The semi-professional world of English Non-League football has always had a plethora of clubs that dare to dream of rising through the divisions and gaining a place amongst the Ninety-Two full time professional Football League clubs. For many it will remain just that, a dream, but for the likes of Fleetwood Town and Crawley Town they have shown in recent years that with the right direction, leadership and an owner that is prepared to put his hand in his pocket, promotion to the Football League can be achieved. A quick glance around the National League and its regional North and South divisions this season, and in it you will find the likes of Forest Green Rovers, Eastleigh, Salford City, AFC Fylde and Ebbsfleet United, all with cash rich owners with aspirations of seeing their clubs achieve a place in the Football League if not this season but sometime in the future. Salford City, one of the most high-profile of these clubs, were themselves bought by former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs, Gary & Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes in 2014.
However, back in 1992, the same year Manchester United’s class of 92 Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes were just beginning their journey to becoming United playing legends, Max Griggs, the owner of Doc Martins shoe company, decided to invest his vast wealth into two non-league football clubs in Northamptonshire. The Northamptonshire towns of Rushden and Irthlingborough both already had their own semi-professional football clubs playing in the Southern League and United Counties League respectively back in 1992. Rushden Town themselves had been formed as far back as 1889, but despite reservations about a merger at the time, Griggs’ suggestion to merge Rushden Town FC and Irthlingborough Diamonds FC to form Rushden and Diamonds Football Club was agreed by all parties concerned, and life in this part of Northamptonshire wouldn’t ever quite be the same again.
The newly formed club took Rushden Town’s place in the Midland section of the Southern League but they decided to play their home games at Irthlingborough’s home ground of Nene Park and not Rushden’s Hayden Road ground. That same year the Southern League had demoted Rushden Town back to the Midland section of the Southern League due to ground grading issues at Hayden Road. It wouldn’t be the last time a club from Rushden would suffer ground related issues either. It took just two seasons for Rushden and Diamonds to win the Southern League Midland Section Championship and gain promotion, but unlike when Rushden Town had achieved the same feat in 1991/1992, this time the Southern League officials allowed them to be promoted to the Premier Division in 1993/94. The new club didn’t hang around long in the Premier Division either, and two years after their first title and promotion, the champagne corks were popping again as the club celebrated promotion to the Conference with another title winning campaign in 1995/96. It had been quite some rollercoaster for Max Griggs and Rushden and Diamonds in just their first four seasons. The club were now just one promotion from the Football League.
Whilst the club had waltzed their way through two divisions of the Southern League with the minimum of fuss, life in the top level on non-league football would require more investment on and off the pitch from Griggs if the club wanted to push on further and challenge for promotion. As the years rolled on after the amalgamation of the two clubs, Max Griggs invested heavily in the facilities of Nene Park to bring them up to Football League standards, and by time the whole ground was complete in July 1998, Nene Park was stadium-fit to host football at least as high up as the Championship or First Division as it was known in 1998. Now the club had a stadium that matched their ambitious owner, the club set about achieving promotion to the Football League. In May 2001 that finally became a reality. A run of just one defeat in their final 23 matches during the 2000/2001 Conference campaign saw Manager Brian Talbot lead the Diamonds to a third title and promotion winning campaign in just nine seasons as a newly formed club.
Now the bright lights of the Football League were shinning on the Diamonds and the likes of local rivals Northampton Town would be visiting Nene Park instead of Kettering Town, what could the club realistically achieve as it approached its tenth year anniversary? I doubt many supporters believed they could achieve back to back promotions just a year after becoming a Football League club but that’s exactly what they came so tantalisingly close to achieving in May 2002. Unfortunately for Max Griggs, Brian Talbot and the players, the club would suffer heartache at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff as Cheltenham Town ran out 3-1 winners in the Third Division play-off final. A play-off final appearance and an epic play-off semi-final aggregate victory over Rochdale was still a fantastic ending to a memorable first ever season in the Football League.
The first season had certainly been one full of drama, but what was to come over the next nine months was the stuff that the best Hollywood script writer would have struggled to have come up with. The Diamonds were trailing Third Division leaders Hartlepool United by 12 points at the start of March back in 2003, but as the two clubs went head-to-head on the very last day of the 2002/03 season, the Diamonds had somehow overturned that advantage to be in a position where a draw would be enough to gain the title and promotion. This was the stuff of dreams for Max Griggs and everyone who had been involved in the merger back in 1992. It was to be a nerve-wracking afternoon in Irtlingborough that day. A full house inside Nene Park ensured that the noise levels were pumped up to the max (no pun intended), and when Rushden’s Paul Hall put the Diamonds on course for promotion with the opening goal suddenly promotion was within touching distance. The traveling Hartlepool supporters must have struggled to believe quite what was happening in front of their very own eyes as the clock ticked by and the title was slipping away. How had they let such a points gap slip away? Then all of a sudden they had a glimmer of hope when an equaliser came in the dying minutes of the game. What an afternoon it was turning out to be as now nails were being bitten all round Nene Park. However, a winner never came for either side and minutes later the final whistle signalled the end of the match. The celebrations could begin in the home stands and home dressing room for Rushden and Diamonds, whilst the feelings of utter devastation would have been felt by all those from the North East. The contrast of emotions from both sets of players and supporters could have been stark. Pure ecstasy and delight at one end, pure agony and misery at the other. Only football can produce such moments.
However, promotion to Division Two in May 2003 was to be the pinnacle of the Diamonds rise, as just seven years later the club’s very existence hung by the finest of threads. In those following seven years the club went from stability, growth and success to absolute poverty, large tax bills and playing at a ground that had once been the jewel in the crown but was now the anchor that was dragging the club to financial oblivion. Where and why did it go so horribly wrong? Despite being in a strong position mid-way through their first season in the Second Division (2003/04), a disastrous second half of the campaign which saw promotion winning manager Brian Talbot resign, eventually would end in relegation back to the Third Division. The club lost another manager the following season when Talbot’s replacement Ernie Tippett was dismissed after a poor run of results, but fortunately his replacement, Barry Hunter, managed to keep the club from dropping back into the Conference for now. However, in the summer of 2004 with the club now losing money year on year, Max Griggs decided to end his association with the club his wealth helped build, and he was to hand the club over to the Supporters Trust whilst also pumping yet more money into the club to help over the following two seasons. Griggs had originally tried to sell the club but couldn’t find a buyer, the following season was club again struggled in the Third Division but this time Hunter couldn’t keep the club from being relegated, and he was also let go that summer.
By August 2005 the club were now back playing their football in the top tier of the Non-League after a five-year adventure in the Football League, but if the supporters thought life was about to improve again they were sadly mistaken, as the next few season signalled the beginning of the end for Rushden and Diamonds FC. Over the next two years Paul Hart, Tony Gooden (Caretaker), Graham Westley, Garry Hill and Justin Edinburgh all tried their hand at attempting to polish the Diamonds back to their shining best on the pitch, but the club seems to lurch from one crisis to the next off it. When the supporters trust handed over the club and the Nene Park complex to Keith Cousins in November 2006, the club were still continuing to lose money year on year. Nevertheless, the club just about continued to function as a football club as Justin Edinburgh began his first full campaign in charge at the start of the 2009/2010 season. The former Tottenham defender began to turn the club around on the pitch at least and his first full season ended with the club achieving a play-off place. Unfortunately, Oxford United put paid to any hope of the club getting back into the Football League, beating the Diamonds over two legs in the semi-final. The following season, 2010/11, the club struggles returned on the pitch, and off it Keith Cousins stepped down as chairman in December 2010. Gary Calder and Liam Beasant took over the running over the club, but Calder was gone within two months. Steve Beasant, Liam’s dad, also joined the board. Both men had interesting pasts to say the very least. This is where things really started to go wrong off the pitch for the once stable and debt free club.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmLFoMCx47I – An look at the decaying Nene Park through Urban Explorers
If the supporters were wondering quite what on earth was going on at Boardroom level by now, the death of popular goalkeeper Dale Roberts was a real dark day for everyone involved in Rushden and Diamonds as suddenly the crisis off the pitch took a back seat whilst the club and its supporters mourned loss of one of their own. The club ended the 2010/11 season in 13th place in the Conference with a five-point deduction next to name. By the start of the next season they had be wound up and liquidated. Rushden and Diamonds were no more. That summer the taxman and other creditors came knocking at the door, despite the cost-cutting measures under Cousins chairmanship, and with the club unable to find £750,000 there was no knight in shining armour around to save them. A last minute plea to the Conference fell on death ears and the league officials expelled the club. You had to wonder quite what Max Griggs was feeling as the club went to the wall five years after he handed it over to the supporters. It was a tragic end to a football club that once dared to dream, lived that dream, but couldn’t sustain that dream when reality set in after their success slowed down. In 2014, three years after the club’s demise, Griggs said in an interview with BBC News, “It costs a lot of money to run a football club and whatever money you put into football, in my experience, you don’t really get back. You’re really paying for your fun at the end of the day.”
As usual, it was the supporters who were left high and dry by the destruction of their football club. A group called SaveRDFC had originally been set up in a bid to save the club, but with the club now on a life support machine, the decision was made to form a new club rather than attempt to save the old one. A month after the old club went under, AFC Rushden and Diamonds were formed by the supporters in 2011. The new club began life Division One of the United Counties League, the tenth tier of English football, ironically the same league Irthlingborough Diamonds were playing their football in before the merger in 1992. The supporter-owned club have been on the rise ever since.
Monday 26th December 2016 – Southern League First Division South – AFC Rushden and Diamonds 1 v 1 Stamford AFC – The Dog and Duck Ground – Att : 631
Since their formation in 2011, AFC Rushden and Diamonds have been on a rapid rise up the divisions much like old versions of the club did after its formation in 1992. The 2012/13 season ended with club achieving their first promotion after finishing second in Division One of the United Counties League. The re-born club established themselves in the UCL Premier Division, and two seasons ago (2014/15) they won their first ever title and subsequent promotion back to eight tier of the English Pyramid system. That meant the Diamonds would start the 2015/16 season in the Southern League First Division Central, the same level Rushden Town had been playing at before Griggs merged the Northamptonshire neighbours. This season the club moved across to the Northern Premier League Division One South, still the eighth tier. They’re now just two promotions from hauling themselves back up to the National League, the current name of the Conference.
However, as always is the case with a club re-born and re-built after the financial meltdown of the previous one, there is much talk of ensuring any further rise through the non-leagues is achieved without over stretching the club resources or finances. The club’s current motto is “One Club one community, one fan, one vote.” The fan owned club have been playing their games at the Dog and Duck stadium since 2012, a ground they currently share with their landlords and neighbours Wellingborough Town. Could the club possibly return to Nene Park in the future? This looks increasing unlikely with the Nene Park complex now left abandoned and boarded up after Kettering Town moved in when Rushden went bust, but again the running costs of Nene Park proved too costly for the poppies. The former owner of the Diamonds, Keith Cousins, is still the owner of the site and there has been talk of the ground being bulldozed but there is opposition to this from East Northampton District council who are insisting there must be a leisure facility as part of its remit.
Interestingly even Max Griggs has dismissed the chance of Nene Park ever hosting a football match again: “I don’t think anyone could run the stadium and resurrect the football club again unless they’re prepared to throw a lot of money at it like I did,” he said in an interview with the BBC.
Meanwhile it looks like AFC Rushden are going to have to find another new home anyway for the 2017/18 season, as the lease holder of Dog and Duck ground has informed both Wellingborough Town and AFC Rushden that he requires vacant possession. The Dog and Duck has undergone a much needed facelift since the arrival of the Diamonds, but much like Hayden Road and Nene Park their two previous former homes, home comforts are proving anything but for a club from Rushden.
The 2016/17 season has seen the club continue their progression on the pitch despite switching leagues in the summer, and as the team headed into a busy festive period they were lying eighth in the table having won eight, drawn eight and lost just twice in their first eighteen fixtures, picking up 32 points. Their visitors to the Dog and Duck ground on Boxing day were Stamford AFC who themselves were placed 18th in the table with 22 points gained from their 18 games played.
On a sunny but cold and crisp day in Wellingborough the visitors more than matched their higher placed opponents in a first half which saw both sides create plenty of chances. The away side were the quick off the mark with a chance as early as the first minute but fortunately for the Diamonds it deflected wide. A shaky start for the home side turned into a steadier performance as they settled down and started to find their rhythm. Their main threat was from the pace of winger Fazel Koriya. However, it was Nail Shariff who opened the scoring with a great turn and strike after good build up play. The goal was a delight for the large home crowd who were probably glad to get out and watch some football after their Christmas excesses. Credit to the away side though as they didn’t let their heads drop and they had a goal to celebrate on 23 minutes to level the scores up at 1-1. As the clock ticked past the half hour mark, the Stamford keeper did well to hold onto the ball as a dangerous cross was whipped into the box. Stamford themselves were proving a handful at set pieces but neither side really hand that end product to finish off their chances.
After the half-time break the Diamonds would be attacking the Peter De Banke terrace that housed the majority of their support and the atmosphere approved as a result. It was now much colder as the floodlights came on after the sun had produced it last rays of the day. Hats, scarves and gloves were the order of the day. The Diamonds’ lively winger Koriya suddenly started to use his pace to good effect and he had the Stamford defence back-pedalling with his lung busting runs. On 51 minutes Jordan Smith fired just wide with a well hit shot, and the home side went even closer on the hour as Dolman’s flick from a well worked corner saw the ball just curl wide of the upright. Despite having to defend a lot more this half, Stamford still posed a threat of their own. A speculative effort from 30 yards almost silenced the home crowd but it cleared the crossbar. The Diamonds were still the team on top in the game but they just couldn’t make that final pass count as chances came and went. In the 90th minute they almost snatched a dramatic win when a free-kick cleared the Stamford defence but no one could get that final touch to put the ball into the net. A draw was frustrating for the home side but Stamford could take comfort from a hard earned point on the road.
A season’s best crowd of 631 came through the Dog and Duck turnstiles. Ok, it is some way off the attendances in the heyday of Rushden and Diamonds’ climb through the leagues when four figure crowds were the norm at Nene Park, but you get the impression the club’s current owners and supporters are just glad this part of Northamptonshire has a football club to come and watch. It seems the song really is right, Diamonds are forever.
Further reading on Rushden and Diamonds can be found here :