I’d scarcely heard of Market Deeping let alone Deeping Rangers, the local football team. “It’s Peterborough way, mate,” I was told by Stuart Hammonds, Editor of the Non-League Paper. “Think Malcolm Christie.” I did. Malcolm Neil Christie, former Derby and Middlesbrough striker (among other clubs), started his career with Deeping Rangers.
The club was about to play one of the biggest games in their history – an interesting FA Cup second qualifying round tie with AFC Rushden & Diamonds. According to websites, getting to Market Deeping is a challenge by public transport. Against my better judgement, I gave it a go.
But it worked. I had little faith in Britain’s transport system, so the prospect of taking a bus from Peterborough to Market Deeping was filled with some trepidation. Would I be stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the connection that would never come? Twenty-odd minutes after leaving the land of the “Posh”, I drove into Market Deeping – noticing a low-flying aircraft buzzing the fields. It made me think of Cary Grant in “North by Northwest” when he alighted a country bus and landed among a barren landscape full of arable fields. I surveyed the area, wondering if there was somewhere to run if that single-seater Cesena suddenly started peppering the ground with machine gun fire.
Shaking off the fantasy, I asked one person the way to Deeping Rangers and he shrugged his shoulders, told me he was from Poland and thought it be off the Towngate East. Chummy from Wroclaw was right, but I was a good 25 minutes away – and a walk past the “female tattooist” – from the ground. The websites were also correct, something of a challenge. But hell, it was a nice day.
Arriving at the ground, AFC Rushden & Diamonds’ fans had already made themselves at home. The club is one of the “phoenix clubs” that have emerged in recent years after their original club has gone bust. The original Rushden & Diamonds was one of the success stories of the 1990s, driven by Max Griggs’ Dr Marten’s empire. I met Griggs a couple of times as the club was in the ascendancy and he seemed an unassuming and likeable fellow. Their ground, Nene Park, was arguably the best ever built for a non-league club. You couldn’t help being impressed with the place. But it all turned sour and as a result, the fans formed a new club – I like their idea of “one fan, one share, one club, one community” and see it as the way non-league football should go.
While Rushden were a relatively small fish when they entered the Football League, in non-league circles – certainly the one they are moving in at the moment – they are sizeable. They won the United Counties Premier League in 2014-15 scoring 121 goals in 40 games and accumulating 99 points. It was only their third season as a senior club. They don’t have their own home, sharing Wellingborough Town’s Dog & Duck ground, but they enjoy an average gate of around 500, more than five times the usual attendance at Deeping Rangers’s Haydon Whitham Stadium.
The signs are that the tempo of last season has continued as AFC Rushden & Diamonds stepped up to the Southern League Central Division. Before the “challenging” trip to Deeping, they were in second place and were unbeaten in their eight league games. They had successfully negotiated two rounds in the FA Cup, beating Kings Langley and Bedfont & Feltham.
Deeping have their own momentum, though. Although they had lost twice in the United Counties League, their FA Cup run had already come through three rounds. Boston Town were beaten 6-1 in the Extra Preliminary Round and then Dereham Town were despatched by a solitary goal. That paired Deeping with Leek Town of the Northern Premier League Division One South.
Deeping were 2-0 down but came back to earn a draw. The replay saw Leek beaten 4-2 after they had led 2-1. To quote Deeping’s tannoy announcer: “We had a tremendous evening”. A crowd of over 200 saw the Leek game, but more were expected for the visit of AFC Rushden & Diamonds.
And expectations were certainly realised. The attendance was 635, a record for the ground. Before kick-off, the announcer apologetically informed the crowd that “there’s not much space in the stand, but we are not used to such gatherings”. There was plenty of expectation around the place – a local butcher was doing a roaring trade in burgers and sausages, the players had an extra spring in their step and you could sense that Deeping were enjoying the occasion. “Who says the FA Cup doesn’t mean anything anymore – everybody has been talking about nothing else all week. We’re certainly up for it today,” said one Deeping regular. “We know it will be tough, they [AFC R&D] have more money than us, but our lads are excited by today.”
Out came the players. “Have a good day,” said the announcer as the strains of “We will rock you”, faded out. “Come on Deeeepingg,” shouted one woman from the stand.
They started well, plenty of enthusiasm and energy. In the 13th minute, Deeping almost went ahead, a superb left foot drive by Fraser Sturgess just whistling past the AFC R&D goal. The visitors soaked up any pressure Deeping could build, with the man mountain Liam Dolman at the back a formidable opponent.
AFC R&D went ahead after 22 minutes, Scott Joseph, who had come on as substitute 90 seconds earlier, side-footing home after a good run by Courtney Herbert. Joseph seemed to change the game with his physical presence and deft touches. A minute before half-time, his shot was blocked and the ball ran to Tom Lorraine, who finished with ease. AFC R&D had control of the tie.
That second goal seemed to kill-off Deeping and the restart was decidedly low key. The home crowd was also quiet as the locals realised there would be no third qualifying round game in a fortnight. People started to drift away – those that had come out of curiosity.
AFC R&D netted a third goal on the hour, Joseph turning on the edge of the area and rolling to Tom Berwick who shot wide of Deeping keeper Danny Bircham.
It wasn’t until the closing stages that Deeping mustered up a chance of note, Scott Coupland testing Matt Finlay with a long-range shot and then Luke Hunnings heading over the bar.
That was it, 3-0 to AFC Rushden & Diamonds – “The mighty, mighty, Rushden,” according to the travelling fans. Deeping had tried, never gave up and did themselves proud, but they came up against a team with a little more savvy and experience. The gate receipts will come in handy, though!