On the evidence of the last week, Matlock Town are improving with every game, as AFC Halifax Town found out at the DCJ Group Insurance Arena on Tuesday night.
The Shaymen, FA Trophy holders and one of the favourites for the Conference North championship this term, began like an express train but then hit the buffers constructed by an eager and busy Matlock side who thoroughly deserved their draw.
Two former fans favourites were back in town. Billy Heath, once skipper of the Gladiators managed the visitors , his skipper and lieutenant on the pitch being former midfielder Liam King.
Early on it looked like being a happy return for them. The Shaymens’ start was as bright as their luminous all orange kit, and after full back Josh Wilde had driven wide from twenty yards with seventy seconds on the clock, Jordan Burrow slid his side into a 3rd minute lead. From one of many balls aimed at 6’5” number nine Tom Denton, Burrow escaped the attention of the home defenders to slip a simple, calm finish past the exposed Phil Barnes from Denton’s flick on.
But Matlock battled back superbly from their inauspicious start and their will to chase seemingly lost causes was emphasised when Marc Newsham raced after a faulty back pass, the ball frustratingly running away from the Gladiators number nine.
Newsham would soon be on the scoresheet though, scoring a goal wonderfully crafted from an unexpected source with centre back Dwayne Wiley turning up on the right flank to nutmeg a defender and flash an inviting cross along the six yard box which Newsham tucked home for a 12th minute equaliser.
Two Matlock corners swifly followed although the next opportunity fell to the Yorkshiremen, Wilde finding room on the left to whip in a centre which Burrow flicked wide.Then at the other end a Laurie Wilson free kick took a kind deflection which helped Steven Drench make a comfortable save.
A couple of miskicks in the home defence might have proved costly before Alex Pursehouse conceded a fruitless 37th minute corner in what was developing into a tempestuous battle, more like a league match than a pre season friendly.
Liam Marsden caused some concern in the Shaymens’ defence from long throws slung in from the right, a second in quick succession flicking off Matty Kosylo’s head and across his own goal, the former Nantwich winger being relieved a Matlock forward could not apply the finishing touch.
Immediately after the interval, Newsham was fouled centrally twenty five yards out, but last season’s free kick expert Laurie Wilson could not inflict any punishment this time, Drench saving easily.
Substitute Josh MacDonald was twice off target for Halifax, and after a trio of Matlock changes, including the withdrawal of trialist and former Birmingham City defender Perry Cotton, there was an anxious moment for the hosts as Barnes backpedalled to tip a teasing left wing corner on to a post.
Jamie Yates fouled Connor Hughes and as Hughes retaliated to cause a minor fracas, both men were booked with Hughes fortunate to stay on for his reaction to the Yates challenge.
It was now a physical battle but Matlock were up for the challenge and after Barnes held a testing low thirty yarder from Jordan Sinnott, Halifax decided to bring back on Denton, who had been substituted at half time.
An unfortunate but still wrong decision by Keenan Layton, losing possession thirty yards from goal just two minutes after replacing Wilson, led to Halifax regaining the lead with fifteen minutes left. Peniket’s quick pass left MacDonald clear route to goal as he fired a firm twenty yarder past Barnes,
But Matlock were showing spirit in abundance. Their workrate was top notch and Ben Partridge’s determination stood out when he left his marker for dead down the right, his cross being too strong for anyone to convert.
Then Ted Cribley was brought down five yards outside the penalty box and with Wilson on the sidelines, Yates tried his luck with a curling effort that was half a yard wide.
But Matlock got the equaliser they deserved on 85 minutes thanks to more wonderful play down the flanks, this time from the veteran Andy Todd who cut in from the right to mesmerise Halifax and set up RYAN KING for an easy close range finish which was lifted gleefully into the roof of the net by the 19 years old former Gresley winger.
Denton glanced his header well wide as the game reached a climax, ending with Partridge being ruled marginally offside seconds before referee Alix Pashley blew his whistle on a tense, no holds barred but enjoyable contest.
Of course the proof of the pudding will be seen when the league games start, but as far as orderly preparation goes, Matlock are certainly on the right lines.
MATLOCK TOWN: 1 Phil Barnes 2 Liam Marsden 3 Alex Pursehouse (14 Andy Todd 68) 4 Perry Cotton (12 Jamie Yates 53) 5 Dwayne Wiley 6 Nico de Girolamo 7 Ted Cribley (18 Ashley Bartle 83) 8 Laurie Wilson (17 Keenan Layton 73) 9 Marc Newsham (16 Ben Partridge 56) 10 Niall McManus 11 Nicky Travis (15 Ryan King 53)
FC HALIFAX TOWN: 1 Steven Drench 2 Cliff Moyo 3 Josh Wilde (16 Josh MacDonald 37) 4 Liam King (18 Shiraz Khan 81) 5 Nathan Hotte ( 19 Isaac Baldwin 68) 6 Scott Garner 7 Jake Hibbs (15 Connor Hughes 46) 8 Kevin Roberts 9 Tom Denton (13 Richard Peniket 46)10 Jordan Burrow (9 Tom Denton 70) 11 Matthew Kosylo (14 Jordan Sinnott 46).
REFEREE: Alix Pashley (Chesterfield).