• Matthew Rhodes

Looking back on another curtailed season at Matlock Town

Our Matlock Town reporter Matthew Rhodes looks back on the 2020/21 campaign that once again saw football brought to a premature end:

Strictly limited crowds. Sometimes no crowds allowed whatsoever. Games being called off here, there and everywhere. Periods of self-isolation. On pause while waiting for another lockdown to end. Socially distanced queues for the clubhouse bar. Then only table service. Then no clubhouses open at all. Ultimately, the 2020/21 campaign never felt like it really got under way for Matlock Town or indeed, the vast majority of non-league teams.

After practically every single game that the Gladiators played in for the 2020-21 season, the next day would bring more uncertainty and more news stories that would make the campaign even more difficult to get through. Inevitably, after much waiting, there was simply no other outcome but for the season to end in the same unwanted fashion as the previous campaign, with it officially curtailed last month.

In many ways though, this was a far more depressing ending compared to last season. The cancellation of last season’s campaign was over and done with in a relatively short space of time given the exceptional circumstances and the immediate necessities of the sacrifices required for the first national lockdown while much remained unknown about the coronavirus which suddenly had the globe trapped in a vice.

The ending for this season, however, quite literally lingered and dragged on for months while the UK went in and out of lockdown periods for a seemingly never-ending period of time.

It was certainly a season that posed far more questions than answers; not just for Matlock Town, but once again for the vast majority of non-league clubs. While this was the shortest amount of action on the pitch for a season since the ending of World War 2, this will unquestionably be a campaign that has numerous serious consequences for non-league football as a whole.

Matlock Town boss Paul Phillips. Photo: Jez Tighe.

It seems a little odd to talk about the action (or what little there was) on the pitch for the Gladiators when we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic and when the matches that actually did get played already feel like they were played about five years ago.

There seemed to be cautious optimism amongst the majority of football fans that the 2020/21 campaign would be able to be fulfilled despite many inevitable bumps along the road that would cause delays.

There was also cautious optimism amongst the majority of the Gladiators fan base that the numerous additions to the squad brought in by manager Paul Phillips would bring about a much more positive season compared to the last few years in Derbyshire’s capital.

In another example of the unorthodox nature of the 2020/21 campaign, Matlock’s season actually began with an FA Cup game instead of an opening day league tie. The Gladiators came up against tenth-tier OJM Black County at the Proctor Cars Stadium in the FA Cup Preliminary Qualifying Round. It was clearly a game where both teams had played next to no competitive football for an even longer period of time than normal in between seasons.

Despite being three tiers below the Gladiators, OJM Black Country gave a good account of themselves and Matlock were made to work hard for their 1-0 victory. The winner came through an early Ryan Qualter header on his debut for the club and despite a very sluggish performance against lower level opposition, the Gladiators booked their place in the FA Cup first qualifying round.

The opening day of the league campaign the next weekend was a concerning affair. Most notably, it was highly reminiscent of the team’s performances last season. On a lovely late summer afternoon and in front of an excellent atmosphere despite the limited attendance being in place, the Gladiators went down to a very disappointing 1-0 defeat at Bamber Bridge. Despite a competent performance overall in defence throughout the game, there was a worrying lack of urgency and creativity in midfield and very little cutting edge in attack. It could very easily have been a performance and result right from the last couple of months of Steve Kittrick’s time at Matlock. Paul Phillips’ glum appraisal in his post-match interview seemed to acknowledge this.

Concerns that this was going to be another drab, struggling season started to turn around though in the next game. Matlock Town were drawn away at Quorn in a potential banana skin encounter against a team two tiers below in the FA Cup first qualifying round. With pressure already on the team after two uninspired performances, a second-half brace from new signing Liam Hughes came to Matlock’s rescue as the Gladiators won the tie 2-0 after a tough and even first half.

The relief of the management staff at the end of the game was clear to see and showed how imperative it was to get on the right track as early as possible and dispel any thoughts that this would be yet another disappointing season.

In the next game, the Gladiators claimed their first win in the league with a 2-0 victory over Stafford Rangers at the Proctor Cars Stadium. After another cagey and tight goalless first half, Matlock stepped it up a gear in the second half to claim all three points. Hughes bagged a goal to get his third of the season before loan signing Danny Greenfield’s superb solo effort sealed the victory.

Three days later, Matlock took part in a very entertaining end-to-end 2-2 draw against promotion hopefuls Basford United at home in the league. Reece Kendall scored his first ever goal for the Gladiators in this game before Liam Hughes grabbed his fourth goal of the season. The most pleasing aspect of the game was the fact that Matlock went toe-to-toe against a team considered by many to be in the hunt for promotion and could quite easily have come away with the three points. Both teams went hell for leather in an excellent advert for non-league football and it was really encouraging to see such a hard-working Matlock team give an impressive Basford side such a good game.

Due to the unorthodox nature of this season, attention immediately returned again to the FA Cup. For the second qualifying round, Matlock squared off against fellow NPL Premier Division outfit Grantham Town at the South Kesteven Sports Stadium. The game seemed to be petering out towards a penalty shoot-out climax before Callum Dolan managed to poke home a winner in the 76th minute for his first ever Gladiators goal and to give Matlock a 1-0 victory.

The encouraging start really began to gain traction in the next game when the Gladiators ran out 4-1 winners against Ashton United in an excellent home performance in the league. An early penalty from Declan Walker gave Matlock the lead before the Robins pegged the Gladiators back midway through the first half. The deadlock was broken thanks to a bizarre own goal from an Ashton defender who chipped the ball over his own goalkeeper when there was barely any pressure on him. From that moment, Matlock were clinical and put the Robins to the sword thanks to second-half goals from Alex Byrne and yet another one for emerging cult hero Hughes in an emphatic and very impressive team performance as a whole.

Once again, attention swung back to the FA Cup and what a controversial cup tie this turned out to be! Matlock were knocked out by National League North outfit Guiseley 2-0 away from home but anyone who watched the game will know Matlock were extremely hard done by.

After a frantic and very bright start to the tie, disaster struck when the Gladiators went down to ten men after only eight minutes when star striker Hughes was shown an extremely harsh red card following a total overreaction to a challenge from a Guiseley player. The mountain only got higher as the game went on. Unused substitute Kade Coppin was shown a red card during the half-time interval for complaining to the referee too strongly about the decision to send Hughes off. On the hour mark, Gladiators legend Adam Yates was then given his marching orders following another very harsh decision which led to a second yellow card.

Despite the lack of players, Matlock put in an excellent performance and were unlucky to lose 2-0 when they were clearly the better team against higher-level opposition even when playing with ten men for so long. Manager Phillips certainly took no shame in Matlock’s FA Cup exit and was instead absolutely fuming at the referee’s needlessly harsh decisions which cost his team severely in trying to claim a spot in the final qualifying round of the FA Cup.

Despite the disappointment of going out of the FA Cup in highly annoying circumstances, the Gladiators bounced back in style in the very next game with an absolutely superb 1-0 away victory at South Shields in the league. South Shields were undoubtedly the favourites to win the league title this season following their prevention of being promoted to the National League North last season when the Northern Premier League decided not to end the 2019/20 league season on a points per game basis.

As expected, South Shields dominated possession and were a constant danger in front of goal but an absolutely magnificent team performance (especially in regards to the back four) gave the Gladiators a surprise victory. Heroic performances from players like Qualter and Sam Egerton in the heart of Matlock’s defence meant that Byrne’s second half header midway through the second half was the only goal of the afternoon.

It was a tremendous team performance and was the best example we’ve seen yet of Phillips’ hard work ethos being drilled into his team. Every Gladiator fought tooth and nail for every ball all afternoon and their hard work was duly rewarded. Quite frankly, it was a performance that never would have happened with last season’s team.

Matlock carried on their fantastic start to the campaign in the next game with yet another victory at the South Kesteven Sports Stadium. It was another tight and cagey affair in difficult conditions (this time in the league) but Declan Walker’s confidently converted penalty managed to separate the teams and give the Gladiators all three points and make it four wins from their first six league matches.

The next game was a superb encounter away at Leicestershire’s Coalville Town in the final qualifying round of the FA Trophy. This was undoubtedly the most exciting game of this, admittedly, very short season. In a rowdy atmosphere despite the limited crowd numbers allowed in, the Gladiators squeezed through to the first round proper on penalties after a thrilling 3-3 draw after 90 minutes.

The Gladiators showed great character and resilience in coming back from 2-0 down early on to take a 3-2 lead away from home against a team who had made a fantastic start in the Southern League Premier Division Central. Matlock found themselves two down at half time and staring at a cup exit at the very first hurdle but the Gladiators made an inspired start to the second half and goals from Kendall, Spencer Harris and Walker gave the Derbyshire outfit an unlikely lead. In a thrilling and frantic cup tie, the Ravens managed to level the tie at 3-3 with just 12 minutes to go. At the final whistle, the cup tie went straight to penalties and Matlock won a nail-biting shoot-out 4-2 thanks to some excellent goalkeeping from breakout star Shaun Rowley.

It was around this time that the future of the season began to look very bleak indeed. The season had already experienced bumps and obstacles of course in the guise of postponed games due to players and coaching staff testing positive for coronavirus which led to periods of enforced self-isolation for entire clubs when not even training sessions could take place. At this point though, more restrictions were having to be put in place nationwide due to dangerously high levels once again of positive coronavirus cases and deaths relating to the new virus.

As the days went by, more and more people conceded that it was only a matter of time before the season was going to be halted. The question, of course, was would it turn out to be a permanent halt to the season?

Amidst all this uncertainty, Matlock Town played just one more game which would turn out to be the following round of the FA Trophy away at Coleshill Town who were one tier below Matlock’s level.

In a sign of the desperate and increasingly worrying times, no fans were allowed entry whatsoever in what was a behind closed doors game. The strangeness of the situation was matched by the Matlock performance. Despite playing a tier above their opponents, Matlock were dominated and were embarrassed by a remarkable 5-2 defeat. A late first-half goal from Qualter appeared to have given the Gladiators a way back into the game as they went into the interval 2-1 down but a terrible and uncharacteristically woeful performance from the defence cost the Gladiators dearly. In short, Coleshill ran riot and could have easily won by an even more embarrassing score line. It was a bizarre, damp squib of a performance that seemed totally out of character amongst the squad but far more remarkably, with this game taking place on only December 8, this turned out to be Matlock’s final competitive match of what was the strangest of all seasons. A season that, especially looking in hindsight, had no chance of escaping the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic.

After another season which technically did not take place and with only 12 games that the team played in, there will be an overriding and understandable frustration that the last few months will have felt like a complete waste of time. This is heightened with the long drawn-out process of two and a half months between Matlock’s last competitive game and the decision to finally cancel the season.

Despite the numerous and obvious setbacks, it is important though to reflect on the positives that have come to the fore despite the season not coming close to a proper finish.

Firstly, and granted we’re only basing this on 12 games, the signs really were there that Phillips and his coaching staff had assembled a really settled and hard-working squad. It was evident, especially last season, that there were nowhere near enough players in Matlock’s squad that were putting enough effort in and actually playing for the club’s principles. Anyone who watched a few of Matlock’s games over this season just passed will know for sure that is a much different squad that Matlock have now – especially in terms of work rate and attitude. These are a group of players that are passionate about playing for the club and want it to succeed rather than solely themselves.

When will football next be played at Matlock Town? Photo: Jez Tighe.

It really is a case of ‘what if’ for this season. Phillips, along with assistant manager Dave Wild, have both been adamant since the season was officially cancelled that a top five finish was absolutely realistic and within aim. At the season’s end, Matlock were in eighth position in the NPL Premier Division table with numerous games in hand on the vast majority of teams.

After six league games, the Gladiators won four, drew one, lost one and only conceded four goals.

Based on average points per game, Matlock were actually in second place in the table. With so much of the season still to be played though, it does have to be taken with a certain pinch of salt. But this is why it is a case of ‘what if’. What if this season had fallen at a time when the vast majority of the country’s population were vaccinated against coronavirus, so the season could have resumed and concluded in a traditional manner? Of course, we will never know, but the signs were definitely there that Matlock had a really good thing going for this season.

The league was shaping up to be a really intriguing one. Mickleover were the surprise league leaders and promotion favourites South Shields and FC United of Manchester both had very patchy starts by their standards. There could well be an argument that the latter two clubs mentioned there suffered the most by having nowhere near the usual amount of fans watching them in person every week.

Three players stood out in particular for me in the latest version of the season that never was. Shaun Rowley proved to be quite the revelation between the sticks. There was initial concern when Jon Stewart picked up an injury in pre-season but Rowley’s performances were terrific in goal. A calm head on young shoulders, Rowley regularly displayed sharp reflexes and excellent shot-stopping abilities. Rowley is surely a player that Phillips will be very eager to stick with for the 2021/22 campaign.

Ryan Qualter quickly proved to be a very shrewd signing at the back. The centre-half never looked back since bagging an early goal on his competitive debut for the Gladiators and his tackling and blocking were immense in the glimpse of the season that we had. Qualter was a calm and reassuring presence in the heart of defence and paired up very well with Sam Egerton to ensure that the Matlock defence was a very tough nut to crack. This is obviously a far cry from the erratic nature of Matlock’s defence the previous season.

I described Liam Hughes as an emerging cult hero in this piece. What I mean by that is that I can absolutely see Hughes being a Gladiator that will be talked about by fans for decades to come. Putting Hughes in as club captain replacing Adam Yates was a bold move by Phillips at the start of the season and could have backfired had Matlock struggled to get points on the board.

But it didn’t take long for fans to see why the decision was made. Hughes’ work rate is second to none, he embodies the club’s principles under Phillips and he is a man that is simply loving his football again. Hughes has made no secret that he has had a rollercoaster life and that his life has gone off the rails in the past due to addiction. Hughes has overcome this though and is now a huge mental health advocate.

His honesty has really resonated with the fan base well and everyone has kind words for the powerful forward. He’s also made it no secret that his move to Matlock has really reignited his love for the game and that’s why I feel this attitude, his experiences and the level of where has played at before will prove to be a mix that will make Hughes a hugely popular and successful figure at the club for years to come.

Liam Hughes scores for Matlock. Photo: Jez Tighe.

The most important positive to come from such a short season is that the club genuinely does seem to have attained a real sense of identity and the team is paving the way for a strong rapport with its fan base. I don’t think it would be too harsh to say that Matlock Town have been drifting along in the NPL Premier Division for some time now. Under Phillips’ stewardship, the management staff in particular have gone out of their way to build a strong platform for the club’s relationship with its fans.

I know for a fact this is an extremely important thing to Paul Phillips and Dave Wild and I think there are definite signs that the fan base are more engaged and invested in the club and its values than they were two years ago. There was a buzz and a genuine, friendly atmosphere at the clubhouse following games and there was no divide between players, management, volunteers and fans. It felt like everyone was a part of the club and everyone had their role to play.

With the circumstances the non-league community finds itself in, local support for teams has never been more imperative. The growing rapport between management, players and fans can absolutely only be a good thing after the times that we have all recently gone through together and the hurdles that will need to be overcome in the next few months.

There are a couple of other things of note that also need to be included in this review of the season. We mustn’t forget the tremendous achievement by Adam Yates in making his 500th competitive appearance for Matlock Town in the league fixture away at Bamber Bridge. Yates can rightly be called a legend of the club and his loyalty to the Gladiators when he could easily have played at a higher level must never be forgotten. The man is a true credit to the club.

Sadly, the club received some very sad news on January 20 when it was confirmed that former manager Peter Swan had passed away at the age of 84. Swan will always be a Matlock Town hero as it was he that led the Gladiators all the way to FA Trophy glory in 1975 at Wembley Stadium. Swan also secured the Derbyshire Senior Cup that same season for the first time in the club’s history. Swan is often regarded as the club’s greatest ever manager and was a great friend to his team-mates as well as being their boss.