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Rough guide to... Rushden & Diamonds
13 July 2004
In a nutshell
Dr Marten's boot is on the other foot.
Their finest hour
Beating Town 3-1 last season, obviously.
Having impressively pipped Hartlepool to the third division title in 2002–03, Diamonds had sealed their fourth promotion in nine years, since Northamptonshire footwear bigwig Max Griggs bought and merged little old Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds. Without the godlike intervention of the Doc Martens magnate, of course, both sides would be slugging it out in some potholes-for-goalposts backwater league to this very day. Either that, or they'd have just folded by now.
So put yourself into the air-cushioned soles of a Rushden supporter on 1 November 2003. Kettering and Northampton fans have kicked sand in your face for years, but this season, thanks largely to Griggs' financial muscle, you find yourself supporting the county's senior League club, and accordingly you are enjoying local smirking rights to the full. Sure, you had a fine time taking Leeds to an FA Cup replay in 1999, taking the lead in front of 39,000 at Elland Road... but this is Division Two league football you're watching now. This is what those promotions were for. This is what it's all about.
Grimsby, then. Not what you'd call a big club, up there with the QPRs of this division, but they've just come down from the first, with a solid enough league record over the past couple of decades. And look – they've done that on gates not much bigger than Diamonds get. But you can see the difference in class straight away: Grimsby take an early lead, playing some bloody good football, and you're braced for a panning. Nobody's more surprised than you when your team fights back and fights back hard, finally running out 3-1 to the good. And if Diamonds can get results against sides like these, well, that's the real test, isn't it – the proof that Brian Talbot can retain the momentum of success and carry you right on up into Division One.
We all saw what really happened next, and that is why beating Grimsby was Rushden's finest hour. Obviously not for the result in itself; and not because I'm some cloistered messageboard nesbit daft enough to think the Mariners amount to a hill of beans in this crazy footballing world; but because this was a brief and dreamlike moment, suspended in amber sunshine, when supporters of this strange, small club might have believed their fairytale life could never end.
Think of non-League football and you think nice, fluffy things: FA Cup giant-killings; non-segregated grounds; players mixing with fans down the pub after the game. I'll tell you summat though: that there Conference is a seething cauldron of spikiness, and like other fans with a recent non-League past, RDFC supporters continue to nurture considerable ill-will for their one-time rivals in the 'fifth division'. Hence, the disdain displayed by Cheltenham and Kidderminster types towards Rushden, for having "bought their way into the League", is reciprocated fiercely, though on the generalised and somewhat more tenuous grounds of "arrogance", that new cardinal sin among football fans. (I bet you my autographed picture of Tony Ford that the first thought of most Diamonds supporters on reading what I've written in 'Their finest hour' would be: "Ooh, the arrogant fishy bugger!")
Closer to home there exist the standard local kerfuffles, the most historically rooted of which involves Mr Buckley's alma mater Kettering Town. They don't like Northampton much either – and who would blame them for that? – despite the fact that their first ever competitive match against the Cobblers has only this season reached the fixture list. A bit like Town and Boston, I suppose. This could be the start of a beautiful enmity.
If you take seriously my outrageous assertion that victory over the Mariners represented a high water mark, then the decision of the illustrious Mr Griggs to sell the club very much pulled the plug out. Play-off contenders for maybe half the season, Diamonds suffered killer cuts to the squad as the suits tried to make the club a more attractive proposition for buyers, and destinies were decided on deadline day, when the names of Paul Hall, Onandi Lowe, Paul Underwood and Marcus Bignot were all removed from the wage bill.
Brian Talbot, the former West Brom manager who'd taken Rushden all this way, had already felt his spider sense tingling and buggered off to Oldham two weeks earlier. And how right he was. The disastrous run of form that followed was every bit as dramatic as the side's magnificent championship-clinching surge a year earlier, and half a dozen other endangered clubs watched, mesmerised, as Rushden hurtled down past them into the drop zone, like one of the workers falling past the office window in that Monty Python sketch. ("It'll be Wednesday next!")
The appointment of Nicky Law at Blundell Park at least gave Town fans sufficient advance notice of certain relegation. Diamonds' decline was so much more sudden, sickening and spontaneous. It must have been horrible – a fate you'd wish only on plastic Premiership bastards.
Who's the Dadi?
Gone Dadi gone. The useful ex-Crewe forward Rodney Jack survived the night of the long knives, but has since joined the long list of notable departures from the Stadium of Docs, and the new summer acquisitions by Talbot's replacement Ernie Tippett are, inevitably, less widely recognised players. Perhaps the best known is former Stockport defender Sean Connelly – one of three brought in from Tranmere – who will bring experience at the back but may now be looking a tad on the kinetically challenged side.
I am earnestly advised that Kevin Braniff, Gareth Seddon and Marcus Kelly could be worth looking out for. Northern Ireland u21 international Braniff has joined on three months' loan from Millwall, where the one goal he has registered thus far is said to have been a bit special. Seddon is another forward, who had a little purple patch with Bury late last year (scoring a few goals rather than spilling his Ribena), while home-grown right-sided midfielder Kelly ("Nationality: International" according to Diamonds' official site, so quite a cosmopolitan chap) enjoyed a terrific full debut against Brighton in April and should shine in the bottom division if his delicate teenage frame can withstand the extreme violence.
A former big fish in a small non-League pond, Diamonds now find themselves a mere stickleback in Chapman's. Some might say they came too far too fast, and foresee a period of decline, like Blackburn after they won the Premiership. No buyer has been found, and Griggs's son Stephen has taken his old man's place in the chairman's office, admitting gingerly: "In the past we may have been a bit freer with our budget." So the club will be falling back on the money taken at the turnstiles, just like everyone else has to in the lower divisions (with the noble exception of Sheffield Wednesday, who continue to fall back on a great big overdraft), and for the first time in their short history – although the extent of their spending since attaining League status is sometimes overestimated – Rushden will be competing in 2004–05 on the same financial basis as the rest of their division.
So Ernie Tippett may drive the fastest milk float in Northants, but can he run a football team? Nobody knows. I'll guess yes, because I love his name, and predict a seventh-place finish and brutal play-off semi-final defeat by Bristol Rovers.
As a young club RDFC lack the kind of gloriously inconsequential nuggets that enliven the histories of their longer-established peers, and none of the club's former goalkeepers ever appeared as extras in Dixon of Dock Green. Rushden will be the most expensive club to support in the bottom division this season, but that's quite important really. Hmmm. Well, your rough guide happens to be the proud owner of a Rushden & Diamonds mug, presented to me by an old mate who hailed from Irthlingborough and who showed me round Nene Park in the early 1990s when it was still being built. In the same week I gladly took up the surprising opportunity to buy the Harvest Ministers' second album in Northampton, and we saw the bloke who used to play Nick Cotton out of Eastenders down the pub in Wellingborough. 'Ello, Ma! That trivial enough for ya? Oh, and it's pronounced "nen", not "neen".
I like rdfcNet – which is a good job, really, as it's about the only independent Diamonds site I can find. There are better written fan sites in the world (ahem), but I'll wager none of them have a nifty grey squares design thing going on for the front page: a pleasing departure from the usual formula. The site boasts an excellent section about Nene Park, which details and illustrates the history of the ground, and the editors have rather admirably supplied a full fixture list, seemingly unconcerned by the prospect of the League's copyright lawyers having their guts for garters. Bravo!