Matlock Town booked their place in the first round proper of the FA Trophy on Saturday afternoon as they defeated AFC Rushden & Diamonds 2-1 at the Proctor Cars Stadium.
An outstanding Alex Byrne goal and a wonderful lobbed effort from Jesurun Uchegbulam ensured Matlock's place in the next round despite a nervy final ten minutes when the Diamonds pulled a goal back in the latter stages of the game.
It was a very scrappy first half which didn't see many clear-cut chances at all. Matlock's best chance of the first 45 minutes arrived very early on when Alex Byrne's close range effort was cleared off the line by Patrick Casey. Shortly afterwards, Rushden's best opportunity came when Ravi Shamsi really should have done better with a header from 12 yards out following an excellent left-wing delivery. Shamsi should have hit the target at least but instead his header rolled wide of the post.
The Diamonds thought they'd taken the lead after seven minutes but the referee immediately ruled the goal out and awarded a free kick instead for a foul on Paul Cooper who was making his competitive debut for the Gladiators in place of the rested Shaun Rowley. After a pretty bright opening ten minutes, the rest of the first half was a flat and scrappy affair and wasn't very good to watch.
However, the second half was a far more entertaining affair and this ended up being a very lively and enjoyable cup tie.
Just four minutes after the re-start, Liam Hughes saw his bullet header from close range saved smartly by Dean Snedker. In the 51st minute, Rushden fought back and Paul Cooper pulled off an excellent save at his near post to deny Rushden from a corner.
The deadlock was broken in the 55th minute by a real touch of class from Alex Byrne. Following a headed defensive clearance, the ball rolled to Byrne 30 yards from goal. In a flash, Byrne saw that the Rushden keeper was off his line and the midfielder instantly struck the ball cleverly over the keeper's head and into the top corner. It was an absolutely superb goal and a big contender for Matlock's goal of the season.
Substitute Jesurun Uchegbulam forced a superb one handed save from Dean Snedker after cutting into the penalty area from the right wing almost immediately after the first goal was scored.
A buoyant Gladiators side doubled their advantage just five minutes later through the impressive Uchegbulam. A flicked header from Callum Chippendale put Uchegbulam through on goal. Rushden's keeper sprinted off his line quickly to try and close down the angles but Uchegbulam's quick thinking saw him confidently lob the ball over the keeper and into the net to make it 2-0 to the Derbyshire outfit.
Uchegbulam almost extended Matlock's lead even further virtually straight from the kick-off when his shot from just inside the penalty area was skied over the bar when he really should have hit the target. The match certainly wasn't over as a contest though. Midway through the first half, Paul Cooper made two excellent saves to deny Rushden from halving the deficit.
The game undeniably should have been killed off in the 71st minute after skipper Liam Hughes somehow spurned a golden opportunity. Uchegbulam once again found space on the right flank. With Snedker guarding his near post, Uchegbulam was able to pass the ball across the penalty area to Hughes around the penalty spot with the goal at his mercy. Inexplicably though, the captain skied his effort well over the bar when he still had time to take a touch despite being clean through on goal.
It could have been a costly miss. In the 82nd minute, Rushden got a goal back to set up a grandstand finale. A superb 25 yard strike from Ravi Shamsi beat Paul Cooper and smashed the top corner of the net. That moment of magic gave Rushden real hope that they could still rescue this cup tie.
They came mightily close to doing so in the 86th minute. Firstly, Paul Cooper was called into action again with a one handed stop to deny a sliding close range effort. Just 30 seconds later, Rushden saw a close range effort from a right wing cross cannon off the post and go out for a goal kick.
It was a very tense last 10 minutes, but the Gladiators battled hard defensively and managed to pick up a 2-1 win to secure their place in the first round draw. After yet another Matlock Town win this season, it was another case of a game where the Gladiators could have made things far easier for themselves if they could just learn how to kill games off earlier by being more clinical in front of goal. That being said, Matlock's remarkable season just keeps on going.
Matlock Town team: Cooper, Sharman, Kendall, Evans, Qualter, Lees (L KIng 54), Byrne, Sargent, Hughes (c), Greaves (Uchegbulam 54), Chippendale (C King 67). Unused subs: Wiles, Coppin, Rowley.
Paul Phillips Quotes
"We changed one or two things today and some things worked. I thought Sargent came in and was outstanding. I thought he was man of the match by a long way. As a team, we didn't get going until the second half. It was a sluggish start even after some decent chances from some set pieces. I said to the players at half time, that we needed to lift it. Be more ruthless in front of goal, especially from set pieces as we did look like a threat from them all game. Rushden had a go at the end. They might as well obviously, otherwise they were getting knocked out. We should have been well clear by that point though. We were missing open nets and other chances too. I've just said to the team in the changing room: teams in our league will punish us for doing that. If we want to go where we need to go, then we need to make sure we put these teams to bed early doors and be ruthless."
When asked if he was doing anything differently in training to try and get the players to be more clinical in front of goal: "I got a shotgun! Any time they miss, I blow their kneecaps off! That's why not many of them have got kneecaps...listen, to be fair, Al Byrne's put some great balls in today. I would expect these players to take a lot of these chances. Uchegbulam came on, lit the game up and could have scored a hat-trick. Hughesy's missed a couple of headers. They're frustrated though back in the changing room - that's how far these lads have come. We've won 2-1 and we're still frustrated with our performance afterwards. We know we should have made it a lot easier for us today in the long run. We shouldn't have been holding on at the end and putting bodies on the line."
"Paul Cooper did okay. I was disappointed with his kicking as that's a massive part of his game. He talked well, came out for some crosses. I don't think he had a lot to do. He made a couple of snap saves. I thought he did alright - it puts pressure on Shaun Rowley. He deserved to play today because of the patience that he's shown. Shaun will return though for the next game after what he's done for us so far."
"We'll play anyone really! Whoever we get in the next round will have to earn the right to go through. It's all down to the luck of the draw - we've not had the easiest of ties previously. Let's see if we can get a little bit of luck this time."
"Yeah, there's a few selection headaches now for the next game against Whitby. I thought Sargent came in today and gave me a performance that gives me a selection headache. His performance will keep Wiles on his toes now. I thought Liam King was outstanding again when he came on. He has been every week really. So he'll be knocking on my door. We've not got a big squad but I know what all these lads can do. We'll work hard on Tuesday and Thursday. Whitby will be no easy game, they're a good team. They're doing quite well. We'll make sure we do our homework and prepare ourselves."