Cheltenham Town V Rushden & Diamonds - Part 2
By Jon Palmer
Updated Monday, 10th January 2005
Part 2 of Jon Palmer's preview of the Rushden game.The two sides were paired together in the second round of the FA Trophy and Cheltenham produced one of their best performances of the season to emerge as 3-1 winners. Dale Watkins bagged a brace, one of which was an absolute screamer and Jason Eaton scored another to keep up his good record against the Diamonds. Cheltenham, of course, went on to win the Trophy at Wembley. Cheltenham visited Nene Park later in the season and were once again beaten 4-1 in Northamptonshire. Neil Grayson, another significant figure in Cheltenham's recent rise made his debut, but Chris Banks was again forced to watch from the sidelines for the second successive trip to Rushden. Loan signing Michael Thorp made one of his two appearances for Cheltenham at centre half. Keith Knight was shown his marching orders for a last ditch tackle and Steve Cotterill's men were reduced to nine men, after another clash between Adrian Foster and Mark Freeman resulted in a dismissal for the big Cheltenham defender. The Robins went on to finish second in their division for the fifth time in six seasons, while Rushden finished strongly to end up in fourth place.
The following season was the most significant duel between the two sides to date. FA Trophy winners Cheltenham and free-spending Rushden were both pre-season favourites for promotion to the Football League and the season did not fail to live up to the bookies' predictions. Rushden made a blistering start to the season, winning their opening seven matches. Many fans thought that Brian Talbot's side were going to run away with the Championship, but Cheltenham put a winning run of their own together. The two sides met at Whaddon Road in November and there was a bumper crowd of 4,051 there to see it. Colin West was denied from the penalty spot by Steve Book's fine save. A first half strike from Keith Knight, whose shot beat former Cheltenham goalkeeper Mark Gayle, was enough to give Cheltenham a crucial win, but there was a long way to go.
Rushden's local rivals Kettering Town joined in the promotion race after flirting with relegation the previous year. It was always very tight at the top and Cheltenham had to contend with the distraction of another run in the FA Trophy. This time it took them to the semi-finals, where they were beaten by Geoff Chapple's Kingstonian. Cheltenham beat Kettering 3-0 at Whaddon Road to set up a huge game at Nene Park over the Easter Weekend. Saturday 3rd of April is a date which will live on long in the memories of Cheltenham Town fans. Many Cheltenham fans failed to make it in to the Airwair Stand, such was the demand for tickets for the game, but 6,312 witnessed what was a remarkable 90 minutes. Miguel de Souza, who appeared for Cheltenham in the FA Cup tie against Birmingham City in 1990, put Rushden ahead in the first period and Talbot's side held on to that slender lead for the rest of the game, nearly. Cheltenham won a free-kick in the last minute and Mark Freeman, who had joined the action from the bench after such unhappy memories of the ground 12 months earlier, headed home a Mike Duff cross to send the masses from Cheltenham wild. Seconds later, Freeman pumped a long ball from inside his own half into Mark Smith's penalty area. John Brough reached the ball before the Rushden 'keeper and managed to send the ball across the goal, where leading scorer Neil Grayson was waiting to poke home and, astonishingly, seal all three points. Many Cheltenham fans were still celebrating the first goal, quite content with a point, when the ball hit the back of the net again and the title race changed direction there and then. The Conference Championship was not won on that day alone, but it was those remarkable two minutes that many Robins' fans will never forget and many Diamonds fans probably wish they could.
Cheltenham were promoted to the Third Division and Rushden faltered after the demoralising defeat against Cotterill's men - they ended up in fourth place. The following year, as Cheltenham were adjusting to life in the full-time ranks, Rushden lost out once again, this time to Kidderminster Harriers. However, after what proved to be another closely fought contest, Rushden used all their previous experience in similar situations to hold their nerve and beat Yeovil Town to the title in 2001.
Just five years after the two sides had met in the Southern League, they would be coming to blows once again, this time in the Nationwide Third Division. Rushden came out on top in the first Football League fixture between the two sides. Jean-Michel Sigere's bizarre goal gave Rushden their second win of the season back in September 2001. Lee Williams made his first appearance for Cheltenham, after signing for an initial month from Mansfield Town.
The return fixture at Whaddon Road finished all square and fate meant that the two clubs would meet in another crucial game, this time the Division Three Play-Off Final at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Martin Devaney put Cheltenham ahead after a run down the left flank, but before Cheltenham could finish celebrating their opener, Paul Hall had netted a superb individual equaliser, tearing through the Robins' defence. Cheltenham were the better side though and second half goals from top scorer Julian Alsop and John Finnigan gave Cheltenham a 3-1 win and a place in Division Two.
The following season, Cheltenham went straight back down and Rushden went up as Champions, but the two teams are once again Divisional rivals after Diamonds' equally speedy return to the Football League's basement. Earlier this season, Cheltenham lost 1-0 at Nene Park in what was a poor performance and John Ward's men have shown a significant improvement since that September day. Today's match will be another chapter in what is a fascinating history, between two clubs who have both achieved so much in so little time.