie Thurlbourne – who won promotion from the UCL with King’s Lynn last year – just failed to turn in his fellow winger’s cross.
Then came the turning point. A long ball after 17 minutes saw Dunkley gain posession goal-side of Stainfield. The big man ran into the area with the ball, was clipped by the Spalding man and ref Andrew Humphries pointed to the penalty spot.
Controversially he then sent the distraught centre half off, even though Dunkley had been running away from goal.
Matt Gearing comfortably dispatched the spot kick and Diamonds took the lead.
Diamonds then piled on the pressure. First Tulips stopper Michael Duggan saved superby from a rasping Aaron King free kick, then Dunkley headed the resultant corner just over.
Impressive young midfielder King then ran through and was denied twice by Duggan, and minutes later found the home keeper in inspired form when he hooked an effort goalwards from the edge of the box.
There was a poignant moment in the 24th minute when the whole ground rose as one to applaud former Diamonds keeper Dale Roberts, who took his own life three years ago to the day, aged 24.
With Chris Hall ill, new signing Jon Fairweather was in midfield, dropping back to defence after the sending off, with Tidswell replacing him in midfield. Spalding were clearly hoping to keep the score at 1-0 and expand their attacking options later.
But disaster struck right on half time when Dunkley flicked on a long ball to former Long Buckby and King’s Lynn team-mate Bunting, who ran through and bundled in the second goal.
Thurlbourne registered Spalding first shot on target with a 57th minute drive which was turned past the post by keeper Tom Cross. From the corner, Fairweather’s effort struck his own man Tidswell on the line.
Thurlbourne then saw another effort saved and Tidswell twice trapped, turned and shot from distance, one effort going wide the other, magnificent attempt, hitting the base of the post.
But Tulips were leaving gaps at the back. Joe Merrill fluffed in front of goal after a quick break and then Duggan somehow saved a looping Dunkley header.
Now playing a 3-3-3 formation, Spalding kept attacking and an unmarked Fairweather headed over from a corner before captain Stevens gave them an 88th minute lifeline when he prodded home after a Tidswell shot was saved.
But there was to be no grandstand finish. Diamonds saw out time and Spalding had failed to win a league game for the first time this season.
Spalding: Duggan, Bore, Jackson (Beeson 76 mins), Stevens, Stainfield, Webb, Cotton, Fairweather, Mullarkey, Tidswell, Thurlbourne. Subs (not used): Hussey, Ebdon, Roberts.