The English Non-League pyramid at the moment is filled with sides trying to have a go at promotion to the EFL with the likes of Fylde, Eastleigh and Billericay Town all trying to follow in the footsteps of Salford City, Fleetwood and Crawley in rising up through the leagues whilst being backed by wealthy owners. This isn’t the first time that teams have tried this though.
In 1992, the owner of Doc Martens and 50th richest man in Britain at the time, Max Griggs, decided to invest in football. Griggs suggested merging two local non-league sides in Northamptonshire, Rushden Town FC and Irthlingborough Diamonds FC to form Rushden and Diamonds Football Club. The next two decades would be spectacular.
Four years after his investment, Griggs had managed push Rushden and Diamonds into the Conference. Taking them two years to get themselves out of the Southern League Midland Section and the same for the Premier Division.
Off the pitch, investment had also been a priority for Griggs. Nene Park, the club’s home ground was being developed rapidly at a cost of £30 million and had been transformed into a stadium that was now Championship standard.
Two new all-seater stands were built that could hold 1,000 spectators each. The North Stand opening for the beginning of the 1993-94 season and the South Stand for the 1994-95 campaign. Two years later, Nene Park’s development was complete with a new East Stand that could hold just over 2000 fans, raising the capacity of the ground to 6,572.
Alongside the new stands, a corporate building called The Diamond Centre was added to the complex in 1994 which had 13 rooms that could be used for events, conferences and even Civil Ceremonies. The main function suite was also a host for the Dr Martens European Snooker League. You couldn’t fault Griggs for his ambition to transform the newly-formed outfit. There would be more expansion to come to the complex later on as well…
However, life in the Conference wasn’t going as smooth as Griggs would have hoped. Pre-season hopes of a title challenge and a straight promotion to the Football League quickly vanished after the Diamonds found themselves bottom of the table come the end of February. Ex-Arsenal and Ipswich Town player Brian Talbot replaced veteran Roger Ashby and managed to only lose two matches until the end of the season. Taking the Diamonds up to a reputable 12th place finish.
Talbot was given a five-year contract at the end of the 1996/97 season – a deal that is uncommon at the top of English football let alone the Conference.
The next two seasons would also be more difficult than expected for Griggs. Talbot brought in new signings such as Adrian Foster and Paul Underwood but could ultimately only lead the club to a fourth-place finish in the 1997/98 season and despite a record start to 1998/99 campaign where the Diamonds won seven consecutive games, they finished in the same position.
There was still more development off the pitch however and Griggs wasn’t phased by the underwhelming performances on it. A new state of the art training ground was built next to Nene Park with four pitches and a Doc. Martens shop was added to the stadium. Not something any other side in England could boast about.
Despite relatively poor league finishes, there was a good run in the cup. The Diamonds took (then Premier League) Leeds United to a replay in the FA Cup after managing to pick up a 0-0 draw at home. They took the lead at Elland Road but ended up losing 3-1 on the night. This was the exact sort of excitement that Griggs was after. Nene Park certainly didn’t look out of place as well with a record crowd of just under 6,500 attending the first game of the tie.
The next season would also suffer from a similar fate to the previous two. Despite a reputable second-place finish, the Diamonds would spend another season in the Conference as Division Three back then only had one relegation spot. New signings such as goalkeeper Billy Turley and defender Mark Peters (former trainee at Manchester City) still weren’t enough to push the Diamonds into the Football League. Excitement was high at the beginning of March with the side top but a defeat to eventual winners Kidderminster Harriers meant that the Diamonds missed out again.
Griggs was going to take whatever it could though to get his side into the Football League and with the Diamonds being one of the only full-time clubs in the Conference it was only a matter of time before they were promoted.
It was an incredible team for the Conference that was being assembled. Justin Jackson (the season prior’s top scorer in the league with 29 goals) had signed for £180,000, a figure still steep for some clubs in League Two today. Duane Derby was purchased from Notts County for £120,000 and former Norwich schoolboy Tarkan Mustafa had joined the Diamonds as well. There was really no excuses for not gaining promotion this time around as the Diamonds were significantly better than everyone else in the Conference.
After a 12 game unbeaten run at the start of the season and his side top, it looked like Griggs’ dream was finally coming to fruition. Just like the previous campaign though the Diamonds had slipped off again and were second at Christmas to an exciting Yeovil Town side. Griggs stuck by Talbot and his faith was eventually paid off as the Diamonds lost only one of their last 23 league games to gain promotion. Only nine years into the club’s existence, Griggs had taken Rushden and Diamonds from the seventh tier into the Football League.
The expensive summer signings had given the Diamonds the extra push they needed for promotion with Derby finishing as the top scorer of the Conference with 24 goals and Jackson netting 18 for the season. Talbot had turned Nene Park into a fortress by only losing one game at home all season to second place Yeovil.
More excitement had been added to the promotion as well with even more expansion to the Nene Park complex with the opening of the Dr Martens Sports and Exhibition Centre earlier on in the season. For even a Division Three side, a gymnasium, management offices and recreational facilities weren’t the norm as part of teams’ training grounds. The facilities that Rushden had were nothing short of incredible.
The Diamonds also were adapting to life in Division Three quite well. Despite an early blip which included a 7-1 defeat to Cardiff City in the LDV Vans Trophy, a playoff spot was looking realistic.
Jamaican internationals Onandi Lowe and Paul Hall, who both played for the Reggae Boyz at the 1998 World Cup, had bolstered the attack and Stuart Wardley had also signed in January on loan from Queens Park Rangers to try and tighten up the defence.
Lowe and Hall had started to build a great partnership together in the side with Lowe going on a prolific scoring rowt towards the end of the season, scoring nine goals in his last five games of the season and 19 goals in 25 appearances in total.
Talbot had changed to a more direct style of football come the end of the season instead of the more patient passing game he’d adopted in the Conference and it worked. His side only lost eight games in the last 26 matches and had managed to push themselves into sixth come the end of the season. A straight promotion to Division Two looked like a real possibility as the Diamonds were just three games away from promotion. The Play-Offs loomed.
Rochdale would be Rushden and Diamonds opponents in the semi-final. Win over two legs and then they would be in Cardiff for the final against the winners of Cheltenham Town Vs Hartlepool United.
Play-Off semi-finals aren’t usually the best advertisement for football. A lot of the time they’re very tense and are usually decided by a single goal. This one was completely different though. It was a genuinely good game of football at Nene Park.
The game got off to an incredible start when Rochdale’s Lee McEvillly went on a magical, weaving run from just inside the Rushden half, coasting past five Diamonds players before coolly placing the ball into the net. Seven minutes in, Rushden and Diamonds were a goal behind.
The home side came back though with a simple finish on 34 minutes. An unmarked Wardley headed in the simplest of headers from a free-kick that was glided in from Hall.
Rochdale responded after the break, somehow managing to improve on their first goal. Paul Simpson rocketing the ball from 30 yards out past the hopeless Rushden keeper, Turley.
The Diamonds refused to go into the second leg a goal behind and Scott Partridge mimicked Simpson’s strike for Rochdale by striking from 25 yards out with his laces. The ball cannoned off the crossbar and was headed in off the rebound by Gary Butterworth. It ended 2-2 full time. A fair result for both sides.
The second leg was finely poised at Spotland. Rochdale were desperate to get out of the Third Division after being stuck there for 28 years and were gifted the opportunity to be within one game of that happening when after a tense 65 minutes on a muddy northern pitch, Rushden’s defender Mark Peters went for a standard back pass to Turley who completely missed the ball after it cruelly bounced over his air shot on the bobbled surface. Turley looked back, helpless to see the ball in the back of his goal.
It was so harsh on someone who had been so crucial for Rushden reaching this stage in the first place after his solid and reliable performances all season. The tie could have easily have swung in Rochdale’s favour if it wasn’t for Turley’s match-saving reflexes in the first leg.
Rushden wouldn’t let this freak mistake define their season however and responded instantly. Butterworth picked out Lowe with a hopeful ball that managed to find its way through three Rochdale players and the Jamaican slotted the ball into the bottom right corner to level the score.
The momentum was in favour of the Diamonds and 11 minutes later Lowe found Hall with a through ball that cut through the Rochdale defence and Hall took the ball past the Rochdale keeper before smoothly placing the ball into the empty net.
The freak own goal had woken Rushden up and had motivated them to finish the game with the spectacle that they provided in the last quarter of the match.
Rochdale had chances to take the game into extra time but couldn’t find a goal in the last 15 minutes. Rushden had done enough and in their first season in Division Three had got to a play-off final and would play Cheltenham Town.
It was a good time for the Diamonds to play Cheltenham as compared to their own form at the end of the season, Cheltenham had tailed off and had dropped into the play-offs after failing to win on the last day of the season to gain automatic promotion to Division Two. Lowe was going to be a tough challenge for the Cheltenham defence who had struggled against him earlier on in the season in a 1-1 draw at Whaddon Road.
The Robins had only just scraped through against Hartlepool in the semi-finals as well, having to beat them on penalties to progress.
But, it wasn’t to be for the Diamonds. The unlucky South End curse of the Millenium Stadium had struck again. Up until the Division Two play-off a few days after this, every team that had occupied the South End dressing room had lost.
Cheltenham took the lead midway through the first half after a misguided clearance from Scott Partridge to Martin Devaney provided him with the chance to open the scoring with a neat finish from an acute angle.
Despite Rushden equalising only 16 seconds after the restart with Hall chipping the Cheltenham keeper. It wasn’t their day. More poor defending had lead to Cheltenham’s top scorer, Julian Alsop being gifted with a tap in after a header wasn’t cleared properly.
Unlike the semi-final Vs Rochdale, there was no comeback for the Diamonds. Cheltenham added a third to seal promotion with just over ten minutes to play when John Finnigan bent home a shot from the rebound off the post.
There was really no performance in the second half from Rushden and Cheltenham deserved the win. However, Cheltenham were a similar side to Rushden in the sense that they also came from the Conference and so there was no reason as to why Rushden couldn’t follow in their footsteps.
There was no time for hangovers for Rushden and Diamonds. They really couldn’t afford to start to get going only three months into the next season. They needed to hit the ground running if they wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2001/02 campaign. Right-back Marcus Bignot had joined on a free from QPR and the club was looking for promotion again.
Rushden started the season really well. Talbot’s side only lost one game from their opening eight and didn’t drop out of the play-off positions throughout all of the first half of the season. There was still no talk of finishing the season as champions however as Hartlepool had stormed clear at the top of the table and despite beating teams like Shrewsbury 5-1, the Diamonds were still 12 points off the top spot come the start of March.
Hartlepool were dropping points though and throughout March had only got one win in seven games. Rushden were catching up and by the end of the month were only three points off the top of Division Three. Wins against York, Hull, Bury and Exeter and shortened the gap. Talbot was therefore named manager of the month for his efforts.
The incredible form continued into April where the Diamonds won four games on the bounce. A win against Carlisle secured the club’s promotion to Division Two and if they could beat Leyton Orient on the penultimate day of the season, Rushden could go up as champions.
But they couldn’t do it. A 0-0 stalemate panned out at Brisbane Road. Rushden did everything apart from score. It would go down to the last game of the season to decide who would be champions. And it was only Hartlepool that the Diamonds had to play to decide their fate… first vs second on the last day of the season.
The table stood like this: Rushden and Diamonds first – 86 points. Hartlepool United second – 84 points. All the Diamonds had to do was draw and they would be up as champions.
Lowe was back in the team after he was on the bench at Orient and Rushden couldn’t afford to not have anyone on the pitch that couldn’t take their chances as relying on a draw was risky.
Just like the previous week at Orient, Rushden had a lot of chances. Lowe and David Bell missed chances early on but Hartlepool were also going for it knowing that they had to win to be champions. The game was definitely swinging in favour of Rushden though and Darby was causing problems for Hartlepool.
So it was no surprise when just under 30 minutes, Hall put Rushden in front. The Jamaican international finished from close range after some nice passing play involving Stuart Gray and Andy Burgess. The final ball delivered from Bignot after some good hold up play from Darby, which put the Diamonds in pole position for the title.
It wasn’t plain sailing though as despite Rushden having plenty of chances to kill the game off, Rochdale made it 1-1 on 89 minutes. For supporters of the Diamonds, the next few minutes must have been the longest in supporting the side. All Rushden had to do was hold on and they were champions.
Rochdale, however, were throwing everything they could at this. They couldn’t score another though. Rushden and Diamonds were champions of Division Three.
Talbot had managed to keep most of his side together from the previous campaign and the likes of Bignot that had joined had helped secure the title alongside cult heroes such as Lowe and Hall who had netted 31 goals between them for the season.
This would be the best it got for Rushden and Diamonds supporters however as after this, everything started to go downhill…
Life in Division Two started relatively well with the side doing okay around mid-table but a run of bad results around Christmas saw the club slip down the table. Talbot then left the club in March as manager as did most of the players that were crucial to the club’s first promotion to Division Two. Underwood, Lowe, Hall and Bignot all departed and weren’t replaced. Ernie Tippet replaced Talbot but couldn’t keep his side up. For the first time in their history, the Diamonds had been relegated.
Tippet came in with three games remaining of the season to try and keep Division Two status but he couldn’t win a single one.
Griggs’ Dr. Martens empire was also doing poorly. In 2003, it almost went bankrupt, the company ceased making shoes in the UK and all production was moved to China and Thailand. He couldn’t afford to keep ploughing money into something that wasn’t making him any profit. The club was spending £2.5 million above income every year, The programme cost twice as much to produce as was being generated in sales and by Spring 2004 his club was within weeks of administration, hence the flash sale.
The club was in free fall.
Tippet could only last until the end of January the next season and was replaced by Barry Hunter and the club survived in League Two by the skin of their teeth. It was a shadow of the side that had been promoted from the same division two seasons earlier. The 2004/05 season would also signal the end of Griggs’ involvement with the club. The club was sold to the Supporters’ trust but the running costs of the club and declining attendances meant it was inevitable that the club was going to eventually get relegated from the Football League.
The club’s five-year spell in the Football League ended after a 2-0 defeat away to Boston on 29th April 2006. Hunter did what he could in the club’s situation by signing young players on loan such as Jamie Young from Reading and Ashley Nicholls from Cambridge but the club was on life support.
Thirteen players the following season were released and Hunter was sacked. New manager, Paul Hart was also sacked come December 2006 and was replaced with Graham Westley who then also left in February 2007 for Garry Hill.
In November that season, the Supporters Trust handed over control of Rushden and Diamonds, and the Nene Park facilities they controlled, to Keith Cousins, who made a loan to cover short-term debts and became the new Club Chairman.
Hill could only finish 12th in the Conference and the following season 16th. The average attendance was less than 50% of what it had been during their last season in the Football League and the club was still just about managing to survive.
It looked as if there was some positivity however regarding the club as the next season, the Diamonds finished 11th and Justin Edinburgh came in as the new manager in February.
Rushden managed to finish in a solid fourth in the 2009-10 season and qualified for the play-offs but lost to Oxford United in the semi-finals. Edinburgh had done extraordinary well with the budget he had and had managed to finally get things right again on the field with the likes of Lee Tomlin scoring 14 goals in 35 games. Critics were expecting another push the next season for promotion and it looked like a genuine possibility.
There were still issues off the pitch that hadn’t been sorted however and there was still debts mounting up in the background. Leon Knight was also involved in a very public row with the club on Twitter after his move to Darlington was blocked.
With the club still running at a loss, Cousins sold the club to former Weymouth Town chief executive Gary Calder and Liam Beasent halfway through the 2010/11 campaign.
This was the beginning of the end for the club. The financial problems worsened throughout the season and Calder left months after purchasing the club.
By the end of the season, the taxman called and the club needed to raise £750,000 in two weeks to avoid a winding-up petition. The club were expelled from the Conference on 11th June 2011, because their financial position meant they could not guarantee being able to complete all their fixtures the following season.
The Southern League then declined an application for Rushden and Diamonds to join and the club entered administration on 7th July 2011.
Griggs was unlike other football owners that were in the sport as a vanity project as he genuinely wanted to give back to his community. It was just unfortunate that he couldn’t continue his funding. If he was bothered about the money, he would have squeezed every penny out of the club until it folded. Instead, he sold the club to the fans for £1.
To add salt into the wounds of the Rushden fans they had to see their arch-rivals in Kettering Town move into their stadium for 18 months afterwards. But, like Rushden, they soon found it too expensive to stay there and had to leave. After that, the stadium was completely empty for six years and fell into disrepair before it got demolished.
If for whatever reason similar events happen with Gary Neville or Dale Vince that happened to Max Griggs then there’s no reason as to why Salford or Forest Green could be the next victims of owners investing money that isn’t sustainable.
AFC Rushden and Diamonds were set up in 2012 as a phoenix club and currently play in the Southern Premier Central Division – two tiers below where the original Rushden and Diamonds folded.