AFC Rushden & Diamonds Stars Pan-Disability Team completed a double on the 4th of June, winning both the Championship division of the annual Sixfields Disability Festival and the NFA Disability Counts Football League, having lost out on the league title last year by a single point.
Back in September at the start of the season, we were able to run two teams, one for the under-sixteens, while the bulk of our title-winning under-sixteen team from last year moved up to the open age division, competing in their first season of adult football. It was Unfortunate but due to losing players, we had to fold the under-sixteen team by January.
Last year, our open age team lost out on the league title by a single point on the last day, and at some points this year it looked unlikely that we would be able to recover, especially after a 5-1 loss against Northampton Town on the 9th of January. Due to the pitches being ruined by the weather during the winter and early spring, there was a long break between that game and the next tournament, which took place on the 9th April, where the efforts the Diamonds had put in during training in the break really showed; the next time the two sides met, the result was a 0-0 draw, and after that the Diamonds kicked on and showed their quality. With the addition of several new players who joined us during the break, the Pan-Disability Team managed to pull out a two-point lead at the top of the division going in to the final game.
Every year, Northampton Town lay on a Pan-Disability tournament at Sixfields, which is attended by teams from all over the country, from as far afield as Aston Villa and Mansfield and Macclesfield. This year we entered two teams, one in each division, and I'm proud to say that the Diamonds won the Championship, marching through the group stage to reach the final against Mansfield, winning the contest on penalties (shooting at the same stand that saw Jack Ashton score the winner in the Hillier Cup for the first team).
So with that trophy in the cabinet, only one outstanding task, one final challenge left, five days later, on the 4th June, at Brooke Weston Academy in Corby, the Stars took to the pitch for the last four games of the season. Despite a slightly nervous start, the Diamonds managed to record a 1-0 win against Aspire FC, last year's league winners, thanks to a spectacular shot that curled into the top corner from veteran Andy Scott. The next game against Corby S&L was a hard-fought, physical game, with both sides showing commitment and willingness to put their bodies on the line for the shirt, especially Robert Mackenzie, who took several blows while competing for the ball. His performance was exemplary of his whole season – after joining in March, suffering with depression and social anxiety issues, he fitted right into the group and showed a brilliant spirit both in training and in matches, always pushing to improve and work for the team.
Ise Lodge FC were the penultimate opponents for Diamonds, and deserve a mention of their own; despite usually losing by a hefty margin, none of their players have left the club, and their coaching staff are every bit as enthusiastic as any other in the league. More than anyone else, I think they epitomise the spirit that all football should be played in; no matter what the result, they never let their heads drop, and they're always ready for the next game, which is why it is no surprise that there were congratulations from all the teams when they won for the first time in the league back in September. When they were unable to field a full team because of an injury, Ethan Jennings volunteered to put on a shirt for the other side, and acquitted himself well with some creative movement on the ball, and a superb level of application, working hard against his team-mates to try and earn Ise Lodge another win. Unfortunately, his efforts weren't enough as a bright and energetic Diamonds managed to score five goals and keep a clean sheet to make it three wins from three leading into the last game of the season.
As the table stood at one o'clock, all the Diamonds needed was a draw against Northampton Town to secure the title.
Despite having already played sixty minutes of football with only short breaks between matches, the Diamonds came out of the blocks sprinting, working hard to take the trophy. The first goal came on the eight-minute mark, with captain Josh Coleman taking the ball down from the air in space to stab in at the goal. Northampton's keeper managed to stop the first shot, but spilled it, and Coleman pounced on the chance as he has been doing all season, sticking it home to gather a 1-0 advantage.
Despite being a goal down, Northampton Town kept coming at the Diamonds, and only a brilliant reaction save from Jordan Ogden, combined with a goal-line clearance from Tom Porter, kept the clean sheet. The Stars had to absorb heavy pressure, including a free-kick from a dangerous position which just whistled past the post of Ogden's goal, and several corners which the Cobblers were unlucky not to convert. With about three minutes left, Coleman managed to steal the ball from a defender under pressure and struck the ball into the goal to trigger scenes of absolute elation from the team and the supporters. When the final whistle went, with the final score 2-0, the victorious Diamonds erupted in celebration, and one slightly over-emotional onlooker collapsed into tears!
Special thanks go to Lee Pearce for his work coaching the side, and to Simon Barrett for performing the thankless tasks that go into keeping the teams running smoothly, and of course to you for supporting AFC Rushden & Diamonds. If it wasn't for people making their way to the Dog & Duck every weekend, moments like today wouldn't be possible.
Commiserations go not only to the other teams in the league, but also to Ben Steels, who missed the last few months of the season due to a broken leg, and to Jake Pursey, who has been a stalwart of the team for some years now, and unfortunately was unable to attend the last tournament.
Tom Porter, Jake Barrett, Jordan Ogden, Josh Coleman, Andy Scott. Ethan Jennings, Brandon Sullivan, James Beil - Coach
(Not pictured - Simon Barrett Robert Mackenzie, Rhys Stephenson,Dylan Bowman, Brandon Curtis, Ben Steels, Jake Pursey)
Finally, if you know anyone with any form of social, physical or learning disability, or who has suffered at any time from mental illness, who wants to enjoy the brilliant team spirit at the club, regardless of ability, experience or age, especially those under the age of sixteen, please contact either Mark Cullen or myself.
AFC R & D Pan-Disability