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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fan Files: Rushden & Diamonds

The latest interview with real football fans turns the spotlight on Conference Premier side Rushden & Diamonds.

James Fairney has been supporting the Northamptonshire club for the last 10 years.

He rates the drama of the play-offs in their debut season in the Football League and winning the League Two title in 2003 as the highlights.

Relegation from the Football League in 2006 rates as an obvious, but understandable, low point of following Diamonds's fortunes.

James, you’re sitting in the top five and in the race for the play-offs – are you surprised at how well you’re doing this season, and can you get promoted?

Surprised? Tremendously. I knew we had a decent team, but I never thought we would make the top five. Some other fans
optimistically said we would, but I never thought so.

Our squad was just too young and inexperienced in my opinion but, while we still lack the goalscorer up front that all the other teams up here seem to have, the midfield
is chipping in and doing its part.

Justin Edinburgh [left] and assistant Michael Stone have turned around Rushden's fortunes

Can we get promoted? Well, if we make the play-offs there is always the lottery, and we have had decent results for the most part against the other sides in the mix.

I am not confident though that we could beat most of the other teams over two legs and therefore make the final, which would be a one off where anything could happen.

Tell us about the impact Justin Edinburgh has had? How much of your success this season has been down to the manager?

The impact has been huge. He came in to become our assistant manager under
[former boss] Garry Hill before he got the caretaker job and eventually the full time role as manager.

From his first moment at the club the willingness to pass the ball rather than aimlessly hoof it in the Hill manner was evident.

Hoofing wasn't cut out as the primary tactic until Hill left, but as soon as he did, pretty football on the deck ensued. Justin has had a reduced budget and his results have been far better.

Consensus seems to be if he had the budget or the squad that Hill had then the expectations could or maybe would have been lived up to, rather than a season of mid-table nothingness.

The success this season has been mostly down to Edinburgh. He had to choose who to get rid of and who to keep. A couple of players were allowed to move on having been offered reduced terms to stay, but this allowed others to come in.

A large number of the squad are young but are now surprisingly consistent players.

It is no surprise that eyes of bigger clubs have been on some of our players as Justin isn't just good tactically, but he is also good at getting the best out of his players, this helps them develop.

A case-in-point is Lee Tomlin, a player who has been touted by fans to finally make it for a long time, but it wasn't until Edinburgh took over that Tomlin began to show his ability, and develop it, consistently, and now he is our star player.

Lee Tomlin [left] is Rushden's top scorer this season with 12 goals

The race for the title appears to be a three horse race. Of what you know and have seen, who do you fancy will win it – Oxford, Stevenage, or York?

Having just seen all three I would almost fancy - should Chester's results be expunged - that Luton would catch the lot of them, gaining one to four points on those teams.

York are unspectacular, they grind out results rather than anything else. Graham Westley's Stevenage team are as ugly as you would expect if you know anything about Westley.

Oxford susprised me with how poor they were, maybe we just caught them on an off day despite losing.

Out of the three though, barring strange goings-on, the smart money has to be on Oxford to finally make the title with Chris Wilder, an expereinced manager at this level, at the helm.

What about the gap between Football and Non Leagues. Some people argue that it is getting smaller? Is there much of a difference?

In previous seasons I would have argued it however, this season, I am not so sure.

I think there is an overlap of the top few teams in the Conference and the bottom few in the League due to bottle-necking with only two-up and two-down.

There are League sides that lose a lot of games, get little money, and can't afford to keep a good side, who just hover above the relegation places season after season.

Relegation rejuvinates a number of clubs though and now you have Oxford, York, Mansfield, and Luton all vying for promotion back to the League with squads that would probably finish in solid mid-table positions in the division above.

It's no accident that no team has ever been relegated straight back to the Conference.

Could Richard Money's Luton make a late charge for automatic promotion if Chester go out of business?

This season, maybe as evidenced by us being up there, the top teams just don't seem that good.

Luton were the only side in or around the play-off area where I sat back and thought that they were clearly a side that could end up near the top of the table.

Maybe teams are just following the Burton lead of being solid and consistent against the poorer sides - by doing that it doesn't matter so much if you drop points to your rivals who don't manage to beat them.

The Conference had 22 teams when Rushden were originally in it. Do you think since it's been expanded to 24 teams the division is of a higher standard than before?

I think it is certainly of a higher standard. However, I don't think that the extra two sides has much to do with it personally.

The two sides are theoretically two extra sides from the divisions below and, whilst some come up with money, they haven't really changed the look of this league, as they spend the money then disappear.

I think it has improved with the addition of the second promotion spot and the play-offs.

With winner-takes-all there used to be about four clubs in it by the middle of each season - it wasn't worth anyone further behind keeping their better players who went off relatively cheaply in the past.

Now, with 5th place giving a play-off spot, hardly anyone thinks like that.

Diamonds used to be thought of as the money-bags of Non League football who were ‘buying’ their way to promotion. What do you think the image of the club is now? Have you managed to shed that tag?

I don't think we will ever shed that tag in some peoples eyes.

It was great while it happened, and bandwagoners attached themselves to the club and lorded it over the teams we were passing - many of whom are now enjoying being in the same league as us again.

Rushden's purpose-built Nene Park is one of the smartest stadiums in Non League

They have long since left and it's only the loyal ones who have stayed for the most part. Newer fans of opposition clubs will only hear about it and the tag will fade over time, but it is something that will always be with the club.

However, we are thankful for it, as the legacies left behind of the stadium and facilities enable us to sustain a club at a good level.

Rushden made it all the way to League One in your years in the Football League. Could that feat realistically ever be repeated in the future?

People might laugh, but I think it could. However, the key to the success is, as always, money.

The fact that we pulled in a 4,000 average gate in a 6,500 seater stadium in that division shows that the fans are potentially there to support the club, but football based income cannot deliver success.

If you survive on football based income at this level then you either need a ridiculously good youth system to constantly sell and replace good players, or a top notch manager, who would probably get picked off eventually anyway.

We have great facilities both for training and for the youth set-up - facilities which deserve the funding League clubs get.

The club has a small amount of land which there are plans to develop, the success of a hotel project, and a patnership with Milton Keynes Dons for a training ground for the 2012 World Cup bid.

These are all factors which could help the club become, for the use of a massive cliche, a larger club. A club with more clout to keep the better players bring in the fans and climb the divisions.

Diamonds made it into League One in 2003 under Brian Talbot

Finally, what’s the best thing about being a Rushden & Diamonds supporter?

There are good things about being a Diamonds fan? Well, these days there is the success! I for one can tell you it is much sweeter when it is earned like this than when it was bought.

The best thing at the moment though is the closeness of the squad, and the appreciation they are showing the fans.

It really is a two way street that when explored by those at both ends helps cement the bonds between fans and club and players.

James, thanks for talking to Soccer AM/MW.

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