Matlock Town's extraordinary start to the season continued on Saturday afternoon as they scored a winner right at the death to beat FC United of Manchester 1-0 at the Proctor Cars Stadium and leapfrog title favourites South Shields to the top of the NPL Premier Division.
Ioan Evan's dramatic goal deep into injury time sent the Proctor Cars Stadium wild after a see-saw encounter in which the result could have gone either way. Evans's first ever goal for the Gladiators plus South Shields's goalless draw away at Nantwich Town means that the Derbyshire outfit have sneaked above South Shields to top the table due to more goals scored.
The first half was an extremely open affair with both sides playing some nice football considering the torrential rain that the game was being played in. It was a wonder how on earth both sides went into the interval without a goal.
Matlock had the first big opportunity of the game. After just five minutes, Jesurun Uchegbulam found space to shoot from close range but his effort was well blocked by an oncoming Dan Lavercombe in FC United's goal. Uchegbulam then had arguably an even bigger chance to take the lead for Matlock just six minutes afterwards, when his close range effort following Alex Byrne's excellent free-kick from the right wing flashed just wide of the post when he probably should have done better.
Any belief that the game was going to be dominated by Matlock was soon dispelled though. In the 13th minute, FC United should have taken the lead when Paul Ennis was put clean through on goal with just Shaun Rowley to beat but poor finishing saw his effort roll wide of the post.
In the 27th minute, FC United really should have broken the deadlock but heroics from Rowley and Adam Yates kept the Gladiators on level terms. A lovely through ball allowed Regan Linney to run onto it and enter the penalty area with just the goalkeeper to beat. Linney chose to side-foot the ball firmly to Rowley's left hand side but the goalkeeper made an excellent save to palm the ball away which then led to an absolutely superb clearance from Yates to prevent Brad Holmes from tucking in the rebound in the nick of time.
Momentum seemed to change hands every few minutes or so and after surviving those few chances, Matlock appeared to gain the initiative again. The Gladiators came really close to taking the lead in the 37th minute when Liam Hughes's header inside the penalty area forced a good save from Lavercombe to palm the ball away. The ball found Adam Yates who rifled in an effort from close range. The attempt looked to be heading into the net but it agonisingly hit Alex Byrne who could not get out of the way of the shot and the ball diverted over the by-line instead to concede a goal kick.
In a fitting end to a breathless first half, there was a huge opportunity for both teams in injury time. Firstly, FC United spurned a golden opportunity to take the lead when poor finishing cost them severely again. Regan Linney broke free of the last Matlock defender back and had all the time in the world to slot the ball past Rowley but his effort lacked composure and he dragged his effort wide of the post when he really should have done a lot better.
Matlock almost took immediate advantage of this sitter of a miss when an excellent through ball from Alex Byrne allowed Liam Hughes to run onto the ball but his drilled effort from close range frustratingly found only the side netting.
The second half didn't see as many clear-cut chances as the first 45 minutes but it certainly ended with high drama that sent the crowd of 903 wild.
Both teams once again played nice football as the rain continued to pour down but FC United didn't really have any clear-cut chances at all to speak of in the second half whereas Matlock continued to chip away throughout and were rewarded enormously with just seconds left on the clock.
Just two minutes into the second half, Liam Hughes (who worked tirelessly as always throughout the game) saw his header fly narrowly over the cross bar following another excellent delivery from Alex Byrne.
In the 58th minute, Jesurun Uchegbulam found himself with the opportunity to hook the ball over an oncoming Lavercombe but his effort didn't quite have enough power behind it and the keeper was just able to claim the ball and prevent it from rolling into an empty net.
Three minutes later, set piece specialist Alex Byrne found himself lining up a free kick in a fantastic area from 20 yards out. The crowd held their breath as he ran up to strike the ball but Lavercombe made a good save from his effort to palm the ball away from danger.
With just five minutes of the 90 remaining, substitute Tyreece Onyeka almost scored on his Gladiators debut. His scuffed effort from close range forced Lavercome into a great outstretched save and the ball was cleared out for a corner kick just before skipper Liam Hughes was about to hammer home the rebound from only three or four yards out.
It looked somehow like a 0-0 draw was just meant to be for this game. Deep into injury time though, the Proctor Cars Stadium erupted following a last-ditch effort which finally broke the deadlock with just seconds remaining in the game.
The Gladiators won a throw-in on the right wing. Initially, Alex Byrne was about to quickly take the throw but the call was made for Reece Kendall to take it instead suggesting that his trademark long throw was going to be Matlock's option for the final roll of the dice. However, Kendall surprised everyone when his throw was just a short one to Byrne, which allowed him one final opportunity to cross the ball into the box. It was a fantastic cross but it was going to have to be a special finish to get a goal in this game. Ioan Evans though was the man for the job. With very little time left, Evans threw caution to the wind and put himself right into the mix of things in the penalty area to try and turn one point into three. Byrne's delivery found the head of Evans and he met the ball superbly to guide it past a desperate dive to the right hand side from Lavercombe from around 12 yards out.
The ball rippled the back of the net and the Matlock fans roared with joy and sparked jubilant scenes of celebration on the pitch from the entire Gladiators team who were embraced by virtually all the coaching staff as they ran out from the dugout area. It was an extraordinary moment and has to be considered as the most memorable image of Matlock's 2021/22 campaign so far. Around 20 seconds was played following the kick-off before the referee blew the final whistle and confirmed Matlock's tenth victory from their 12 league games so far.
Matlock can't afford to dwell too long on this victory though. As ever in this division, the games come thick and fast, and Matlock next face Micklover at home on Tuesday evening in a Derbyshire derby. Can the Gladiators extend their stay at the top of the table? We'll soon find out.
Matlock Town team: Rowley, Yates, Kendall, Evans, Qualter, Lees, Byrne, Wiles (L King 84), Hughes (c), Uchegbulam (Onyeka 62), C King (Soleman 62). Unused subs: Coppin, Hannah.
Paul Phillips Quotes:
"I'm extremely proud of the team. Two of the lads hadn't even met anyone else on the team up until today. I think we did exactly what we needed to do today. We went on the front foot...it was a little scrappy, a lot of the game was played in the middle third. FC United are a good team, they passed the ball around well; but I thought we showed great determination. That ending - it doesn't get any better than that. For me, it's a little bit of redemption after the last time I played against FC United. But it's not about me, it's about us and getting the three points which I think we deserved today."
"It's hard to highlight only one of the defenders because I think all of them have been fantastic. Adam Yates has come back and not put a foot wrong once. Ryan Qualter - I mean, if there's a better central defender in this division, then I must be missing something. He's been absolutely top draw. And then you have Evans - I've asked him to play on the left hand side and he's just taken to it like a duck to water. He wins every header; absolutely outstanding. Not just for today but in the previous game against Radcliffe too. Losing Sam Egerton was always going to be hard but I think I've found a very able deputy in Ioan Evans. Long may that continue."
"We always knew injuries were going to be an issue on account of how long we hadn't played for. You have to give credit to all the players here. We have our own demands of the players but the players have their own demands of each other too. Every one of them gives 100% and if they don't, then they get pulled out. Everyone at the club should be proud of themselves for how they've handled the injury problems that we've had so far this season."
"I thought all the new players did great in the game. Tyreece has worked hard, could have scored with his first or second touch of the ball. We've got a great nucleus of the squad but needs must; we've had to bring in new players here because of the amount that have had to be absent."
"We have let ourselves down as a group on a couple of occasions: the games against Ashton and Belper. The Stafford game I could accept because we did have chances in that game - those matches do happen over the course of a season. But I'm extremely proud overall of what we've done so far this season. Players like Craig King epitomise this club and what we're about. Not played a lot of football at all but then is heavily involved in our last two games and has given it everything. Nothing is won in October or by Christmas, of course. But if we can keep this going, give ourselves a springboard; there's nothing to say that we can't stay in the mix and get out of this league. But there's still a long way to go. Still a lot of tweaking to do, learning to do and a lot of games that still need to be won."