The Mark Hume era started with another defeat but there was an air of positivity around the Autoworld Arena as Matlock looked up for the fight.
Yes, some of the old failings were there, noticeably the lack of a potent scoring threat and a mistake which led to the Ashton winner. But Matlock remained in contention right until the very end, and that could not be said about the recent home defeats by Trafford and Grantham.
Hume had been busy on Friday bringing in four new players and also signing himself on playing forms. The four fresh player all played a part, so there would be an element of settling in with both Adam Yates and Phil Roe also missing after being he;per off in the midweek Derbyshire Senior Cup win at Alfreton.
Former Buxton pair Grant Black and Scott Maxfield, and Sheffield United loanees Julian Banton and Otis Khan all featured and there was a surprise recall for Josh Meade in midfield. Danny Holland was also back in the starting line up, partnering Corey Gregory in attack.
Predictably when wanting to impress a new manager, Matlock made a bright start. The first 20 minutes were played almost exclusively in the Robins’ half, but sadly there was no end product. There was plenty of endeavour, and some neat approach play but the final ball was the problem. Matlock needed the boost of a goal but seldom looked like finding it.
For all of their early pressure, they could not seriously extend goalkeeper Paul Phillips and the best chance, or to put it more accurately, a half chance came when Liam Needham tried to play in Jason Stokes but the ball was just a little too strong for the winger to collect.
Then out of the blue came the killer blow when on 21 minutes, Micky Harcourt took too long in releasing the ball to be robbed by Martin Pilkington midway inside the Matlock half. An incisive through pass from Pilkington found Dale Johnson who made no mistake, blasting decisively past Jon Kennedy in a one on one duel,
Matlock went for an almost instant reply and from a 23rd minute corner, the pick of the new boys, Banton rose to nod wide.
But Ashton, after their slow start were proving to be a sturdy side to face, and if anything it was the visitors who looked the more dangerous.
They might have doubled their lead on 33 minutes when Muhammed Sabo’s header back looked to fall short of Kennedy who retrieved the situation by cleverly blocking Johnson’s poke towards goal.
Harcourt had visions of atoning for his error in the 40th minute when Matlock won a free kick 25 yards from goal but the Ashton wall did its job by blocking the first shot and Harcourt’s second attempt drifted harmlessly wide.
James Ashmore replaced Stokes for the second half but the first danger was for the hosts when Grant Black brought down Pilkington on the edge of the penalty box only for that danger to pass when the free kick was well blocked.
Great defending by Banton denied Ashley Young before the second Matlock change saw Niall McManus come on for Khan with a third of the contest remaining.
Matlock needed McManus’ creativity and passing ability and it was the substitute who on 70 minutes, eventually forced Phillips into serious action, a near post strike being well saved by the Ashton joint player manager low to his right.
The hosts needed a lucky break for Ashton lord comfortable in dealing with what Matlock threw at them. Again the visitors looked dangerous when they broke forward and when substitute Martin Hill was played clear in the 78th minute, only a fine brave save from the advancing Kennedy prevented a fatal second goal.
There would though be one final chance for Matlock to earn what would have been a hard earned point when Banton, up supporting the attack, slipped a short pass to Holland on the right who turned sweetly and curled an intelligent effort narrowly past the far post.
So Matlock are now seven points from safety after Saturday’s results and the need to collect wins is becoming greater and greater by the minute.
Hume says safety can be achieved and judging by the effort on Saturday, his team will fight until the bitter end. More new blood can be expected as changes in and out are made to the squad, Matlock need goals and that surely will be where Hume’s priorities lie.
Matlock: Kennedy, Black, Harcourt, Meade, Sabo, Banton, Stokes (Ashmore 46), Needham (Maxfield 68), Gregory, Holland, Khan (McManus 59). Subs not used: Humble, Hume.