Result: St Ives Town 2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1

The ultimate climax of a fantastic season arrived for the Ives on May Bank Holiday Monday 2016. May Bank holiday has always been the traditional workers holiday and the hardest working team in Southern League football gained their reward in this play-off show down in front of a bumper crowd at Pro-Edge Westwood Road.

In spite of finishing one place above the Diamonds in the regular season the home side went into this game as the slight underdogs against their well supported opponents who had already removed play-off favourites Royston.

Both sides started the game nervously and struggled to string passes together on the hard bumpy surface. The conditions not helped by a strong breeze blowing down the pitch which was in the Ives favour in the first period.

All of the early efforts from both sides came from distance and did not trouble either keeper. The first shot of the game came from the Diamonds as Andy Hall cut inside Jordan Jarrold and fired well over from 25 yards on four minutes. Five minutes later Luke Knight hammered Ives first effort even further over the top from 20 yards after the first corner of the game had been headed clear to him.

Jack Bowen set up another half chance for the Diamonds on 12 minutes as he managed to pull Charlie De’ath out of his central position and then get around him on the right before driving a ball across the box which was only inches ahead of Shawn Richards sliding in.

Each sides best opportunity of the half came in a three minute spell around the midway point. Ben Seymour-Shove covering back brought down Lewis Leslie by the corner flag on the left. Richards delivered the free kick into the box and Leslie leapt highest to get in a powerful header which flew inches wide of the far post on 24 minutes.

Three minutes later and a long throw from skipper Knight caused panic in the Diamonds defence. Connor Kennedy’s hurried clearance arrived back at the feet of Knight and he delivered a dangerous in-swinging cross to the near post. Danny Watson bravely attacked the ball and got a touch just ahead of keeper Matt Finlay but he got to much contact on the ball and it scraped just over the crossbar.

Ives did get the ball in the net from the very next attack only sixty seconds later. As Watson managed to ghost in and get on the end of a long free kick from the halfway line from Jack Higgs. He met the ball well and Finlay somehow managed to block the effort at close range. De’ath was following up and headed home the rebound, but the cheers were short lived as the assistant had his flag raised to signify that Watson had started his run a split second to early.

The only other item of note in a scrappy first period was the loss of inspirational skipper Knight who had to leave the field after a gash opened up below his eye following a clash in central midfield with Dan Quigley. Quigley picked up a yellow card for his action, but a very groggy Knight left the field to be replaced by Jack Warwick.

The second period was only 18 seconds old when Seymour-Shove rattled an effort from the corner of the box into the side netting. He had been put clear by Andrew Phillips after good work by Watson had created the space.

The combination of Richards and Leslie was still looking dangerous for the Diamonds and the pair combined again on the hour as Richards delivered a free kick from wide on the right which was won in the air at the near post by Leslie who flashed his header just wide.

The man who has been Ives saviour on so many occasions this season came to their rescue again three minutes later as Bowen looked to have put Leslie clear through the middle, but just as he shaped to shoot one of Steve Gentle’s long legs came through to take the ball off his toes.

The game was opening up a little more at this stage and swinging from end to end. The next chance only one minute later fell Ives way Seymour-Shove and Higgs combined well on the right to create an opportunity for Higgs to swing in a ball to the near post where Phillips again won the header, but failed to hit the target.

Five minutes later a deep free kick from the half way line caught on the breeze and deceived Gentle. The ball fell into the box and a scramble ensued. Ives can be thankful to their centre forward Phillips who was doing a covering job and managed to hack the ball clear.

Time was ticking away and it was beginning to look like a stalemate. But with nine minutes to go the Diamonds snatched what looked like a winner as substitute Elliott Sandy found space at the far post to get on the end of a well delivered corner from the left by Richards and direct his header down and into the net from eight yards.

Manager Ricky Marheineke was left with little choice, but to go for it and quickly made his two remaining changes as Scott Sinclair came on to replace the tiring Phil Draycott and the experienced Dan Moyes replaced Jordan Jarrold.

Having conceded from a corner Ives snatched the equaliser in similar fashion with only two minutes to go as Higgs took a short free kick on the right back to Harry O’Malley. His out-swinging delivery cleared everyone in the centre and arrived at the feet of Watson who had found space beyond the far post. Watson hit the ball first time on the volley hard and low into the back of the net sending Ives fans into raptures.

There was still time for Seymour-Shove to deliver another teasing ball in from the right that Finlay had to punch away from Sinclair at full stretch. But the ball was scrambled to safety by his team mates and the game arrived at ninety minutes all square for the second time in a row.

The Ives went into extra time with their tails up having snatched the prize away from the Diamonds at the death. However it was the visitors who threatened first on 95 minutes as Leslie delivered a dangerous ball in from the left that De’ath bravely headed away from Diamonds substitute Tom Liversedge at full stretch. The ball fell to Kennedy who fired over from 25 yards.

Ives went in front in route one fashion two minutes later as a wind assisted punt by keeper Tim Trebes was only half cleared to Seymour-Shove 20 yards from goal. He instantly brought the ball down touched it sideways to create some space and hammered a low drive into the bottom corner of the net past a diving Finlay.

This seemed to really knock the stuffing out of the visitors and Watson twice went close to increasing the lead in the last two minutes of the first extra period. The big striker chased down a punt out of defence on 104 minutes and just beat keeper Finlay to the ball, but Diamonds skipper Liam Dolman was on hand to tidy up behind his keeper.

The only corner of the first added period arrived at the feet of Watson deep inside the box one minute later. His first effort was blocked at close range and the rebound cleared off the line by Jason Lee.

With the rain now lashing down and the pitch easing a little both sides were still trying to play football with little sign of fatigue from their tough semi-finals in the previous midweek. Diamonds were desperately trying to get back on terms and it was that man mountain Gentle that came to Ives rescue again with four minutes to go as Kennedy delivered a deep cross from the right that was won at the far post by Liversedge. Gentle blocked the header at close range and the ball bounced loose to Phillips who broke at speed and timed his ball to the right into the path of Seymour-Shove to perfection. The flying winger drove into the box and flashed his effort across the face of goal.

The Diamonds mustered one final effort right on time as another Kennedy cross from the right was half cleared to Quigley on the edge of the box. The amazing Gentle hurled himself across the line of the shot to block the ball away. The visitor’s plaintiff pleas for handball fell on deaf ears and just moments later the referees whistle blew to send the stadium into uproar.

So ends an amazing season, far and away the best in the history of St Ives Town. Those that were there on this historic day will probably not remember the quality of the performance, but the atmosphere and the winning goal will live long in the memory of all. Most of the Rushden hoards took their defeat gracefully and know they will be back for a second go next season. Unfortunately a mindless few looking for trouble tried to spoil the Ives big day, but they were soon ushered away to allow the celebrations to begin.

Throughout the season this team, and the whole Club has been a big family and it has been said on a number of occasions that we are the Leicester City of the Southern League. It was hard to pick a man of the match again today, but on the big stage you always need big players and they do not come any bigger than our colossus Steve Gentle who once again was everywhere heading away virtually everything thrown into the box and putting his body onto the line to block out shots when necessary. He was pushed close by to many others to mention.

Roll on next season and a chance to have a go at a few more of the big boys. As Ricky Marheineke said at the end, “enjoy today as the planning for next season starts tomorrow”.

St Ives team : Trebes, O’Malley, Jarrold (Moyes 87), De’ath, Gentle, Higgs, Seymour-Shove, Knight (Warwick 45+1), Phillips, Watson, Draycott (Sinclair 87)

Unused subs : Brown, Rogers

Goals : Watson 88, Seymour-Shove 97

Supporters Man of the Match : Steve Gentle

Final Score :  St Ives Town 2 AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1 after extra time

Attendance  :  1,523