Matlock Town strengthened their grip at the top of the table following a 2-0 win away at Lancaster City on Saturday afternoon in the Northern Premier League Premier Division.
Goals from skipper Liam Hughes and Reece Kendall secured all three points for the Gladiators in what was a tough, physical affair at a hard place to go.
It has to be said that the first half was not a pretty affair with neither side firing on all cylinders. With the game dominated by midfield battles, both sides cancelled each other out and there was little in the way of actual clear-cut chances.
That being said, Lancaster's best opportunity of the entire game did arrive in the 26th minute to finally bring the match to life. Veteran defender Andy Teague managed to get a solid connection with a header following a corner and his effort had Shaun Rowley beaten. However, the returning Jamie Sharman (who was probably the best player on the pitch) came to Matlock's rescue with an excellent outstretched goal line clearance to keep the score at 0-0.
With three minutes to go of the first half though, Matlock were handed a complete gift to take the lead from out of nowhere. A bizarre mix-up and a spill of the ball from Dolly Blues goalkeeper Aidan Dowling allowed Gladiators captain Liam Hughes to head the ball home into an empty net from close range. It was undeniably a stroke of fortune for Paul Phillips's men and Liam Hughes could probably have barely believed his luck, but there's no time this season for feeling sorry for your opponents and Hughes gleefully took his chance given to him on a plate and headed Matlock into a somewhat undeserved lead.
The second half was a much more assured performance from the Gladiators and they did what they needed to in order to keep the three points safe.
Matlock doubled their lead in the 54th minute via yet another assist from Alex Byrne. The winger delivered an excellent cross from the right wing into the penalty area and ended up finding an unmarked Reece Kendall. With the ball at a perfect height. Kendall retained his composure to avoid ballooning the ball over the bar and instead fired the ball home and into the back of the net from 12 yards out to secure his fourth goal of this campaign.
Just a minute afterwards, the Dolly Blues sent a warning to the Gladiators that the game wasn't over just yet. A glancing header from an in-swinging free kick from the right wing flashed narrowly wide of the post. Other than a chance right towards the end of the match, that was pretty much all Lancaster could offer in the final third. The Dolly Blues won a lot of territory in the final third, even at 2-0 down, but their direct approach made it pretty easy for Matlock's back three to easily head the ball away from danger and prevent clear-cut shots on goal from coming through.
With Matlock's defence coping extremely well, the Gladiators did give themselves a chance of extending their lead on the counter attack.
In the 71st minute, Liam Hughes almost secured his seventh goal of the season when his shot from Alex Byrne's right-wing cross was dragged just wide of the post when he probably should have been hitting the target.
With nine minutes remaining, the Gladiators had even better chances to take a 3-0 lead. Substitute Jesurun Uchegbulam dazzled his way from the right wing into the centre to give himself plenty of time and space to fire in an effort from 20 yards out. Unfortunately, his shot lacked composure and the ball was fired a long way over the bar when he should have done better. 30 seconds later, fellow substitute Matt Sargent missed a similar opportunity but from even closer to goal. Another great run from Uchegbulam allowed him the space to pass the ball into the penalty area from the by-line. His pass found an unmarked Matt Sargent from around 12 yards out but, again, the effort frustratingly lacked composure and yet another big chance went flying over the bar.
Lancaster's last effort arrived in the 85th minute via new loan signing Brandon Lonsdale. Lonsdale, who looked impressive when he came on as a second half substitute, managed to find space from 12 yards out to strike the ball hard and on target. Shaun Rowley's gret form continued though and he made an excellent save to palm the ball away and concede a corner.
The final whistle marked an extraordinary 13th league win from 17 games so far this season for Matlock Town as a remarkable 2021/22 campaign just keeps on going. With South Shields losing on the same day to Buxton, the Gladiators are now three points clear at the top of the NPL Premier Division.
The next game though will bring about a change of focus as Paul Phillips's men begin their FA Trophy campaign at home against AFC Rushden & Diamonds this coming Saturday.
Matlock Town team: Rowley, Sharman, Kendall, Evans, Qualter, Lees, Byrne, Wiles (L King 64), Hughes (c), Cooke (Uchegbulam 71), Chippendale (Sargent 77). Unused subs: Greaves, C King.
Dave Wild Quotes
"If I'm completely honest, we were appalling in the first half. Probably one of the poorest performances of the season so far. But, before Phillo and I had even said anything at half time, the players were opening up to each other about the lack of quality in the performance. For me personally, that shows that we're conquering the mental part of the game now. They knew that they weren't putting a performance in, so they've gone back out and rectified it. The first goal was one of those, wasn't it! We got a little bit of luck there that I think we've lacked recently. Especially after that late penalty appeal in the South Shields game. So I guess those sort of things have balanced themselves out there. The second half was a physical battle. I thought Lancaster were good for their money; but we weathered the storms today so, yes, I'm very happy."
"The only concerns I had of us conceding were from their set-pieces really. With players they've got like Andy Teague, we had to be rock solid to make sure that we weren't conceding from those chances. We dealt with them aerially. We kept them 25 to 30 yards out for the majority of the game. I can't really remember Shaun having to make a save. I think it's pretty evident now that we're built on our defence and keeper. We've got to give a big pat on the back to them again for another clean sheet. It's a long, old season and we've managed to get a three point gap now between us and South Shields, so that's the be all and end all of today really."
"I honestly thought Jamie Sharman was the best player on the pitch. I thought he was absolutely outstanding. He's a young lad that had to be absent for a while because of horrific circumstances. But he's come back about a month earlier than what was expected. He's currently playing while wearing a face mask. He's barely done any training sessions with us since his return, so I think today's performance was a testament to him, his character, his strength and mental toughness. The kid has just played with a fractured cheekbone and issues with his jaw and yet he's won every header - I think that tells you what he's about. We're really lucky to have him at the club."
"We need to improve constantly in every area; there's always stuff that we can nit-pick at. I think it's been pretty evident for the last three to four games that we've got to start putting games to bed. I don't think today was one of those games because it was so tight for so long. But yes, there were opportunities late on in the game; Jes had an opportunity, as did Matt Sargent. The players know they've got to improve on it - but we have just come away with a 2-0 win away from home at a club who's regularly around the top end of the table, so we're obviously not in bad fettle."
"We want to win our FA Trophy game because, ultimately, we let the club down in a big way in the FA Cup this season. Obviously, our league form has been outstanding. But since we've been at the club, we got knocked out of that Derbyshire Senior Cup semi-final against South Normanton Athletic, we got knocked out in the first hurdle of this year's FA Cup and we got beat by Coleshill Town in last season's FA Trophy. So we're certainly going into Saturday to win this game. It's a tough tie, they're a good club and it should be a good game of football but there will definitely be changes made. Me and Phillo have already spoken about that. But I wouldn't envisage wholesale changes. We're looking forward to the game, we want to win the game but the bread and butter is the league and that's our focus this season in the main."