Cardiff blunt sparkling Diamonds

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Rushden & Diamonds 1

Hannigans 46

Cardiff City 3

Dale 24 71, Jarman 28

Attendance: 4,212

THE big story will have to wait. Rushden & Diamonds, the leaders of the Beazer Homes Premier Division, couldn't live up to their own high expectations on their debut appearance in the FA Cup first round yesterday. Cardiff City, struggling in the Endsleigh Division Three, had too much battle-hardened experience for their non-League opponents, but the tie might have been much closer had the Diamonds been as sharp in the first half as they were in the second.

The two goals that Cardiff scored in that first period left the ambitious Diamonds chasing the game - and the fact that they did, right to the end, speaks volumes for their chances of progressing into the Vauxhall Conference and ultimately the Football League itself.

They have everything in their favour - substantial financial backing from the company that makes Doc Martens boots, and a modern stadium, but the kind of professional resolve that Cardiff City summoned yesterday has to be earned, not bought.

Cardiff had at least arrived forewarned both by the home side's vibrant form - 10 wins in 12 games - and their own habit of losing FA Cup ties to the likes of Bath City, Hayes and Enfield in the last five years. The Welsh team's determination not to add to this list was made plain in the first half when they managed to keep Rushden's potent attack at a distance while mounting enough pressure on the home defence to open it up several times.

Nathan Wigg, Carl Dale and Darren Adams all forced sharp saves from the athletic Graham Benstead in the Diamonds goal, so it was no surprise when Dale was able to control and turn a lay-off before driving a fierce shot past Benstead in the 24th minute.

Dale was denied a second when his close-range header brought a flying save from Benstead, but from the corner Scott Young's header set up Lee Jarman's goal to put Cardiff clear within the half-hour. Indeed, they might have killed the game if Ian Rogerson hadn't blasted over from Adams's cross.

But in the last phase of the half, Rushden had shown the sort of quality which had seen them fly up through the lower leagues since their creation by merger three years ago.

Their top scorer, Darren Collins, twice went close just before the interval, first with a deflected shot, then with a header straight at David Williams. But when they were sent out five minutes early for the second half, the Diamonds finally started to shine. A corner, forced on the left, found Al James Hannigan thumping home a header to get Rushden back into the game.

They were getting the ball forward quicker now and firing in crosses, but they never quite looked like breaching the Cardiff defence again. So Dale's second goal, a diving header from Jimmy Gardner's cross, ended the game if not Rushden's spirit. The substitute Dale Watkins twice had chances in the last minutes but couldn't find the composure to score. "See you in the Vauxhall Conference next season," shouted one Diamonds fan to Cardiff. And he could be right.