Matlock Town suffered an agonising 3-2 defeat at home to Stafford Rangers on Saturday afternoon in the Northern Premier League Premier Division. The loss meant that the Gladiators missed out on the chance to regain top spot in the league from Bamber Bridge. First half goals from Liam King and Alex Byrne put Paul Phillips's men 2-1 up at the interval but a deeply frustrating second half in atrocious weather conditions plus some highly debatable officiating saw Matlock end the afternoon without even a point. The Gladiators couldn't have started the game any better. After just 90 seconds, Stafford's goalkeeper Luke Pilling punched the ball out following a corner kick but the ball only reached as far as Liam King from around 15 yards out. King promptly drilled the ball home into the bottom corner to score his first goal in his second spell with the Gladiators and get Matlock off to the perfect start. Skipper Liam Hughes almost doubled Matlock's advantage after just eight minutes when his header from a corner found the target and forced Pilling into a decent save. Despite the very early setback, Stafford worked themselves back into the game and equalised in the 17th minute thanks to a cracking 20 yard effort from Jake Charles which beat Paul Cooper and found the bottom corner of the net. Matlock regained the lead just after the half hour mark when midfield maestro Alex Byrne took full advantage of the appalling weather conditions. Was it a shot? Was it a cross? Nobody seems quite sure but Byrne launched the ball from near the by-line on the right flank and it soared right over Pilling's head and into the net for a remarkable goal that had all the crowd on their feet. This marked Byrne's 10th goal of the season in an extraordinary campaign so far. At the interval, the rain poured down even harder and the wind seemed to pick up further strength. Stafford struggled to deal with playing against the high winds in the first half and, unsurprisingly, Matlock also found it very hard to cope with the worsening weather conditions after the interval which Stafford took full advantage of. Stafford found their second equaliser in the 57th minute of the game. An inviting ball in from the right wing found Thomas Tonks who beat a hesitant Paul Cooper to poke the ball home from close range to make it 2-2.
The final twenty minutes of the game saw a remarkable and controversial finale to the match which highlighted a number of discussion points. Ultimately, the events and decisions cost Matlock dearly and would see them go on to lose the game. Stafford won a penalty in the 74th minute of the game after a coming together which saw Ioan Evans pick up a booking despite the fact no appeals were made by any of the Stafford players. Before the penalty could be taken, Louis Malandjou was shown a straight red card for pushing over Alex Byrne in an off the ball incident. Stafford made no mistake though with the penalty and Jake Charles smashed the ball straight down the middle to secure his second goal of the afternoon and to put Stafford in front for the first time in the game. The drama would only increase in an extraordinary final five minutes of the game as Matlock searched desperately for a late equaliser. Firstly, substitute Ross Hannah thought he'd headed home his third goal of the season following an excellent cross from Alex Byrne in the 85th minute that sent the crowd into raptures. In a moment of heartbreak though, the assistant referee had his flag up and chalked the goal off for offside. The decision came under immediate scrutiny from many and video footage shows that the decision was a highly questionable one and is probably one of the few moments you wished VAR was used in non-league football. The drama refused to stop. In the 90th minute, the crowd were in raptures again as it looked like a header from a corner had found its way over the line for a remarkable equaliser but, despite all of the urgent Matlock protests, the referee and his assistant decided that the ball did not go over the line and Stafford somehow remained in front. The most extraordinary moment was still to come. Deep into injury time, skipper Liam Hughes thought that he'd bagged a last gasp equaliser when his close range effort inside a packed penalty area hit the inside of the post, ricocheted off the goalkeeper's face about a yard in front of the goal line and bizarrely ballooned over the bar instead of diverting into the back of the net. Just moments later, Matlock went on one final attack where an Alex Wiles effort from just outside the penalty area had the goalkeeper beaten but was extraordinarily cleared by a defender just three yards in front of the goal line. It was a moment that absolutely nobody at The Proctor Cars Stadium could believe and everybody associated with the Gladiators were absolutely distraught when the final whistle was blown just moments later. Matters were made even worse for Paul Phillips's men after the final whistle when it was revealed that Liam Hughes had been shown a straight red card for dissent. Credit must go to both teams for providing such an entertaining game in, quite honestly, the worst weather conditions I've ever seen a game completed in. For Matlock Town, while it's far easier said than done, they must try and put the manner of this defeat behind them as soon as possible and a huge game awaits them in the league next weekend when they travel to Stalybridge Celtic. A win is sorely needed for the Gladiators to rediscover their momentum in the league and to try and reclaim top spot in the NPL Premier Division. Matlock Town team: Cooper, Sharman (Hannah 60), Kendall, Evans, Qualter, Lees (Hall 75), Byrne, Wiles, Hughes (c), Uchegbulam, L King (Chippendale 71). Unused subs: Sargent, C King. Attendance: 496