Darby invests in Diamonds mine

The fast-track club
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The issue of gambling has not exactly raised the stock of Britain's footballers over the last 12 months - but Duane Darby is one player who can justify the need and value of taking a risk.

The 29-year-old will return to the Second Division on Saturday just three seasons after dropping into the Nationwide Conference and joining the revolution at Rushden & Diamonds. Darby's decision to leave Notts County on a free transfer was both unusual and ambitious, but one which has been fully vindicated.

This season, the experienced striker will line up for one of the best-run clubs in the lower divisions, a club whose potential is rising by the year. "I knew what I was getting into when I went to Rushden," said Darby. "I did think to myself, 'I'm dropping down two leagues.' But I still thought of it as a forward step - I saw the set-up at Rushden and I was certain it was only a matter of time before they got into the League. It was a gamble, but the standard of the Conference was good and it's paid off."

Darby's first season at Nene Park brought him 24 goals and saw Rushden promoted at a time when only the champions of the highly competitive Conference were granted entry to the Third Division.

The rise of the club from the Southern League Midland Division to the League in under 10 years was a personal triumph for chairman Max Griggs, whose massive investment had provided the Diamonds with a ground which, in the Third Division last season, was eclipsed in terms of quality only by Hull's Kingston Communications Stadium.

But the success was not temporary, and within 12 months Brian Talbot's side had beaten Rochdale over two legs to set up a play-off final clash with Cheltenham in Cardiff. Darby's goals had again been crucial to Rushden, but the forward was forced to watch from the stands of the Millennium Stadium with a knee injury as the Robins claimed a 3-1 win. "I'd got injured in March and missed the run-in, which was very hard to take," he recalled. "But last season more than made up for it."

On the back of their play-off campaign, it was almost inevitable the Diamonds would be serious contenders for promotion last season, but the title looked an unlikely dream at Christmas, with the league leaders, Hartlepool, holding a huge advantage.

However, the departure of the manager, Chris Turner, to Sheffield Wednesday saw the Teesside club suffer a serious loss of form, and Rushden snatched first place by drawing 1-1 with Pools at Nene Park on the final day of the season.

"It was incredible for the season to go to the last day," Darby said. "In all honesty we thought we were playing for second place because of Hartlepool's lead. But once we started closing in we knew we had a chance."

Rushden's potential beyond the Second Division is difficult to assess, especially with a ground which holds little over 6,000 and a limited fan-base. But with so many teams suffering serious financial difficulties, Premiership football may not be such an unrealistic long-term aim.

"That's a massive step to make," Darby said. "The aim now has to be to get into the First Division and consolidate. You need a certain type of player and plenty of depth to go on from there, and Rushden is only a small place. But we could reach the play-offs."