Diamond mine

Dick Sharman examines Rushden & Diamonds' success in 1996

Something is stirring in East Northants. In the little-known market town of Irthlingborough, one of many such places in the area separated by unremarkable, gently rolling fields, a a fledgling club are being nurtured by a multi-millionaire. Rushden and Diamonds are the new champions of the Beazer Homes League, already priming themselves for Endsleigh League status – and beyond. The galling thing for Northampton Town fans is that is should have been us.

But let’s go back to 1992, when two small amateur teams existed on either side of the River Nene, Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds. Enter the 50th richest man in Britain, Dr Marten boot magnate, Max Griggs. A local man and passionate football fan, Griggs was persuaded by the clubs’ respective chairmen that amalgamation could create a club with real potential.

With negotiations concluded Griggs acted swiftly. The Irthlingborough ground was levelled and in its place an attractive modern football stadium erected. The final stand, which on completion will bring the capacity up to 6,500, is to incorporate a health and fitness suite open to the public, with an adjacent all-weather football pitch, driving range and marina. Annexed to the stadium is the Diamond Centre, venue for business conferences, the European Snooker Championships and every kind of social function conceivable. A Doc Marten factory shoe shop is next door.

Meanwhile, the team has prospered. Players have been bought in from around the country, with the top fee so far £30,000. Gates have been averaging 2,000, with over 4,000 on several occasions. 75 companies advertise in the ground.

The irony is that Max Griggs is a lifelong Northampton Town supporter and was on their board of directors for fifteen years. Watching his team make their notorious nine-year charge from Fourth Division to First and back again during the 1960s hit him hard. The inward looking administration and lack of scope for investment (the club have never owned their own ground) added to his disillusionment. Northampton now have a supporters’ club representative on the board, but in Max Griggs’ time the fans were without a voice. And now they must grin and bear it as Northampton’s future as the county’s senior side is threatened.

But with an investment of £15 million so far, is Rushden and Diamonds a business or a football club? And can the obscure location sustain such an enterprise? Roger Ashby, Rushden and Diamonds manager: “We’re looking for one to complement the other. I think we’ve proved already we’re capable of getting people to Nene Park. The catchment area here is 250,000 people in a six mile radius. A lot of market towns and villages. And the roads are set up now.”

Ashby is a veteran of non-League football, having spent 15 years with Kettering Town as a player followed by stints as manager of both Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds. However, he finds nothing absurd in the club’s aspirations. “Who knows? Look at Wimbledon. We’ve set our sights really high. What about playing Man Utd at Nene Park?”

It might be supposed that developments in Irthlingborough would upset the applecart of local football. Northampton don’t seem to have been affected, their attendances having increased following the move to the out-of-town Sixfields Stadium from their groundshare with the county cricket team. Kettering Town, though, seem to have lost a few floating fans. Kettering seem to take a positive view of Rushden’s emergence, however, as their manager Peter Mallinger said: “We’re not really fussed. He’s obviously a wealthy man enjoying himself. We don’t lose any sleep. They’ve bought five of our players!”

Rivalry? “Kettering Town is 120 years old. Fans won’t suddenly become Rushden and Diamond fans. We’d be more than pleased to see them in the Conference next season.” There must be a glint of envy: “We’re all envious of the resources at Rushden. But there are thousands in the country like us. We’re the norm. It must be lovely, but it’s nothing like waiting for the lottery. It’s not going to happen!”

The prospect of a local derby next season, with a probable gate of at least 4,000, is attractive to Kettering, and the alternating home matches in the Vauxhall Conference now that Rushden have won the Beazer Homes Premier ought to ensure that divided loyalties among “floating fans” will cease to be a problem.

Northampton Town’s ambitions remain decidedly modest in comparison with their new neighbours but this hardly surprising at a club who faced receivership and the drop into the non-League world just three years ago and whose trophy cabinet is testament to chronic underachievement: two Barclays Bank Performance of the Week awards (3-1 Fulham 14/11/92 and 1-2 Chesterfield 21/12/92) and an old plaque celebrating 60 years of League football.

Ian Atkins has been manager since January last year. “Obviously the first ambition was to get us off the bottom of the league: previous year bottom, previous two second bottom. This year is stability and if we could get anywhere near the play-offs it would be a fabulous season. You’ve got to realize that every club at our level is a selling club. Our left back is injured now. I’d love to go out and buy another, but I can’t. We’ve got a striker playing there.”

Atkins sees the future of Northampton Town in a crop of youth players already attracting the interest of bigger clubs. Does he feel that the necessity to sell will always hinder development? “I think there is potential. It’s a big old town. Attendance is just touching 5,000. We want to keep them there, but to do that you need money and we’re not blessed with a lot of money. Money is major, major.”

By contrast, Roger Ashby, possessing the magic ingredient in abundance, says with an admirable lack of smugness: “We try not to sell anyone here. It’s important to keep your best players.”

It is this luxury that makes Rushden and Diamonds future look so rosy. Lower division clubs across the land scan the horizon in vain for a financial saviour; Northampton fans are left to rue the one that got away.

From WSC 112 June 1996. What was happening this month