Rushden and Diamonds 1 Yeovil Town 2 – Saturday 4th November 2000
Going into the 2000/01 season, Yeovil were not anyone’s tip for promotion from the Conference, and even their 10-1 title odds seemed a bit generous. Big-spending Rushden, also known as Ca$hden and Diamonds, or Rushden Anne Diamonds, poor little orphan Annies for those using internet forums around that time, were 11-8 favourites. Following the merger of Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds by Dr Marten’s owner Max Griggs in 1992, they had taken the next few years to spend their way through the lower reaches of the Southern League whilst building what was admittedly a very tidy stadium at Nene Park. Despite all the money they had spent, full-time Rushden had great problems in getting over the finish line against the mostly part-time Conference teams, losing out to Halifax in 1998, Cheltenham in 1999, and Kidderminster in 2000. When Yeovil played Rushden at Nene Park in March 2000, they were so confident that their fans sang ‘We’ll never play you again’, which made Matt Hayfield’s 86th minute equaliser and their subsequent collapse all the more amusing. To be fair, they were almost right.
That it took four attempts with twice as much money as anyone else to get promoted gives some indication that manager Brian Talbot was perhaps not the tactical genius he might like to think. His general approach was to buy up anyone who had played for Northampton, plus whoever was the best player in the Conference teams who beat them. On the eve of the 2000/01 season, he signed strikers Justin Jackson from Morecambe for £180,000 and Duane Darby from Notts County for £120,000. Even today that is a lot for the Conference, but 20 years ago it was silly money. Yeovil have been in the Championship and still never spent close to that on a player. Transfer fees in the Conference are generally not that common, as players move when they are either not wanted somewhere or are at the end of their contract. A club might splash out on one or two signings that they really need, or if a player is excelling at a smaller club and one of the big boys want him (like when we signed McIndoe and Williams from minnows Hereford for example), but that was the exception rather than the rule. Rushden could have put out a team entirely made up of players they paid substantial transfer fees for, and that team would have cost around £750,000. That they would spend £120,000 on a goalkeeper from Northampton’s reserves who couldn’t even get a game there, and that keeper would turn out to be Billy Turley, says all you need to know. Not only did they pay over the odds, but they paid large fees for players they probably could have got for nothing. It’s difficult to say how big their squad was as they had so many players on their books who never actually got into the first team, but it was at least 30.
In those days, most Conference teams were part-time, with the full-time ones generally being those who had just been relegated from the league and were looking to go straight back up (and almost invariably, didn’t). Yeovil had just turned full-time at the end of the 1999/2000 season but done it on a budget, and were forced to release players who would have lost money by turning full-time with them. Jamie Pitman, Matt Hale, and a number of potential signings from lower in the non-league pyramid refused full-time contracts because Yeovil were not offering enough money; we were not able to attract players we wanted from Dorchester. Having released a number of players at the end of the season in order to go full-time, Yeovil’s squad came together at the last minute and even when it did so, was incredibly small. New signings Nick Crittenden and Darren Way were signed a matter of days before the first game of the season. Yeovil went into the 2000/01 season with a squad of exactly 18 players, including products of the youth team with no first team experience. For the first few months of the season, the first team picked itself – Pennock, Piper, Tonkin, Skiverton, White, Way, Smith, Crittenden, Lindegaard, Patmore and Belgrave. Sometimes James Bent played instead of Lindegaard. The bench was, to put it very mildly, thin. Roy O’Brien and Paul Steele were very capable deputies at midfield / centre half respectively, and Bent / Lindegaard would alternate. Glenn Poole would go on to be successful left winger later in his career, but at 19 could not get into the Yeovil squad. Bradley Peters (19) and Gareth Risbridger (18) were the other two, with an 18-year old Chris Weale the reserve keeper.
Given that the first team picked itself, you can confidently say that at the start of the season, the average age of the first team was 22.5. There was a spine of experienced players in Pennock, Skiverton and Patmore, but even Skiverton was only 25. There was not a single player in the entire squad over 30, and only two over 25. The remaining seven squad members, with an average age of exactly 20, brought the average age of the entire squad down to 21.5. Because that team was so good, it is easy to forget how young they were – Belgrave and Lindegaard were both 19 at the start of the season, and Way, Tonkin and Bent were all 20. Even Ben Smith, who had been at Yeovil for almost three years, was only 21. Most of Yeovil’s players had been released from the youth teams of League clubs, or were picked up from local non-league football, such as Paul Steele from Chippenham, or Anthony Tonkin from Falmouth. The only player to have commanded a fee was Steele, for whom we paid the princely sum of £4,000. Michael McIndoe would join later in the season from Hereford for £20,000, although funds for other players needed to strengthen the squad were denied.
By contrast, Rushden’s squad of 30 had an average age of 25.5, and mostly included older players with a great deal of League experience, or the pick of non-league like Mustafa, Brady, Underwood and Jackson. Captain Ray Warburton had played 200 times for Northampton, and had just played in the League One playoff final for them in 1998 before being persuaded to drop two divisions to play for Rushden. Managing Rushden must have been easy, Talbot had his pick of players because money was no object. It was not uncommon for them to sign a player for a big fee, dump him in the reserves for two years and then move him on, just as they did when they poached Matt Stowell from under Yeovil’s nose in 1999, a move which seemed almost done out of spite as he almost never played for them.
A lot is made of age and experience in football, and some might say that Yeovil ‘bottled it’ in 2001, but another way to look at it is that a squad of 18 kids took a squad of 30 full time professionals right down to the wire, and over a season almost beat them. At that point, 2nd in the Conference represented Yeovil’s best ever season. Ultimately what it came down to was that when Yeovil players experienced loss of form or injury ins the second half of the season, there was no-one to replace them. Warren Patmore had to play on through a hamstring injury because there was simply no-one in reserve. Rushden experienced no significant injury problems, and even if they had, they had an army of experienced players in reserve. In Darby and Jackson, they had two very expensive, in-form strikers at the peak of their careers. If one of them had got injured, they had at least five other strikers in reserve (I count Sigere, Collins, Town, Sale and Essendoh). There were probably players in their squad who never even made the bench who would have got into Yeovil’s our first XI.
Despite all of this, we actually had quite a good record against them, and were unbeaten in the Conference at Nene Park. A memorable 5-1 win at Huish Park in November 1999 was a definite highlight.
The gulf in resources between the two teams was almost comical, and yet we gave them a run for their money. Rushden were unbeaten for the first 12 games of the season, but when they stumbled in October and November, Yeovil were able to capitalise. Yeovil were one point ahead at the top of the table when the two teams met at Nene Park on 4th November 2000. Although still very much the underdogs, Yeovil were in good form, unbeaten in 11 league and cup games and with no injury worries, had their best eleven available. We had lost manager Dave Webb when he suddenly walked out on the club for Southend in September, but it should be remembered that the Glovers were not top at the time, we actually went top with a 4-0 win against Dover with Steve Thompson in temporary charge, and most of the best results that season came under the much-maligned Colin Addision. The win at Rushden, the cup wins against Colchester and Blackpool and almost four months at the top of the Conference, all under Addison.
Brian Talbot had talked up the game by disrespecting his opponents in the media which in his usual brash style served to motivate the players and fans. Initially handed around 800 tickets which sold out almost immediately, Yeovil’s allocation was increased to 1200 as the Rushden areas of the 6,400-capacity stadium did not sell out. One of the big benefits of Nene Park is that away fans are given the best stand and can create a great deal of noise with great acoustics of the Airwair stand. It certainly is an impressive ground for away fans and I understand the famed Diamond Burgers were also very good.
In fairness, it was a tight game of few clear chances. Yeovil took the lead when Patmore played a delicate chip over the advancing Turley in front of the away end. As expected Rushden came back strongly in the second half and equalised when Justin Jackson seized on the rebound of a shot from Sigere that was saved by Pennock. Even though the travelling fans would have been more than happy with a draw that would keep them top of the Conference, there was a dramatic end to the match as substitute Jon Brady punched clear a header from Skiverton which would certainly have gone in. Brady was sent off, and it was left to Darren Way to convert the penalty in front of the home end which he did, to send the travelling fans into dreamland. A flare went up in the away end as Yeovil fans went delirious. I don’t think anyone had really expected us to go away to Rushden and actually win there, with all the resources they had they should have been miles ahead, although to be fair Yeovil had slightly the better chances and had more than one opportunity to extend the lead in the dying minutes.
Rushden’s form stuttered after the game, as Turley managed to get himself sent off twice in consecutive matches. Yeovil’s lead stretched briefly to seven points, but postponed fixtures and injuries after Christmas caught up with them and Rushden were eventually champions. Promoted to the League in 2001, they got to the playoff final in 2002, and were promoted to League One in 2003 but only spent one season there as Dr Marten’s ran into financial trouble and Max Griggs pulled his money out. With Daddy Warbucks’ millions no longer available, Rushden plummeted when they had to compete on a level playing field with everyone else. The two teams passed each other in 2004/05, as an ascendant Yeovil – including some of the same players, such as Skiverton, Way and Weale – brushed Rushden aside with ease at Huish Park. There was a huge gulf in the teams again, but this time it was in the opposite direction. Yeovil were promoted to League One, and although Rushden narrowly avoided relegation that season, they were relegated back to the Conference in 2006. For a few years they were a mid-table Conference side, experiencing a brief renaissance when managed Justin Edinburgh took them to a 4th placed finish in 2010. However their decline continued and they were expelled from the Conference in 2011 due to their financial situation. A winding up order was issued by HMRC and Rushden were liquidated over debts of £750,000, coincidentally the same amount as it had cost them in transfer fees to assemble their 2000/01 squad.
A phoenix club was created, and AFC Rushden currently play in the Southern League Premier Division (Central), a feeder league to the Conference South, so in theory two promotions away from playing Yeovil again. They do not currently have their own ground, having shared with several other local clubs since their inception in 2011.
The saddest part of this story is probably that Nene Park is no more. Following Rushden’s demise it was taken over by former rivals Kettering, who were unable to remain there due to the cost of maintaining the ground while the Poppies themselves were in financial difficulty after being relegated to the Southern Premier. The stadium lay empty for several years before being demolished in 2017, the same year that Kettering’s Rockingham Road was also demolished (although Kettering Town still exist). Both former stadiums are now retail parks.
Team that day: Tony Pennock, David Piper, Anthony Tonkin, Terry Skiverton, Tom White, Darren Way, Ben Smith, Nick Crittenden, Andy Lindegaard (sub. Roy O’Brien), Warren Patmore, Barrington Belgrave. Subs not used: James Bent, Glenn Poole, Steve Thompson, Chris Weale.