Football: Cotterill sips the fruits of success

Rushden & Diamonds 1 Cheltenham Town 2 :The fight for League places: Cheltenham dream of promotion while Scarborough seek Third Division survival
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FOR A manager who was a Wimbledon striker when the Crazy Gang still held the FA Cup they won after reputedly patronising a local hostelry on the night before the final, Steve Cotterill has some surprising ideas about refuelling.

"If ever there was a night for the lads to have a lager or two, this was it," Cotterill said after two goals in the last two minutes had left mega-rich Rushden crying into their own-label Chardonnay. "But we know we haven't won the Conference today, and that's why none of them is drinking."

This most implausible and important of victories kept the Cotswold club within a point of the leaders, Kettering, with four matches in hand. More pertinently, it took them two points clear of Rushden, who have played one game more, but the beer and bubbly remain on ice.

Cheltenham's semi-professionals have been ordered to forgo alcohol until after today's visit by Kidderminster. The plan is to keep them fresh for the gruelling run-in - seven Conference games plus a two-leg FA Trophy semi-final before 1 May - that is now Rushden's best hope of translating their extraordinary outlay into League status.

Cotterill is acting on advice from a local dietician, who in return has been given access to the players for a research project. The Temperance XI, or 14 as it turned out, proved a good advertisement for the unnamed lady's refreshment regime, though even Cheltenham's most raucous followers at a packed Nene Park steeled themselves for the bitter taste of defeat as the struggle entered its final minutes.

Rushden did not appear unduly troubled as they guarded the lead secured by Miguel De Souza's close-range goal midway through the first half, and might well have added to it. However, as their manager, Brian Talbot, said ruefully, Cheltenham "kept battling away" until his own, seemingly watertight defence fell for not one, but two sucker punches.

First, a short-corner routine produced a cross which Rushden allowed to reach the far post. Mark Freeman, living up to his surname and his team's reputation as set-piece specialists, headed the equaliser. Cheltenham would have been delighted with a draw; instead, another lapse in concentration put them in dreamland.

Fifteen seconds into stoppage time, Freeman ("an inspired substitution" claimed Cotterill with tongue in cheek) pumped the ball forward. Rushden's back three were Awol as John Brough, a defender himself, scrambled the ball across for Neil Grayson to convert potentially the most important goal of his journeyman career.

Talbot was left to reflect that "you don't always get what you deserve in football". Whether the result was fair or not was "irrelevant". His task now was to lift his players for today's awkward-looking fixture at Woking. "We've got to try to win all our last six, which we're definitely capable of doing, and hope Cheltenham lose at least two. But we can't win it any more - they've got to lose it."

Rushden's owner, Max Griggs, while reacting with a dignified shrug and a smile, admitted to being "stunned" and concerned about morale. The footwear mogul remained hopeful that squad depth and full-time training may yet help the Northamptonshire club reach the Third Division, seven years after their formation. He anticipated further "twists and turns" (even if leaders Kettering can surely be discounted), but the momentum was with Cheltenham.

Having seized the psychological initiative, Cotterill was not about to hand it back with premature triumphalism. "If we're four points clear before the last game, I'll tell you we're going to win it," he declared. Yes, the fixture pile-up was "a danger"; no, he did not have the numbers to cope, more so after losing two to fractures last week, but they would have "a right good go at it".

Under the home-town boy's management, Cheltenham know no other way. When he arrived, 26 months ago, they were in the Doc Martens League. Now, having built on a runners-up spot behind Halifax and a Trophy win at Wembley, the club from the town better known for its ladies' college and racing festival are becoming accustomed to a diet of success.

As he praised Freeman's contribution, Cotterill was asked what the player's day-job was. "He's a window-fitter," came the reply. "But hopefully not for much longer." The rest of the Conference, keen to delay Rushden's inevitable rise for another year, will drink to that.

Goals: De Souza (22) 1-0; Freeman (89) 1-1; Grayson (90) 1-2.

Rushden & Diamonds (3-4-1-2): Smith; Rodwell, Bradshaw, Branston; Wooding, McElhatton, Cooper, Underwood; Heggs; Collins, De Souza. Substitutes not used: West, Hamsher, Berry.

Cheltenham Town (3-5-2): Book; Brough, Banks, Howarth (Freeman, 63); Duff, Norton, Bloomer (Milton, 63), Howells, Victory; Grayson, Bailey (Knight, 74).

Referee: S French (Wolverhampton).

Bookings: Rushden: Rodwell, Collins, Branston, Heggs, West (non-playing substitute cautioned for obstructing opponent trying to retrieve ball for throw-in). Cheltenham: Duff, Howells, Milton.

Man of the match: Norton.

Attendance: 6,312.