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On August 14, Matlock Town will play their first competitive match for 249 days. It’s been a while, shall we say.

We all know the reasons why there has been such a long delay and I’ve written about the terrible impact of Covid on non-league football more than I’ve had hot dinners, so I will not dwell on this subject for long as I can already see your eyes rolling.

All that I’ll say on this is - embrace being back. The creak of the turnstile. The sudden hush of the crowd as a penalty is about to be struck. The sweeter taste of your drink of choice after just watching your team win in the last few minutes. The away trips touring the weird and the wonderful of the North of England. It’s back. All of it. Make the most of it. We’ve missed it so much and the serious stuff on the pitch is finally coming back. Enjoy it!

Right then, Matlock Town; where were we before Covid so rudely interrupted us once again?

The first thing that stands out as we look ahead to the long-awaited 2021/22 season, is that this is a pretty settled Gladiators squad. Not too many changes have been made over the summer which hasn’t happened often for the Gladiators in the last few seasons. Key figures from the encouraging glimpse of the 2020/21 season have stayed at The Proctor Cars Stadium to play their football. Players such as Liam Hughes, Alex Byrne, Ryan Qualter, Mark Lees, Sam Egerton, Declan Walker and Reece Kendall have all committed to Paul Phillips’s plans for a successful campaign ahead. It’s been refreshing to see so many popular faces stick with the club in what promises to be a very strong and competitive division.

In terms of between the sticks, Shaun Rowley faces competition for the number one jersey in the shape of recent signing Paul Cooper. Cooper has impressed with the minutes he’s got under his belt in pre-season and should provide excellent competition for Rowley to keep him on his toes. Phillips should certainly be happy with his options for the last line of defence.

The central defensive partnership between Qualter and Egerton looked to be a formidable one in last season’s mini-campaign and Phillips will be counting on their solidarity to form the basis of putting a strong campaign together. Qualter, for me, is certainly good enough to be playing at a higher level than Step 3 of non-league football and should also continue to be a threat in the box when it comes to attacking set-pieces for the Gladiators.

The retention of Reece Kendall is a vital one for Matlock as there is clearly huge amounts of potential there. Kendall seemed to grow in confidence and stature after each game last season and impressed many with his work rate and surging runs down the flanks. It still feels weird to type this, but Adam Yates will not once again be filling in the right-back role. Yates decided to hang up his boots for good before the start of pre-season and played a one-off game as a farewell in Matlock Town’s 9-0 demolition job of Wirkswoth Ivanhoe in their first pre-season match. We have seen Declan Walker play in this position during pre-season and it will be interesting to see if Walker starts the competitive season in this role or whether Phillips chooses to go with a three man defence to begin with when Matlock travel to face Ashton United on the opening day of the league.

For me, midfield is the area where the most improvement has been made compared to this time last year. The signings of Alex Wiles from Gainsborough Trinity and Jesurun Uchegbulam from Mossley look to be inspired ones. Wiles appears to have an excellent work rate while also being able to offer plenty as a creative outlet in the pre-season games he’s been able to play in. Wiles also came to Matlock with a glowing reference from former Gainsborough manager Curtis Woodhouse when he joined the Gladiators.

When the signing of Uchegbulam was announced, Matlock’s assistant manager Dave Wild described him as a player that would get people off their seats. No porkies were told here from the deputy gaffer. Uchegbulam has impressed me massively throughout pre-season; he’s been a constant threat to every opposition he’s faced which includes the higher-level opponents the Gladiators have come up against such as Mansfield Town and Boston United. The Nigerian is fast, not afraid at all to take people on and has a good delivery on him plus a keen eye for goal. I’m expecting big things from the winger (who can also play just off the centre-forward or as a wing-back on both flanks) this season and I think he’s about to become a fan favourite at Causeway Lane.

Whilst Mark Lees will never receive the full recognition he deserves, his role in this Gladiators side will be a vital one. Like a Step 3 version of N’Golo Kante or Didier Deschamps, Lees does the hard graft and non-glamorous sides of the game to precision. Dave Wild once described Lees last season as the glue that keeps the side together and it’s hard to disagree with that. Lees is a vital retention for the club, simple as that.

The most impressive Gladiators player throughout pre-season has arguably been Alex Byrne. Byrne has been superb in all the pre-season games I’ve seen him play and looks hell-bent on finally returning to competitive games. The attack-minded midfielder has netted multiple times in the past month and a half and has assisted plenty too. His set-pieces have also been of a very high quality, whether that be from the corner quadrant or from a free-kick twenty yards out.

Callum Chippendale has also remained with the Gladiators since last season. It will be interesting to see if he can get a good run of games together following a few niggly injuries since joining Matlock Town.

A few days ago, Paul Phillips signed young Doncaster Rovers talent Lirak Hasani on a youth loan deal in order to bolster the midfield department for the start of this season’s campaign.

In terms of up front, it will be fantastic for Gladiators fans to properly watch Ross Hannah back in action in a competitive game for Matlock Town. Hannah’s astonishing first spell at the club is now the stuff of folklore at Causeway Lane. There may have been some who were cynical at Hannah’s return to the club; that his best years were behind him and he won’t be the same player. While his best years may be behind him, Hannah has clearly shown in pre-season that he still has a lot to offer. The striker has looked fit and hungry and is clearly someone who just loves playing for the Derbyshire outfit. A nostalgic signing, maybe, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Gladiators skipper Liam Hughes will continue to lead the line as we start the 2021/22 campaign. Hughes is already becoming a cult hero at the club after he impressed in the gone-too-soon 2020/21 campaign and also impressed off the pitch with his superb mental health support work. Hughes is a tough and awkward player to play against and looks to be a man who has fitted in superbly with the club’s ethos.

Jonathan Wafula was added to the club’s strike force over the summer but we haven’t seen too much of him in pre-season. The big question as we approach the start of the coming season is whether the squad is too thin on the ground?

While Craig Carney, Jon Pritchard and Kade Coppin have all featured in the majority of Matlock’s pre-season games, it is still fair to say that the squad as a whole is pretty light and could do with more bodies in there. Plenty of trialists have played for the Gladiators over this summer, but Phillips is insistent on only bringing in the right type of player rather than just bringing someone in for the sake of adding the numbers.

There was a much talked about loan signing up front from a League One club that unfortunately appeared to have stalled in the last few days due to an illness that said player was suffering from. Whether that loan deal can be resurrected in the coming few days is unclear and remains to be seen. Another permanent signing was also mooted recently but nothing appears to have seen the light with this just yet. While numbers are admittedly light, Phillips is not panicking and is clearly meticulous with his approach and attention to detail. It would be no surprise though if a player was brought in shortly after the opening day of the season; possibly even before the opening day! Everyone was surprised by the sudden return of the popular Craig King after the briefest of brief spells at Frickley Athletic, so anything is still possible!

All in all, there is plenty to be positive and optimistic about regarding the chances of success at Causeway Lane this season. While the importance of pre-season friendlies will always be open to debate, there can be no question that this pre-season just gone has been one of Matlock’s most impressive for a long time. Eight wins from nine is a fantastic record, especially when you consider that those wins have come against the likes of Mansfield Town, Boston United and Derby County’s academy side. Even in the sole defeat to a strong Chesterfield side, Matlock were still competitive and made a good game of it. The players look fit and raring to go. Goals have come from all across the board. The vast majority seem to embody Paul Phillips’s insistence on a very high work ethic and look like they enjoy playing for the badge and not just the club.

Make no mistake, this will be an ultra-competitive league this time around. Many teams have a point to prove and many are showing huge ambition. Teams like South Shields are now full-time and are desperate to get promoted after they were cruelly denied at the end of the 2019/20 campaign. FC United of Manchester’s boss Neil Reynolds is now employed full-time by the club. Both have enormous fan bases at this level desperate to come back and watch them. And that’s only the start of the contenders for the right end of the table. Warrington Town, Basford United, Buxton and Ashton United all have equipped themselves well for a strong campaign. Whoever goes up will have certainly earnt it. Matlock might not be many people’s favourites for a top five spot outside of the Derbyshire capital but Paul Phillips and his assistant Dave Wild are insistent that promotion is the aim and is definitely achievable. The planning that both have put into for this season is intense and detailed. Whatever happens, no stone will have been left unturned.

It’s still strange that, after all this time, Phillips and Wild have still not actually managed a full season yet at Causeway Lane. Despite not reaching this landmark yet, there can be no doubt that Matlock Town is a positive club again since their arrival. You only need to see the atmosphere in the clubhouse and around the pitch before and after each game to witness that. There’s plenty of reasons to be cheerful and optimistic as we start this season. I think this will be one to remember!

I will end with the fact that Dave Wild has already insisted to me that if (or when, as he put it!) Matlock win the league title, he will celebrate with flares outside Riber Castle. Now if that’s not an image to inspire you, nothing will.

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