Matlock Town are still top of the Northern Premier League Premier Division following an entertaining and fiery encounter away at Hyde United.
In a very eventful game, Matlock fell behind before a full minute had even been played. A brace from skipper Liam Hughes and a goal from Ryan Qualter put Matlock firmly in control and despite a consolation goal from Brad Roscoe, the Gladiators held on to claim all three points and extend their lead at the top of the league to two points. This only tells half the story though of a pulsating game.
The Tigers couldn't have got off to a better start on an extremely chilly January evening. A cross whipped in from the right wing troubled debutant goalkeeper Joe Young and he unconvincingly palmed the ball away. Unfortunately for Paul Phillips's side, the ball arrived directly at the feet of full-back Krisel Prifti around the penalty spot and he was easily able to stroke the ball home into the back of the net in the very first minute of the game.
To Matlock's credit though, the Gladiators responded really well after going a goal down so early on. In the tenth minute, a perfect cross from Al Byrne found the head of Jesurun Uchegbulam inside the penalty area but his header was tipped just over the bar by Tigers goalkeeper Joe Green.
From the resulting corner though, Matlock found an equaliser. Al Byrne's initial delivery was cleared by a Hyde defender but the ball rebounded straight back to Byrne for him to have a second bite at the cherry. An excellent cross into the box caused panic and Hyde weren't able to clear their lines properly. The ball fell to Matlock's captain Liam Hughes who initially miskicked his first effort causing some ironic cheers from some Hyde supporters. They soon fell silent though when Hughes composed himself, teed himself up and volleyed the ball home superbly into the back of the net from around 18 yards out. It was a sublime effort and definitely one of Matlock's best goals so far this season.
Matlock suddenly had a real spring in their step and came very close to taking the lead straight afterwards. In the 14th minute, another outstanding right wing delivery from Byrne found an unmarked Ross Hannah but his headed effort from close range was straight at Joe Green who then did well to keep hold of the ball.
After 20 minutes, Al Byrne came agonisingly close to yet another assist this season when his cross from the right wing was met by Liam Hughes but his header from close range squeaked narrowly wide of the post.
The action just kept on coming. In the 24th minute, a 35 yard free-kick from the by-line for Hyde went further than what it was meant to and ended up hitting the cross bar when goalkeeper Joe Young appeared to think the ball was going to safely land on the roof of the net.
The first hotly disputed call from the officials arrived in the 28th minute of the game. With Matlock clean through on goal, centre-half Edward Elewa-Ikpakwu was the last Hyde player back when he hacked down a Matlock player just a couple of yards in front of the penalty area. To the disbelief of the Matlock players, staff and travelling support, the referee only deemed this offence worthy of a yellow card when Elewa-Ikpakwu was clearly the last player back for Hyde and had stopped a clear goal scoring opportunity.
In the 44th minute, more drama ensued. Jonah Mitchell (and seemingly everyone in the stadium) thought he'd given Hyde the lead once again when he drilled the ball into the back of the net from close range after a surging run into the penalty area. While the Hyde players were celebrating and the Matlock players were trudging back to their area, the assistant referee, incredibly, then raised his flag for offside. After plenty of arguing from Hyde players and confusion from Matlock's side, the referee consulted his assistant for more detail and approved of the assistant's call to chalk the goal off for offside. It was impossible to tell from my angle whether Jonah Mitchell was legitimately offside or not. It must have been very close either way. I can honestly say though, that this was the latest I have ever seen an assistant referee raise a flag for offside.
The drama did not end there. With Hyde absolutely fuming about the recent decision from the officials, Edward Elewa-Ikpakwu stupidly let his frustrations get the better of him as he took down Al Byrne with a late challenge right in front of the referee. The man in charge had no choice but to dish out a second yellow card and the centre-half was given his marching orders. Within just two minutes, the complexion of the game changed drastically and Hyde never recovered from it while Matlock took full advantage.
The Gladiators started the second half very brightly with the extra man's advantage and were immediately knocking on the door to take the lead.
That moment arrived in the 59th minute when Liam Hughes leapt superbly to powerfully head home a cross from the left wing and into the back of the net from around ten yards out. This marked Hughes's ninth goal of the season.
Matlock didn't stop there and ended up taking full control of the game just four minutes later when they extended their lead. A corner kick from Al Byrne in the 63rd minute wasn't cleared properly by the Tigers defence and the ball ended up at the feet of Ryan Qualter who was easily able to steer the ball home from only four yards out to score his fourth goal of the season.
With the Gladiators now 3-1 up and an extra man up, Matlock were able to dominate possession and dictate the flow and tempo of the game. To Hyde's credit, they kept battling hard with the odds against them and ended up getting a goal back to cut the deficit in the 73rd minute. A free kick from around 35 yards out appeared to take the lightest of glancing touches from defencer Brad Roscoe and the ball somehow ended up going in off the post and into the back of the net to Matlock's bemusement.
Despite this goal back, Matlock managed the final 15 minutes of the game well and were able to keep possession consistently with the extra man's advantage to prevent Hyde from finding an unlikely equaliser.
This victory marked Matlock's third league win in a row as they hold onto pole position in the Northern Premier League Premier Division. Matlock's next game is this coming Saturday in the league away at Witton Albion. With the Gladiators back in good form and fellow title contenders Buxton now on a run of four defeats in a row, Paul Phillips knows that this is a crucial stage of the season for his Gladiators team to take control of.
Matlock Town team: Young, King (Sharman 53), Kendall, Evans, Qualter, Lees, Byrne, Wiles, Hughes (c), Hannah, Uchegbulam (Chippendale 53). Unused subs: Okome, Coppin, F Phillips.
Paul Phillips Quotes
"It was a win. I thought we looked rusty. We came out of the blocks okay but I think we gave them too much space in areas where we normally don't do that. We gave away two goals that wasn't really recognisable from us. When you come to teams who have astroturf pitches, they've got the benefit of playing on them regularly. Hyde played here last week and we didn't play at all and we looked rusty. We looked like we were in need of a game. If we'd had played a couple of games in between this one and December the 27th, then I think we would have seen a less competitive game tonight. We had all the attributes to really go at them. I just thought we looked a bit leggy and a little bit flat at certain stages but I think that's just down to not playing at all for around 16 days."
"I think we're desperate for another forward. We did have one recently that was on the verge of being sorted out. I think Ross Hannah worked his socks off tonight, Hughesy's scored two great goals. I think he could have scored a couple more if I'm being brutally honest and I've just said that to him in the dressing room. I think it was at the other end of the pitch though tonight where we didn't look the same as we normally do. I thought we looked a little bit vulnerable. But, it's a win and a win away from home. I don't think we made hard work of it but we were just a bit sloppy in areas where we let them back in the game."
"Having Ross Hannah and Liam Hughes starting together boosts us massively. But we can't keep relying on those two. I really do think we need another forward. I feel like we need someone who can come on, freshen things up. We're still doing our homework and trying to bring someone in."
"As you'll have seen tonight, we had a situation arise this past week with the goalkeeping position. The keeper who we had brought in has bottled it. But we've addressed that. I think Joe Young came straight in tonight and did alright. He wasn't at fault for the goals. We've had a lot of things thrown at us this season. But we've taken it all on the chin, carried on and showed great character. I think that was the biggest factor tonight - we showed a lot of character to win that game."
"I wouldn't say we managed the game really well at the end because we let in a sloppy goal towards the end and that's not like us. I don't think they really had a shot other than the goals they scored. They scored from set pieces which, again, is not like us. We kept the ball well generally - but I also thought we were a little naive in certain situations at the end, where we gave the ball away when we really didn't need to be. We could have gone for the jugular as well and been more clinical as the second half went on. That's obviously where a new forward could come in and take the burden off Ross and Liam."
"If we were something like 14 or 15 points in front, I'd probably be taking it a bit easier! We've just got to keep on doing what we're doing. We've got Witton coming up away and then a game against Scarborough. That game in particular will be tough as Scarborough are in good form...you can't take anyone for granted in this league. We've just got to keep on doing our job and see where it takes us. Each point means a lot - I think we've got six games coming up in the next three weeks. That's a lot of opportunities to get an amount of points to take us to where we need to be."