Football: No flaws in Rushden's diamonds

FA Cup: Brian Talbot will tackle Leeds with a squad of full-time players roared on by a capacity crowd at Nene Park

IN 1992, when Leeds United were kicking off the inaugural Premier League campaign as champions, 315 spectators gathered in the Northamptonshire town of Irthlingborough to watch Rushden & Diamonds start life by drawing with Bilston in the Beazer Homes League (Midland Division).

On Saturday, a full house of 6,472 - more than the population of Irthlingborough - will witness the latest chapter in the rise and rise of Rushden & Diamonds. Nene Park, redeveloped as a stylish stadium within a sports and entertainment complex, plays host to Leeds in the third round of the FA Cup.

The visionary behind the would-be giant-killers is the owner of the Doc Martens footwear empire, Max Griggs. When he merged Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds and talked of League status by 2000, people questioned his sanity. They now lie third in the Conference, nine points behind nearby Kettering but with five games in hand.

Leeds will no more encounter a bunch of plumbers, teachers and insurance salesmen than a sloping mudheap or a damp dressing-room. Under the managership of Brian Talbot, the former England midfielder who holds the title of head coach, Rushden & Diamonds have nearly 30 full-time players.

With support booming - 4,400 watched Monday's win over Woking - and the restaurants, bars, conference facilities, gymnasium, sauna and banqueting suites thriving, Griggs is confident the club will become self-financing. In the meantime, perhaps the song played after every home game, "Diamonds are Forever", should be followed by another from the Shirley Bassey songbook, "Big Spender".

Photographs by David Ashdown & Northampton Evening Telegraph

THE CHAIRMAN

MAX GRIGGS

I WAS on the Northampton board when they played at the county cricket ground. I didn't see the point of putting a few million into a team rather than a club. The set-up here is much more than a football club. The Diamond Centre is a focal point for the community. The football's the fun bit in the middle.

It's got to be fun or it isn't worth doing, is it? We may have spent pounds 20m creating all this but in a way we've just swapped money for assets. We've still got the land, a 70-acre site, so people who think we've just poured money into a non-League team are missing the point. You create things around the club to offset the costs.

I once said I wanted to be in the League by the end of the century and we could actually do it this season. I think Wimbledon are great - the way they went through the divisions was a great role model for us. It's not just a pipe-dream to believe that we could get to the Premiership; we've got a catchment area of 200,000 people within 10 minutes' drive.

We never considered switching this tie to Leeds. What would have been the point of building this lovely stadium if we had? I'm looking forward to seeing a full house of 6,000-plus for the first time. We've kept ticket prices at Conference levels so no one can say they were fleeced. The occasion is everything: whatever the result, I want to look back and say: `That was a great day'.

THE MANAGER

BRIAN TALBOT

MY PRIORITY is to win promotion from the Conference, but this game with Leeds is a lovely distraction. When the chairman asked me to join the club last year he said: `Come and have some fun'. Well it doesn't get much more enjoyable or exciting than this.

If we had a bad playing surface and run-down facilities we might have had a chance. But it won't be like Stevenage and Newcastle. We'll treat Leeds with the respect they deserve, which is immense. You ask David O'Leary which player he'd take off me and there wouldn't be one; I'd take every one of his. David and I played together at Highbury and shared a room at the Grosvenor before the 1979 FA Cup final. He was always a thinker.

Leeds will find that this is no ordinary non-League set-up, to put it mildly, but the perception of us as a wealthy club puts pressure on my players. The supporters expect a lot of them because of the money that's been spent and the facilities here. They think we've got a divine right to win things, but no one has.

All I know is that there's only one League place available and we're as good as any team in the Conference. It's a shame some of the other clubs are a little jealous. We're hospitable to them but we don't always get the same when we go away. Everyone tries that bit harder against us - they all want to beat the so-called Manchester United of non-League football.

THE FAN

MARK STRINGER

WHEN I was 16 I started watching Rushden Town youth and reserves because a mate played for them, and I began following them. Our main ambition was survival. We were getting gates of 50 to 100, and when we finished 14th in the Beazer Homes Premier Division we got demoted because the ground was in such disrepair.

Like a lot of fans of the old Rushden club I was against the merger. We were only one level below the Conference and we didn't want to travel to Irthlingborough. But I came to the first match and decided to keep records. Now I'm the unofficial statistician.

No one had any idea it was going to take off like this. We're attracting new supporters yet there's no resentment about "glory-hunters". People talk about "family" clubs - this really is one. But I go to every away match and there's a definite animosity, blokes shouting: "You think you can buy this league".

I feel it's inevitable that we'll get into the League. I remember seeing Wimbledon's name on the Southern League championship shield, which made me think. It's like a rollercoaster ride. We don't know where it'll lead, though I can honestly see us reaching the Premiership.

I work locally as a carpenter and everyone's talking about the Leeds game. For me, making it a great day is more important than the result, as long as we don't lose heavily. The publicity will help us attract the players we need to keep going forward.

THE PLAYER

RAY WARBURTON

UNTIL OCTOBER I was the Northampton captain and had led them in two Wembley play-off finals. I had big reservations about dropping into the Conference, but in the end I viewed it as a sideways step. We'll certainly go up to the Third Division, if not this season then the next. I was in League football for 15 years and this is the most professional set-up I've known.

I signed in time to play in the fourth qualifying round at Leatherhead and was fortunate enough to get a last-minute equaliser. We won the replay 4-0, then put out Shrewsbury and Doncaster. I'm a Yorkshireman, from Rotherham, so to be drawn against Leeds was beyond my wildest dreams. I only hope I'm fit: I tweaked my knee ligaments before Christmas.

This is the biggest game the club's had, if not the most important. Newcastle came here for a friendly when Kevin Keegan was manager but a competitive match against a top Premiership side - that's something else. If we hit top form and get the luck, and they don't fancy it, who knows?

Leeds certainly won't be able to use the pitch or facilities as an excuse. That's a problem for us in the Conference: every visiting team raise their game. It's like Northampton going to Elland Road or Hillsborough. And when we play away we get called "moneybags". We are well paid - though nowhere near the two grand a week some papers say we're on - and that riles some teams.

THE FOUNDER

TONY JONES

I WAS among a group of lads who formed an Under-18 team in 1946. We were inspired by Moscow Dynamo, who had just completed their famous British tour, so we called ourselves Irthlingborough Dynamos. We soon decided it was too copycat and amended it to Diamonds. I became secretary at 18 and it was my baby.

We graduated to semi-pro level in the United Counties League, and in '69 we opened our own ground on this site. In the early 90s, with me getting older, crowds lower and money tighter, I decided I wanted out, provided the Diamonds lived on. I offered the club to two ex-players who were businessmen. They said no, but Max agreed to take it on as long as I stayed on board as vice-chairman.

For two weeks he was chairman of Irthlingborough Diamonds. Then he said: `What about merging with Rushden? They're in a mess'. I watched the stand and clubhouse we'd built get bulldozed away in two hours, but there are no regrets. Besides, the memories live on. One of the photos hanging in the various suites shows Brian Talbot awarding the prizes at our dinner 20 years ago, soon after he'd joined Arsenal.

I regard this tie as a great opportunity to project ourselves to players who don't want the stigma of going non-League. I watched Leeds at Arsenal and for half an hour their youngsters ran them ragged. I've never seen football played so fast. So there's a little bit of trepidation mixed in with a feeling of enormous excitement.

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