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The run in: A famous day at Nene Park

4 April 2019

The Robins are celebrating 20 years since the club were first promoted to the Football League in 1999 this year, and throughout the season club secretary Paul Godfrey has been detailing some of the key matches that saw Steve Cotterill's side clinch the Football Conference championship in the club's matchday programme. This week Paul looks back on a day that will live long in the memory of Robins fans - a trip to Rushden & Diamonds.

The big one. The decider. Judgement Day. Although Kettering Town had led the Conference table for much of the season it was their Northamptonshire rivals Rushden & Diamonds who posed the biggest threat to the Robins given that both clubs had games in hand. Cheltenham travelled to play big-spending Diamonds - they were a full-time club while most of Cheltenham's team still had day jobs - at their Nene Park ground on Easter Saturday and in the run-up to the game both managers tried to play down the significance of the game in order to take pressure off their players. Nobody, however, believed that rubbish and everyone knew that the winners would be in pole position for the title.

As the team coach began its journey that morning the driver slammed on the brakes upon heading into Winchcombe Street - a black cat had darted across the road right in front of us. Could it be an omen, we thought? On arrival at the ground it became apparent that pre-match concerns over ticketing had come to fruition. Rushden & Diamonds had ignored Cheltenham's suggestion of making the game all-ticket and a large number of visiting supporters found themselves locked out of the ground as the sold out notices went up well before kick-off.

The match itself was far from a classic - both sides largely cancelled each other out - and the home team took the lead in the 22nd minute when a long free-kick was headed into the path of former Cheltenham player Miquel De Souza and beat Steve Book from close range. Cheltenham ploughed forward throughout the second half but got nowhere and we all started to consider the possibility of the title race being taken out of our hands as the stadium electronic scoreboard displayed 1-0 in the 90th minute.

Then a cross from Keith Knight flicked off the head of a defender for a corner. Russell Milton took it short to Michael Duff (yes, our current first team management team!) and Duff crossed to the far post where Mark Freeman nodded in from point-blank range.

Stunned by this setback, Diamonds totally lost their concentration and when Freeman booted a long clearance forward, John Brough mis-kicked his shot across the goalkeeper but into the path of Neil Grayson. Cheltenham's leading scorer slid in to bury the winner deep into injury time and ignite absolute pandemonium among the away fans. Well over a century after the club's formation and having spent its entire history in amateur or non-league football, Cheltenham Town could suddenly believe they had a chance of playing in the Football League.

Still they had a tricky match against Kidderminster Harriers to negotiate on Easter Monday and despite a nervous (and tired) performance, a 54th minute flick header by Grayson from a Duff long throw earned another three points while Diamonds could only draw their game at Woking.

Five breathless days of football were brought to an end with another visit to Farnborough Town in the semi-final of the Bob Lord Trophy (the now defunct National League Cup) on the Wednesday night. This match had been squeezed into the calendar having been abandoned due to a rainstorm a few weeks earlier. The winners would face Doncaster Rovers over two legs in the final - a tough prospect from a football and fixture scheduling point of view that Cheltenham basically didn't need.

As a result, Steve Cotterill fielded a young side at Farnborough and the small group of travelling supporters decided to amuse themselves in the second half by standing behind the Cheltenham goalkeeper and cheering on the home side - much to the confusion of an Aldershot Town fan who had turned up to abuse his team's local rivals! Farnborough duly won 2-0 to leave Cheltenham to concentrate on the league and FA Trophy.

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