Matlock Town made it four wins in a row on Saturday as they beat Mickleover 1-0 at the Proctor Cars Stadium thanks to a Liam Hughes goal in the first half.
The victory for the Gladiators, along with South Shields's 3-0 defeat to Bamber Bridge, means that Matlock are now three points clear at the top of the Northern Premier League Premier Division. However, Gladiators manager Paul Phillips was not a happy man at all after the game and was highly critical of Matlock's wastefulness in front of goal which almost cost them severely right at the end of the match.
It was an entertaining match for the neutral but somewhat frustrating if you were a Gladiators fan. Matlock had a whole host of chances throughout the 90 minutes but extremely sloppy finishing and a below-par second half from a few players almost allowed Mickleover a share of the points when Matlock should have already killed off the game a long time before that. Whether it was the case that the players were tired after a number of games in a short space of time with a paper-thin squad remains to be seen. Either way, the Matlock boss was extremely unhappy with his team's performance despite the victory and felt that it was nowhere near the very high standards that he and the whole coaching staff pride themselves on.
Matlock's first big opportunity of the match arrived in the sixth minute. A nice pass from Jamie Cooke on a counter attack allowed Alex Byrne to meet the ball and run into the penalty area. His shot was hurried though and the midfielder ended up dragging the ball wide when he should have hit the target from around 15 yards out. Byrne then had another attempt just five minutes later which did hit the target. A free kick from just over 20 yards out presented the set piece specialist with a golden opportunity. He struck the free kick well and it looked for a second like it was about to sneak in but Mickleover goalkeeper Callum Hawkins did really well to tip the ball around the post.
The Gladiators then came within inches of taking the lead in the 28th minute. After a mix-up between the goalkeeper and a defender, Callum Hawkins suddenly found himself in no man's land and Jamie Cooke had an opportunity to shoot into an unguarded net from just over 20 yards out. Agonisingly though, his rolling effort along the ground bounced back off the post and the Mickleover defence were able to clear the ball away from danger and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
The North Derbyshire outfit deservedly took the lead in the 39th minute of the game via yet another assist this season from Alex Byrne. Byrne delivered an excellent cross from the right wing and the ball was scrambled into the net from close range by Gladiators skipper Liam Hughes for his fifth goal of the season. It certainly won't be a contender for goal of the season but it proved to be the key moment of the game to give the Gladiators all three points.
Matlock really should have doubled their lead in the 43rd minute. Jamie Cooke found himself with plenty of space to run into the penalty area and his effort bounced back off the post and straight into the path of Liam Hughes. With the goal at his mercy, Hughes somehow missed the target altogether with his rebound in what was an enormous let-off for Mickleover.
The second half was a strange affair for Matlock. The Gladiators still had plenty of possession and Mickleover's defence were clearly tiring as every minute passed but Matlock were sloppy and too casual in the final third and were just coasting along too much in midfield. This allowed Mickleover to start applying more pressure and the Gladiators defence were being forced into a series of excellent blocks to deny Micklover from getting a shot on target and testing Shaun Rowley. It also has to be said that the introductions of Tyreece Onyeka and Aram Soleman did not pay off with both players looking off the pace and offering little with the ball.
The first 20 minutes of the second half featured a fair amount of Mickleover pressure which was dealt with very well by Matlock's defence. From the 66th minute onwards though, Matlock regained the initiative and really should have put the game to bed but constantly let their opponents off the hook.
In the 66th minute, luck was against Matlock as an absolute stonewall penalty was not given by the referee. A Mickleover defender blatantly hit the ball with his hand inside his own area. It was unintentional but with his arm spread out wide, it clearly prevented the cross from finding an attacker in a great position and it was an astonishing call from the referee to not award the penalty when he was in a perfect position to witness the incident.
Poor finishing though was to frustrate Matlock even more in the final quarter of the match. In the 79th minute, with Mickleover's defence tiring rapidly and practically on its knees, Liam Hughes' free header inside the penalty area squeaked wide of the post. Just a minute afterwards, Jesurun Uchegbulam went on a dazzling run from the halfway line and into the penalty area but with just the keeper to beat, he let himself down and blazed his effort over the bar when he really should have hit the target.
With just six minutes remaining of the 90, Alex Byrne also blazed an effort well over the bar when he was also in an excellent position inside the penalty area and with plenty of time and space. The Gladiators came heart-stoppingly close to regretting all of these missed opportunities. With just seconds remaining, substitute Finn Barker suddenly found himself with plenty of space to run into the penalty area from the left wing. With just Shaun Rowley to beat, Barker really should have secured a dramatic equaliser but his effort was poor and somehow only succeeded in hitting the advertisement boarding. The crowd of 605 gave a huge sigh of relief.
Just a minute later, the referee blew for full time and Matlock secured another three points to extend their lead at the top of the NPL Premier Division. Paul Phillips knows all too well though that his team can't afford many games like this where so many opportunities are missed, as better opposition will punish them.
Matlock Town team: Rowley, Yates, Kendall (Uchegbulam 25), Evans, Qualter, Lees, Byrne, Wiles, Hughes (c), Cooke (Onyeka 57), L King (Soleman 67). Unused subs: C King, Coppin.
Paul Phillips Quotes:
"I thought we were miles off it tonight. Absolutely miles off it. From the start to the end: miles off it. We were unrecognisable in the second half. Didn't deserve anything out of the game. Mickleover were unlucky not to get something. The lads have set standards that we've got to keep. I've got to blame myself a little bit; I got the substitutions wrong. The two lads that came on in the second half were miles off it. The only positive for me is that we picked the three points up."
"Reece Kendall went off because he was injured. He's not shown any professionalism tonight. He didn't tell me he was injured before the game so that was a waste of a substitution. Another player that's got right on my nerves to be perfectly honest. That will be dealt with internally."
"The three lads at the back and Shaun showed mettle. But they shouldn't have been overworked. What was so disappointing, was that we had four gilt-edged chances and we didn't even hit the target! Their keeper went down injured about three times and we can't even hit the target! I just think we were miles off it. I don't know why. There was a good crowd in tonight. We prepared okay. That just wasn't us tonight. We were unrecognisable to the team that played last Saturday. The positives are that we picked three points up and kept a clean sheet; they're the only positives tonight. We've got a lot of battered and bruised bodies - but Mickleover have played the same amount of games as us more or less. That just wasn't where we should be tonight - we were nowhere near at the races."
"The message at half time was to just test their keeper. He'd gone down two or three times earlier holding his ribs. To press high, be positive and get on the front foot. I might just reverse it next time because everything I said at half time, they did the total opposite. I'm disappointed. The players have been told that in no uncertain terms, that I'm disappointed. I think it shows how far we've come as a group that we've come here tonight, beat a team and we've been miles off the pace but we've managed to still find a win."
"I think we were the better team in the first half - Mickleover huffed and puffed. But we ground out that win in the end. We just weren't at the races in the second half ; we weren't closing them down enough in midfield...a win's a win. But there's a lot of improving to do going into the next two games."
"The formation won't change for the next game against Atherton. That formation has never let us down. The appetite to work maybe let us down. Ross Hannah should be back on Saturday. Hopefully Callum Chippendale will also be back on Saturday. Jamie Sharman's probably still another week away from coming back. So there's competition in the squad. I thought Liam King actually came in and did well tonight. I left Craig King out just because three games within around a week was a lot to ask of him considering how long he's been out. I'm not going to say yet whether it will be the same team that plays Atherton that played tonight or whether there will be changes."