Cheltenham Town V Rushden & Diamonds - Part 1
By Jon Palmer
Updated Sunday, 9th January 2005
Meetings between Cheltenham Town and Rushden & Diamonds always seem to be eventful and, more often than not, have been crucial fixtures for one reason or another.The two sides first met back in August 1994, Rushden newly promoted to the then Beazer Homes League (Southern) Premier Division. Cheltenham were one of the pre-season title favourites, after finishing as runners up in the previous two seasons to Dover Athletic and Farnborough Town. The match, at Nene Park, saw two players making their first appearances in Robins' shirts, both of which would become key players in the years to come. Chris Banks had signed for Lindsay Parsons' Cheltenham from Conference side Bath City and was joined by Martin Boyle, also from the Romans. Former Cheltenham captain Banks made over 400 appearances for the club and was described by Steve Cotterill as, 'possibly the most important signing the club has ever made'.
Banks' new club proved to be too strong in that particular game and goals from Jimmy Wring and Jason Eaton gave Cheltenham Town an opening day win, something that they have only achieved twice since. Rushden acquitted themselves well however, and they impressed everyone with their lavish new stadium and superb facilities.
Later in the campaign, Rushden visited Whaddon Road for the first time and were on the receiving end of a fine performance from Cheltenham, as the Robins tried to keep up with leaders Hednesford Town. Goals from Jimmy Smith, Eaton again and Christer Warren, who was sold to Premier League side Southampton later in the season, gave Cheltenham a 3-0 victory. It was not as one-sided as the score line suggests though, with Cheltenham's former Welsh International 'keeper Martin Thomas being named man of the match for some fine goalkeeping, to preserve the clean sheet. Cheltenham went on to finish as runners-up for the third successive season, while Rushden finished in a respectable fifth position in their debut season at that level. Diamonds scored 99 league goals, a feat equalled only by Champions Hednesford Town. They also made it to the FA Trophy semi-finals where Woking edged them out over two legs. Clive Walker scored the decisive goal in the second leg to give his side a 2-0 win, after Diamonds had won the first game 1-0.
One year on and Rushden were celebrating promotion to the Conference after a fantastic season, which saw them claim the Championship from Halesowen Town in a thrilling title race. Cheltenham were enduring a season of transition under new manager Chris Robinson and could not keep up with the leading two.
Another former Cheltenham skipper Neil Smith joined Roger Ashby's Diamonds in the summer and proved to be an inspirational leader for his new club. Rushden won 2-0 at Whaddon Road and the game at Nene Park was full of incident, it ultimately ended any faint chances Robinson's side had of being involved in the title race. Cheltenham had a number of key players missing through injury and suspension. Chris Banks and Jimmy Smith were both ruled out and Robinson was forced to draft in goalkeeper Nick Goodwin, on loan from Telford United. Steve Campbell joined from Atherstone United in an attempt to boost the Robins' strike force, just in time to make his debut at Nene Park. Cheltenham started well and David Elsey put the Robins ahead with a powerful header. Paul Chenoweth was tormenting the home defence with his trickery and almost scored an individual goal to remember. Just before half time, with Cheltenham seemingly in control, Nick Goodwin dropped a cross at the feet of Dale Watkins, who made no mistake from close range to even the scores at half time. The second half started so promisingly for battling Cheltenham and they won themselves a penalty. David Elsey confidently stepped up and struck a sweet shot from 18 yards, but it rebounded off the post and the ball was cleared to safety. From then on Diamonds took control and went on to win 4-1, with goals from Kevin Wilkin and Andy Kirkup, who scored twice, to leave Cheltenham wondering what might have been.
Cheltenham only had to wait one more season before they rose to the upper echelon of the non-league game, where their path would cross with Rushden's once again. While Diamonds were one step ahead of Cheltenham in the race for promotion to the Conference, it was Cheltenham, now under the leadership of Steve Cotterill, who made the next step up the ladder first.
During the 1997-98 season, the two sides met on three occasions. Rushden visited Whaddon Road on a Sunday in September, due to the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales on the Saturday. Jamie Victory supplied a perfect cross from the left flank and Jason Eaton added to his already impressive goal tally, to give the Robins the lead. Dale Watkins sealed the win against his old club, netting past the experienced Steve Cherry from the penalty spot. Glen Fuff was sent off just before half time for a foul on Jimmy Smith and Mark Freeman was left with a horrific gash on his shin, after an awful tackle from Adrian Foster.
Part 2 will be on the site on Monday evening.