Matlock Town were held to a deeply frustrating goalless draw by bottom of the table Grantham Town in a dour league encounter at The Proctor Cars Stadium on Tuesday evening.
Despite being unable to break down Grantham's plucky resistance, the Gladiators still managed to extend their lead at the top of the Northern Premier League Premier Division to three points following South Shields's defeat to local rivals Morpeth Town on the same night.
The biggest flashpoint in a quiet and very scrappy first half arrived in the 22nd minute when it appeared that a Grantham defender had blatantly handled the ball inside his own penalty area. To the disbelief of every Matlock player and staff member, the referee decided not to award a penalty and this set the tone for a very frustrating evening for the Gladiators.
Ten minutes after this, Reece Kendall (who was Matlock's best player on the night) did superbly to chase down his opponent during a dangerous Grantham counter attack and block the ball before a goal would have been delivered on a plate for the Gingerbreads.
Matlock's best opportunity of the first half came in the 39th minute when Kendall's effort at the far post produced an impressive save from Jim Pollard in Grantham's goal. Straight afterwards on the counter, Lee Shaw's close range header saw Joe Young smartly tip the ball over the bar.
If anything, the second half was even more of a scrappy affair and both teams struggled to retain possession and found it difficult to show any real quality on the ball.
Grantham's best effort of the second half arrived in the 53rd minute when Joe Young produced a good save to deny Elliott Durrell's stinging effort inside the penalty area. Durrell was certainly Grantham's best player on the night and was the only player that looked capable of creating something from nowhere to secure a Gingerbreads goal.
The only golden opportunity of the game came in the 69th minute and it was a missed chance that Al Byrne must surely still be kicking himself for. For the first time of the evening, an excellent cross from Reece Kendall on the left wing was delivered on a plate for Matlock's top goal scorer to surely head home into the net from close range. Somehow though, Byrne's header flashed wide of the target to the disbelief of everyone in the crowd. It was an easier chance to score than miss and how the back of the net didn't ripple following that chance remains a mystery.
Aside from that, very little else happened in the final third for either team in what was undeniably a drab game. Matlock's only other real threats came from a series of free kicks in excellent areas but each set piece attempt was skied over the bar by Al Byrne.
There was almost glory for Matlock right at the death when a crowded penalty area fought over the ball following a last-ditch corner but Jim Pollard was just about able to claim the ball right on his goal line to secure the point for relegation-threatened Grantham.
There's no doubt that Matlock's last two games at home in the space of four days have been poor to watch and have fallen well below manager Paul Phillips's very high standards. While admitting it was another frustrating game for the Gladiators, Matlock's Dave Wild was still very positive after the game and says there's no need to panic due to the dip in form and that he's extremely confident that everything will work out fine. As defensive midfielder Mark Lees also pointed out after the game, South Shields's defeat to Morpeth Town means that Matlock are in a better position now than what they were at the start of Tuesday evening.
If anything, Tuesday night showed just how competitive this league is. A title race that goes right down to the wire could well be on the cards.
Matlock Town team: Young, King (Chippendale 79), Kendall, Evans, Qualter, Lees, Byrne, Daly, Hughes (c), Hannah (Webb-Foster 58), Hawkridge (Wiles 58). Unused subs: Sharman, Hindle.
Dave Wild Quotes:
"We were nowhere near good enough tonight and if we perform like that for the rest of the season, then we won't win the league".
"I don't think it's a case that we're losing confidence in the final third. We've brought new players in...it will take a few training sessions for everyone to gel. I thought Reece Webb-Foster did well when he came on. He was bright and he's intelligent. We do need to score more goals though...the only thing we can do is to take it one game at a time. Fortunately for us, Morpeth have done us a favour tonight. Buxton have won so they're still very much in the race. But it's in our hands - I guess that's the only positive I can sort of take from tonight. But, if we were sat here now doing an interview like this in pre-season, and we'd have said this would be the league situation after this Grantham game, then I think everyone would have laughed. We will get back to scoring goals though."
"Our defensive unit is, quite frankly, the reason why we're top of the league. That's no disrespect to our strikers or the midfield but the likes of Ryan Qualter, Reece Kendall, Ioan Evans, Jamie Sharman and Sam Egerton when he was here - we've just had a really consistent, rock-solid back three or five all season. I can't praise them highly enough. Even in that Lancaster game, the defence was still outstanding. I thought Reece Kendall was outstanding tonight - I thought that was his best and most mature centre-back display."
"Every single game now is going to be tough. The game tonight against Grantham was never going to be a rollover. We're at the top and we're there to be shot at...we've got to get used to that and maybe we've got to adapt our game or our mentality to go from low to max and take the game to teams. We've come so far as a group - we need to make sure we don't roll over and get our bellies tickled."
"As a club and as a group - we've got to re-energise and focus our mentality on the fact that we're not little Matlock - we're trying to push this club forward into the National League North. I'm still hearing some negative comments from the odd supporter - I just laugh at that. You can't go any higher than first so I don't know what there is to be negative about?"