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Football: Diamond geezers of Rushden on the rise

THE BOOKMAKERS decided that Rushden & Diamonds were the pre-season favourites to claim the Football Conference title - and the Northamptonshire club are doing their best to prove them right.

The Nene Park outfit have won all six of their opening fixtures, scoring 20 goals in the process, and they have accumulated a four-point lead at the top of the table. It is the best start to a Conference campaign by any club this decade.

Despite starting only four of the six games together, Diamonds' new front- line partnership of Adrian Foster (seven goals) and Darren Collins (six) have already found the net 13 times between them. Their defensive team- mates have been equally effective, conceding just two goals so far.

Brian Talbot, the former Ipswich, Arsenal and England midfield stalwart who is now Rushden's head coach, said yesterday: "It's a fantastic start. We couldn't have done any better - but there's a long way to go and we have to keep working hard. We won't win every game."

Diamonds are reaping the benefit of a full-time professional playing staff, a rarity below the Nationwide League. The Conference squad of 27 senior players is backed up by the 16 apprentices that are the pick of the club's youth programme, making a total staff of 43 training at Nene Park every day.

The funding for this ambitious set-up comes from the club's chairman Max Griggs, whose business interests include the Dr Martens footwear company. "It's Mr Griggs' club," Talbot, who is thriving after unhappy managerial experiences at West Bromwich and Aldershot, said. "He's made it, he's built it, he funds it."

Griggs has given Rushden what is probably the best stadium outside the League and is now trying to make sure that Talbot's playing staff is of comparable quality. The emphasis is on experience, with last season's regulars like Chris Whyte, the former Arsenal and Leeds centre-half, and Colin West, once of Sunderland and Rangers, being joined this summer by new recruits like Paul Wilson, the ex-Cambridge United and Northampton left-back, the former Crewe goalkeeper Mark Gayle and the ex-Bristol Rovers winger Lee Archer.

The former Queen's Park Rangers and England forward Rodney Marsh is lined up to become the managing director of the Dr Martens League club, Ashford Town. Marsh apparently wants to make the Kent side "the Macclesfield Town of the south".