The FA Trophy run may be over, extinguished in cruel fashion by Jon Shaw in the last minute, but Matlock emerged from the tie and their whole run with terrific credit.
Every Gladiator gave their all, showing true cup fighting spirit against their more illustrious full time opponents and although on the balance of the play, Luton deserved to win, another school of thought would suggest that Matlock’s spirit and the way they defended was worthy of another bite of the cherry.
Luton had gone in front through Simon Ainge on 16 minutes but had been pegged back by a Lewis McMahon penalty just after the hour. The crowd were preparing for a Tuesday night replay at Kenilworth Road when Shaw broke home hearts.
James Lukic was passed fit to play having recovered from an elbow injury but Massiah McDonald was suspended, and Matlock would miss his energy and spirit in attack.
Manager Mark Atkins got his tactics spot on. He opted for five in midfield with McMahon the lone striker. He was understandably fearful that his team could be swamped if a too open style was adopted, given Luton’s attacking qualities. There were also two surprise names on the bench in on loan Chesterfield striker Jacob Hazel and forgotten man Lee Ellington.
The Gladiators kicked off attacking the Town End and sensibly passed their way forward from the start, the move ending with Hatters custodian Dean Brill holding a low cross from the right by Gareth Davies.
Luton responded and might have gone in front on 3 minutes but Andre Gray could only weakly prod a right wing centre at Jon Kennedy.
The pattern was set with Luton having the majority of the possession but a battling Matlock working like trojans to deny them space. Because of this the Conference National high fliers, all full time players, at times resorted to hoof ball as moves broke down.
From their next meaningful attack on 16 minutes the visitors went in front. A corner from the right was hoisted to the far post where Shaw headed back and central defender Simon Ainge rose highest to plant his header over Kennedy.
That should have been the signal for Luton to net a hatful but Matlock were having none of it. Adam Yates, alongside Lukic, was simply magnificent at the heart of the home defence while in front of them the midfield five continued to harrass Luton.
Matlock had their first shot at goal on 21 minutes when McMahon showed neat control to give him a volleying chance, his effort dropping wide from thirty yards out.
A good Luton move saw Alex Lawless nod wide before Kennedy blocked a Lawless shot, the ball rebounding to a surprised Scott Rendell who knocked it wide.
The last noteworthy action of the opening half was a Yates header from a set piece which Brill comfortably held.
Hazel replaced Grayson at the break and Luton looked for a quick second as substitute Stuart Fleetwood cut in from the left to power a fierce shot over the bar.
But Matlock were still in contention and were given a real shot in the arm when Phil Roe went down under challenge from Ainge and referee Peter Bankes pointed to the spot. It seemed harsh on Ainge and Luton but McMAHON showed no mercy as he blasted his penalty firmly into the corner giving Brill absolutely no chance of keeping it out.
Almost immediately Lawless struck the Matlock bar from thirty yards and Luton knew thay had to find something extra to overcome a resilient Gladiators outfit.
Frustration crept in for them as passes were overhit and at times it looked as if the Hatters were running out of ideas. They went more direct and Kennedy pulled off top class stops from a Stuart Fleetwood thunderbolt and a header from Shaw. Former Chesterfield defender Jan Kovacs looked to the sky as his header rebounded off the inside of a post and straight into Kennedy’s arms.
At the other end a cross from Glyn Cotton hit Lawless on the arm, but Matlock were never going to get a second penalty.
Just as the tie entered it’s 90th minute and preparations for a trip down the M1 on Tuesday were being made,Luton struck the decisive blow.
Ellington was adjudged to have brought down Lawless out on the left when it looked as if the Luton man had simply lost his balance. The free kick was headedout but SHAW instinctively volleyed goalwards, and despite the woodwork and Kennedy’s best efforts to keep the ball out, assistant Simon Swallow signalled the goal.
It was cruel on Matlock who had both Cotton and McMahon booked for protesting, to add to Hazel’s 88th minute caution, also for dissent. Luton were both relieved and joyous. There was little time for Matlock to respond although a half chance fell to Ellington who could only scuff his shot goalwards but off target.
But Matlock certainly did not disgrace themselves. They had deservedly beaten Mansfield over two games in the previous round and were within minutes of holdng another top flight non league outfit.
This spirit, determination and performance level must now be transferred to their league programme and the other remaining cup competitions.
MATLOCK: Jon Kennedy, Micky Harcourt, Phil Roe, Martin Foster, Adam Yates, James Lukic, Bradley Grayson (Jacob Hazel 46), James Ashmore, Glyn Cotton, Lewis McMahon, Gareth Davies (Lee Ellington 75). Other subs: Joe Leesley, Laurence Gaughan, Nick Buxton.
REFEREE: P Bankes (Liverpool).
STAR MAN: Adam Yates