Having been outplayed in the opening half and relieved to be just two goals adrift at the interval, Matlock rallied in the second period to make the final scoreline closer than many expected at half time.
Ben Bailey and Francino Francis had scored for the Pitmen who spent most of the half giving the Gladiators a torrid time. An effort from Massiah McDonald lifted the hosts but the two goal lead was soon restored through Aaron Rey. Joe Leesley netted as the game reached stoppage time but it proved to be just a consolation.
Lewis McMahon and Leesley replaced Anthony Griffiths-Junior and Brad Grayson as manager Mark Atkins made two changes to his side which had won at Ilkeston at the weekend.
It soon became crystal clear that Matlock would have to ride their luck somewhat as well as stem the tidal wave of pressure if they were to extend their unbeaten run in league and cup to seven matches. The hosts had won their last four in the league but Hednesford showed they were fully intent on halting that run as they reacted positively following their 3-3 draw at lowly Stocksbridge when they were two goals ahead.
The visitors looked every bit title contenders as the Gladiators held on grimly in the opening exchanges. Hednesford hustled and bustled, showing immense hunger and energy which made Matlock’s passing ragged. Rey fired narrowly wide from eighteen yards in 2 minutes before Jon Kennedy had to backpedal to tip behind a cross from Elliott Durrell. James Lukic blocked a belter of a shot from Durrell and then a 10th minute surge from left back by skipper Darren Campion ended with his vicious shot thudding off the bar.
Rey forced Lukic to concede a corner three minutes later from which BAILEY flung himself at to head firmly in despite Micky Harcourt’s best attempts to clear.
Then came another blow for Matlock as Phil Roe limped off with a dead leg caused by a late challenge from Jamey Osbourne. Their other full back Harcourt was soon flat on the turf, but recovered after treatment.
Promising home moves fizzled out as goalkeeper Dan Crane plucked out Leesley’s cross and another centre, this time a low one from McDonald was hacked clear, but Matlock were conceding too many free kicks and causing themselves unnecessary problems with errors brought about by a mixture of carelessness and Hednesford tenacity.
A miscued back pass from Martin Foster had Kennedy in peril and Lukic was forced to scrape clear Sean O’Connor’s goalbound shot. Matlock’s reply was a determined break on the left but Mcmahon, off balance, saw his shot drift out for a throw! A good chance was then lost when Matlock gave the ball away cheaply in the Hednesford box .
When Gareth Davies stretched to foul Osbourne and was booked in the 40th minute, a second goal from a set piece followed as FRANCIS, a big brute of a centre back stretched to flick in the loose ball from four yards. Only a tremendously timed challenge on Durrell by substitute Laurence Gaughan stopped a third goal after a mistake from Yates, the half ending as it started with Rey firing goalwards and Kennedy this time diving to his left to save.
Matlock had a mountain to climb and the desperately needed early second half goal came in the 54th minute when a probing run by Leesley saw the ball fall to McDONALD whose first time shot brushed full back John Disney on its way into the net.
The chance was there for Matlock to kick on but another defensive lapse effectively cost them the game four minutes later. As they struggled to clear their lines, Kennedy was caught out of position after chasing a high ball and REY superbly clipped the ball home.
To their credit though the Gladiators persevered, their effort could not be questioned. Crane held a Harcourt free kick and alack of communication foiled some other attacks. Lukic’s free header from a free kick flew wide but the assistant had spotted an offside.
Hednesford’s title credentials were summed up as they could afford to have Barbadian international Neil Harvey and prolific former Nantwich goalscorer Michael Lennon on the bench. Both came on with Harvey turning neatly and chipping narrowly too high.
McDonald’s burst saw LEESLEY squeeze a low shot beyond Crane in the first minute of stoppage time but Hednesford kept Matlock at bay in the remaining three to gain a deserved win.
MATLOCK TOWN: Jon Kennedy, Micky Harcourt, Phil Roe (Laurence Gaughan 18), Martin Foster, Adam Yates, James Lukic, Joe Leesley, James Ashmore, Massiah McDonald, Lewis McMahon (Brad Grayson 79), Gareth Davies (Anthony Griffiths-Junior 64) Other subs: Liam Wilkin, Nick Buxton.
REFEREE: M Hutchinson–Bingham, Notts. ATTENDANCE: 253 STAR MAN: James Lukic.