Matlock suffered their first competitive defeat of the season against a good and well-drilled South Shields at the Proctor Cars Stadium on Saturday.
It was a deserved win for the visitors who served a timely reminder on the early leading clubs to say emphatically “Don’t rule us out yet.”
After a scoreless first half in which Shields posed the greater threat, the Mariners wasted little time in taking the lead through captain Jon Shaw. With Matlock on the ropes they delivered what turned out to be the knockout blow 12 minutes afterwards, Robert Briggs netting from the spot after Dwayne Wiley tangled with Adam Thurston.
Marcus Marshall halved the deficit with 15 minutes to go as at last, Matlock found their feet, having fluffed their lines earlier. They surged forward in search of an equaliser being always susceptible to a Shields break.
The damage though had been done and Kittrick had no complaints with the outcome.
“South Shields were the better side, five or six of my players were out of sorts,” Kittrick conceded.
Against a side of the calibre of South Shields that is something you simply cannot afford.
Matlock recalled Wiley, playing with a special cast over his broken hand, in place of Adam Yates and Scott Smith, his loan having been extended by Guiseley, with Piteu Crouz joining Yates on the bench alongside new signing Bailey Gooda.
Shields, surprisingly beaten at Colne in a midweek FA Cup replay, were quickly out of the blocks. Jason Gilchrist lifted a second minute lob over the advancing Jon Stewart which dropped inches wide. They were the sharper side and they extended Stewart in the 19th minute, Gary Brown’s powerful header from a Josh Gillies corner being superbly beaten away.
Matlock had some relief when Dan Bramall, again looking lively on the left, was brought down and his free kick dropped narrowly wide. A Jordan Sinnott free kick from a similar 25 yards distance suffered the same fate.
Shields might have gone in front as half time approached, Shaw driving wide after being set up by Gilchrist before Gilchrist volleyed over after Stewart scrambled to keep out Dillon Morse’s header.
But those missed chances were forgotten by the travelling faithful who were soon celebrating a goal after the interval.
A couple of tame headers by Matlock defenders saw a cross from the right cleared only as far as Shaw on the edge of the penalty box and the volley was crisp and true, Stewart being comfortably beaten by the pace of the shot.
There followed a period of Shields dominance as Matlock struggled to make any impact and the Mariners doubled their lead when Thurston drew a challenge from Wiley to earn a penalty, Wiley claiming otherwise, but Briggs stepped up to fire low past Stewart and a repeat of the 3-0 win Shields got at Matlock exactly 12 months ago looked to be on the cards.
Kittrick made a couple of changes, bringing on Luke Hinsley and Andrew Wright for Sinnott and Spencer Harris and there was a marked improvement from Matlock.
The balance of power changed, now Matlock were posing a more potent threat although Shields looked menacing on the break.
A Bramall effort was deflected behind before Marshall finished off an excellent move, Bramall feeding the overlapping Ben Gordon on the left whose low cross was superbly controlled by the scorer, the net rippling thanks to a shot smashed in on the turn with aplomb.
Shaw shot wide of the far post and substitute Lee Mason also fired off target but most of the play was now in Shields’ territory.
A Hinsley header lacked power and was comfortably gathered by Myles Bony before in stoppage time there was nearly an unlikely goalscoring hero for the Gladiators.
A corner from the left dropped invitingly to Stewart who had ventured forward in a last gasp attempt to salvage a point. But hero status would have to wait for Stewart, who off balance, skied his shot high and wide from 12 yards when well placed.
That would have been the dream ending as far as the hosts were concerned, but they had been second best for 70 minutes.
Now they need to bounce back, having dropped from second to fifth, learn from the experience and make progress in the FA Cup against Kidsgrove on Saturday.
MATLOCK TOWN: 1 Jon Stewart 2 Josh Lacey 3 Ben Gordon 4 Jack Rea 5 James Williamson 6 Dwayne Wiley 7 Scott Smith (14 Piteu Crouz 79) 8 Spencer Harris (12 Andrew Wright 66) 9 Marcus Marshall 10 Jordan Sinnott (15 Luke Hinsley 66) 11 Dan Bramall Other subs: 16 Adam Yates 17 Bailey Gooda
SOUTH SHIELDS: 1 Myles Bony 2 Jordan Hunter 3 Blair Adams 4 Phil Turnbull 5 Dillon Morse 6 Gary Brown 7 Adam Thurston 8 Robert Briggs (12 Craig Baxter 83) 9 Jason Gilchrist (17 Jordan Annear 64) 10 Josh Gillies (16 Lee Mason 64) 11 Jon Shaw Other subs:14 Kieran Charlton 15 Millenic Ali
REFEREE: Richard Eley (Derby)
BEST GLADIATOR: Dan Bramall