Matlock Town came from behind twice on a blustery afternoon in North Yorkshire to earn a hard-fought point on Saturday in the Northern Premier League Premier Division.
A penalty from Al Byrne in the first half and an 83rd minute equaliser from skipper Liam Hughes secured a 2-2 draw against fellow promotion contenders Whitby Town. The draw for the Gladiators along with South Shields's victory over Atherton Collieries means that Matlock are now just one point clear at the top of the league as we approach the business end of the 2021/22 season.
The Gladiators got off to a bad start as some uncertain defending allowed midfielder Lewis Hawkins to take advantage and tap the ball past Joe Young and into the back of the net from close range. A few Matlock players rushed over to the assistant referee immediately afterwards claiming that Hawkins was offside; but, after a quick discussion between the referee and his assistant, the goal was awarded to the delight of the home supporters.
The extremely windy weather was causing havoc and Matlock were finding it particularly difficult to deal with the conditions as they were playing against the gusts of wind in the first half. To their credit, Matlock battled hard and were awarded a penalty in the 19th minute when Liam Hughes was tripped inside the area by a Whitby defender. Up stepped leading goal scorer Al Byrne to take the penalty and he sent Shane Bland the wrong way as he smashed the ball home into the top right corner to mark his 11th goal of the season and to put the Gladiators back on level terms.
A defensive mix-up caused by the atrocious windy conditions almost allowed Whitby to regain the lead just six minutes later. Thankfully, for Paul Phillip's men, Ioan Evans came to the rescue to clear the ball off the line with goalkeeper Joe Young stranded and out of position.
In the 37th minute of the game, Liam Hughes had a chance to give Matlock the lead when he cut inside a defender to strike the ball on his left foot just outside the edge of the penalty area. His effort was straight at Shane Bland in goal though and he was able to save pretty comfortably.
With just a couple of minutes remaining of having to play against the wind, Matlock found themselves behind again. A 25 yard effort from the Seasiders moved about awkwardly in the air which led to Joe Young spilling the ball out in front of him. The ball fell to striker Jacob Hazel and, with no defender around him, the St Kitts & Nevis international was easily able to strike the rebound into the back of the net and restore Whitby's lead.
The second half was a huge moment for Matlock's season and who knows how important their perseverance in securing a second equaliser will prove to be come the end of the season. The Gladiators worked extremely hard in the second 45 minutes and were certainly worthy of their point in what was a fair result.
Just nine minutes into the second half, Reece Kendall (who was once again the best player on the pitch) fired an effort on target from 20 yards out forcing Bland into a decent save.
The pressure grew from Matlock in the 65th minute when Kendall's shot from 20 yards sailed narrowly over the bar following some excellent blocks inside the penalty area from Whitby to deny Liam Hughes and Kendall once again straight after one another.
Reece Kendall's best moment of the whole game arrived in the 74th minute. Kendall made an outstanding tackle to deny Jacob Hazel from slotting the ball past Joe Young and killing the game off completely. Straight afterwards, Matlock went up the other end and almost grabbed an equaliser when Kendall's stinging effort from the edge of the penalty area forced Bland into making an impressive save.
The breakthrough moment for Matlock's second equaliser of the game arrived in the 83rd minute when an in-swinging corner caused havoc as it dropped into an extremely crowded six yard area. In normal conditions, Bland probably would have claimed the ball but he couldn't get a grip of it in the wind and the ball fell to Liam Hughes who scored with his knee from literally one yard out. It certainly won't be winning a goal of the season award but I don't think any of the travelling Matlock support cared a jot about that!
There was still more excitement to come in the 88th minute as both teams tried everything to claim all three points at the death. Firstly, substitute Callum Chippendale saw his effort on target saved well by Bland. Whitby then went straight up the other end and came within a whisker of restoring their lead once again. Joe Young came off his line superbly to tip a 10 yard effort around the post in a heart-stopping moment. From the resulting corner, Young made another decent save before more heroic Whitby defending blocked a scorching Liam Hughes effort on the counter.
It was a breathless conclusion to the game but I think everyone agreed a draw was a fair result in what was a very tough game for both teams.
Matlock Town team: Young, Sharman, Wiles (Chippendale 54), Kendall, Evans, Lees, Byrne, Daly (Webb-Foster 54), Hughes (c), Hannah, King (Marshall 79). Unused subs: Hawkridge, Bertram.
Paul Phillips Quotes:
"I thought we were on the front foot. I think the elements played a massive part in the game. It was farcical at some points - you couldn't even kick it out of your area. It wouldn't have been a bad point away from home if we'd performed in the previous two games like we should have done. I thought we had a good reaction today...this is always a hard place to come. We reached a point in the game where we were throwing everything at them - we ended up with five forwards on the pitch. It didn't look like it was going to happen. They scored two scrappy goals but I thought we started on the front foot and we ended on the front foot."
"We battled well to claim the point. I just don't think we quite did enough in terms of putting balls into the box...we could have been a bit quicker, shown a bit more movement. I'm a bit disappointed with the manner of the goals that we gave away and the fact that we should have asked them more questions in the second half."
"We scored two today but still need to show a bit of better movement in that final third. We're sometimes a bit too predictable playing it off the big fella. To be fair though, these were hard conditions today for the lads. That's no excuse though - the conditions were the same for both teams. I think we forced their mistakes but we made our own mistakes. I'm not blaming Joe Young though for the second goal - the ball is smashed at him and it's bounced horribly in front of him...we rode the storm in the first half and we came out fighting in the second. We've got to keep pushing on now."
On Reece Kendall: "I think he was our biggest threat today. I think Hughesy did really well today too. We know the quality Reece has and the standards he can reach. So yeah, he's been good. It's all about the team though, it's not just about individuals. Big game against Radcliffe next on Saturday - hope it's not as windy as this!"