Three points for Matlock were dramatically reduced to one with virtually the bat of an eyelid in a frantic conclusion to Wednesday night’s Evo-Stik NPL Premier Division clash at the Turnbull Ground.
Leading thanks to a fine solo goal from Jamie McDonagh after 35 minutes, Matlock should have been home and dry as two and a half minutes into stoppage time Otis Khan broke clear with just goalkeeper Shane Bland to beat. With Ted Cribley up in support, Khan rolled a short pass to him, but Cribley was offside and the second crucial Matlock goal was ruled out.
Ten-man Whitby hoofed the ball forward and Dale Hopson was free to push a shot against a post and in the ensuing scramble, Liam Shephard forced the ball home to get Whitby, who had been outplayed for long periods, out of jail.
It was a real shame and to apportion any blame to Khan would be harsh. The young on loan attacker, soon to represent Pakistan, had been a handful for the Seasiders all evening in a lively and energetic display. Khan and central defender Julian Banton were the top candidates in the man of the match stakes.
Matlock boss Mark Hume, as disappointed as the Matlock fans with the eventual outcome, put it down to inexperience on Khan’s part, and in retrospect, the visitors would have been better served using time up near the corner flag than being adventurous and going for the second goal.
As Hume said, for 75 minutes it was the perfect performance, and strangely it was shortly after the hosts had striker Steven Snaith red carded for two quick bookable fouls in succession on 65 minutes, that the wheels began to loosen for the Gladiators.
Usually in recent matches when playing with an extra man, Matlock have made their numerical advantage count, but play became scrappy with the Yorkshire side sending on giant central defender Richard Pell as an attacking substitute to try and unsettle what had been a steadfast Gladiators rearguard.
Early on the Gladiators, who replaced the work committed Micky Harcourt at right back with Grant Black, looked to have heeded Hume’s words after the Workington defeat in making a positive start.
Bright, aggressive and inventive, they won the midfield battle with early opportunities dropping to McDonagh who fired across the face of the goal and to Liam Needham whose shot was well blocked.
Khan then curled an intelligent effort narrowly too high after excellent approach play by McDonagh and Danny Holland before the hosts came more into the game. Kevin Burgess planted a header straight at Jon Kennedy and long range strikes from Hopson and Matthew Waters sailed harmlessly off target.
But it was the Gladiators asking most of the leading questions and McDonagh struck when Khan brilliantly retrieved possession to feed the Northern Irishman who had the cheek and the confidence to weave past three Whitby defenders before shooting low past Shane Bland.
Matlock thoroughly deserved their lead although the last first half chance fell to Whitby as Waters powerful strike from twenty five yards was competently gathered by Kennedy.
The visitors looked comfortable as they attacked the Sea End in the second half, forcing an early corner when Whitby skipper Mark Robinson made the vital interception as Khan cut in menacingly from the right and passed towards an unmarked Niall McManus.
Then the diving Bland superbly tipped away a powerful low Khan effort bound for the bottom corner prior to Snaith’s two yellow card challenges on McDonagh and Muhammed Sabo.
Pell was one of three Whitby changes as they toiled for a point. Penalty appeals were rejected as Hopson went down in the box but Whitby were certainly now making a fight of it.
But Banton alongside Sabo won virtually everything and it looked as if Matlock would return home with a priceless victory.
Cribley’s 86th minute goal bound strike was headed away by Ibrahim Hassan, the Matlock midfielder also dragging a shot wide from the edge of the box. Shortly afterwards Khan drove too high when well placed before the late drama which meant Matlock had missed a real trick in their fight for survival.
On the evidence of this performance though, they should be good enough to win that battle, provided they can continue in the same vein. They must put those last few seconds behind them and be wise enough to accept a similar opportunity that is likely to come their way as the season reaches its climax.
Matlock: Kennedy, Black, Maxfield, Cribley, Sabo, Banton, Khan, Needham, McDonagh, Holland, McManus. Subs not used: Meade, Gaughan, Hume, Pugh.
Referee: Paul Newhouse (Peterlee).