21/22 Season In Review by Matthew Rhodes
"We've not achieved anything; we've limped into the play-offs. We should at least have been playing at home but we've not done the job and we've been forced to go to Scarborough...if we have a 20 goal a season man, we win the league. We haven't got one and that's down to me".
Those were the words of Matlock Town manager, Paul Phillips, just 20 minutes after the Gladiators were beaten 2-1 away at Scarborough Athletic in the Northern Premier League Premier Division play-offs semi-final. It was a typically candid response from Phillips - and a brutally honest one too. Not for the first time this season, Phillips put blame on himself. He wears his heart on his sleeve and, by his own admittance, absolutely hates losing.
Just before the start of the season, Phillips said that the aim was to win promotion. As did Dave Wild, Matlock's assistant manager. Not many in the game shared this optimism. Quite a few neutrals had Matlock Town to finish where they usually do: mid-table obscurity or involved in a relegation scrap. Neither of these things happened though. From the final weekend of August onwards, the Gladiators were in the top five of the NPL Premier Division and going toe-to-toe with fierce local rivals Buxton and title favourites South Shields, who had the advantage of being the only full-time club in the division. As widely reported, Phillips secured Matlock's first play-offs place in the NPL Premier Division in 15 years. So is Phillips being too harsh on himself? They may not have won a trophy that the team that so desperately craved but has this still not been a great season for the club?
Let's have a breakdown of Matlock's 2021/22 season month-by-month:
Anticipation was high for the start of the 2021/22 campaign for a couple of reasons. Firstly, supporters of every club at this level of non-league football had not even witnessed a full season of football for two seasons. The prospect of finally seeing their club play a full season was already reason enough to arrive into August with plenty of high hopes. More specifically for Matlock though, their pre-season campaign saw an impressive eight wins from nine games. These included notable victories over the likes of Mansfield Town, Boston United and Derby County U23. The only pre-season game where the Gladiators didn't record a victory was the home match against Chesterfield where Matlock were beaten 3-1. While pre-season friendlies should always be taken with a slight pinch of salt, it was still certainly reason enough to feel encouraged going into the start of the proper season. The first day of the league season couldn't have gone much worse though. A strangely subdued and dire performance saw Matlock lose 2-0 at Ashton United on the opening day of the league campaign. Manager Paul Phillips could barely speak in his post-match interview. Phillips was extremely angry with his side's performance and was baffled by the similarities to Matlock's opening day of the league campaign from last season when a poor performance saw them lose 1-0 at Bamber Bridge. Phillips demanded an immediate response - and boy, did he get one! What followed was the springboard to Matlock's long-term push for the league title. A brace from Ross Hannah rolled back the years and gave the Gladiators three points in their very next game as they beat Basford United 2-1 at home in a much-improved performance. This was followed by a pleasing second half performance to see off Hyde United 2-1 at home thanks to goals from Reece Kendall and short-term loan signing Lirak Hasani. Matlock then went on to secure their first competitive away win of the season when they defeated Nantwich Town 1-0 thanks to another headed effort from Reece Kendall. Goals from Jesurun Uchegbulam and Callum Chippendale then earned the Gladiators a superb 2-0 victory at Cantilever Park to defeat Warrington Town on the road. With the Yellows widely regarded as strong promotion contenders, this game was the first real sign that Matlock genuinely were a force to be reckoned with for this season. The month ended in superb fashion with the Gladiators putting in a very strong performance to easily beat Gainsborough Trinity 3-0 at The Proctor Cars Stadium.
September started with probably Matlock's worst performance of the entire season. The Gladiators were embarrassed at home by lower-league local rivals Belper Town in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup. Matlock were beaten 3-0 and they honestly should have lost by more. It was an utterly woeful performance and a baffling one too, considering the fact it was a local derby, a four figure crowd were watching the game and it was at complete odds with how Matlock had performed in their previous five matches. Thankfully, a line was drawn from this game as Matlock came from behind to defeat Stalybridge Celtic at home 2-1 the following weekend. Three days later saw an astonishing game where Matlock defeated Witton Albion 9-0 at home in one of the most one-sided games of football you could ever wish to see. The win was so resounding that the Gladiators came within one goal of equalling their biggest victory in their history. Matlock would go on to lose 2-0 at Stafford Rangers but ended the month very strongly to put themselves in a superb position. In a highly entertaining game, Matlock beat Bamber Bridge 4-2 away from home and then beat Radcliffe 1-0 on the road in a much grittier encounter. Both games saw excellent performances and goals from short-term signing Jamie Cooke.
October began dramatically as Ioan Evans headed in a last-gasp injury-time winner for Matlock to claim a 1-0 victory over FC United of Manchester at The Proctor Cars Stadium and provide one of the most joyous and frenzied moments of the whole campaign. This was followed three days later by a 1-0 home victory over Mickleover where the Gladiators should have won by a far bigger margin. Manager Paul Phillips showed after this game just how high his standards are in the post-match interview. Phillips was scathing of his players for not finishing their chances despite the fact Matlock had won and were sitting pretty at the top of the NPL Premier Division. Lack of clinical finishing would, sadly, become a much more pressing issue in the final third of the season. Matlock would go on to lose 2-1 at Atherton Collieries where they went down to a controversial last minute penalty which left the manager absolutely fuming. The game was also notable for an outstanding goal from Callum Chippendale. The Gladiators returned to winning ways though just three days later when they beat relegation-doomed Grantham Town 3-1 on the road; however, once again, they should have won by a much bigger margin. The following Saturday saw Matlock's first real test of their title credentials: at home against title favourites South Shields. Unfortunately, despite a spirited final 25 minutes which almost saw an equaliser, Matlock were beaten 1-0. Paul Phillips felt that his side gave the Mariners far too much respect at the start of the game and paid the price for that. Yet again though, the month would end strongly. Goals from Liam Hughes and Reece Kendall gave the Gladiators all three points in a 2-0 victory on the road at Lancaster City which is always a tricky place to go to. October ended with a victory in the third and final qualifying round of the FA Trophy. The Gladiators knocked out AFC Rushden & Diamonds with a 2-1 home victory but were almost forced into a penalty shoot-out decider right at the end when the contest should have been over long before then. Alex Byrne's remarkable 35 yard chip in the second half to break the deadlock will surely have to go down as Matlock's goal of the season.
Matlock lost 3-2 at home against Whitby Town in an eventful league encounter. It would be one of the very few games this season that the defence and goalkeeper wasn't firing on all cylinders. All three goals conceded were poor and it was a very disappointing game to have not taken any points from. The following weekend saw the Gladiators breeze into the second round proper of the FA Trophy. The defence was back to its normal self and a killer instinct was shown in the final third during a very pleasing 4-0 victory away at Rushall Olympic. The longest away trip of Matlock's whole season was next on the agenda: a trip to Morpeth Town. With only one clear chance in the entire game, the match deserved to end as it did: a 0-0 draw. Morpeth Town had drastically improved though since their poor start to the campaign and this was actually a decent point to pick up for Matlock on their long travels. November ended with another victory in the FA Trophy. In a really entertaining game, Matlock knocked out Marske United with a 3-2 victory at The Proctor Cars Stadium to advance to the third round of the competition they won back in 1975. The third round draw set up a really intriguing cup tie for Paul Phillips's men: at home against National League North outfit York City.
The final month of 2021 started with a controversial defeat but the calendar year would end on a massive high and provide one of the best moments of the Gladiators campaign. On the 4th of December, Matlock lost 3-2 to Stafford Rangers at home. The Gladiators felt like they deserved to have taken at least a point from the game though as Ross Hannah's 'goal' with just a few minutes remaining was bizarrely ruled out for offside by the assistant referee. Players and staff were stunned by the decision at the time and video footage afterwards would demonstrate how poor the decision from the official was. Considering the Gladiators had twice taken the lead in this game, this was a really tough defeat to take. The boys in blue didn't feel sorry for themselves though. Next on the menu was an away trip to Stalybridge Celtic. Bower Fold hadn't been a happy hunting ground for Matlock for a number of years but an excellent second half performance saw them come out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Ryan Qualter and Jesurun Uchegbulam. One week later, Matlock were knocked out of the FA Trophy in heartbreaking fashion. The tie looked like it was going to have to be decided by a nail-biting penalty shoot-out but Mark Beck's dramatic goal in injury time secured the Minstermen's place in the next round of the competition. While it was a gutting manner to lose and the Gladiators were so close to pulling off a big cup upset, the defeat meant that Matlock could solely focus on the push for league promotion. On the 27th of December, one of the most hotly anticipated A6 derbies of all time took place at Causeway Lane. Incredibly, Buxton and Matlock Town occupied the top two spots in the NPL Premier Division going into this match. In front of an incredible crowd of just over 2,100, Buxton took the lead after around 28 minutes. Just a couple of minutes later though, James Hurst got himself needlessly sent off. The whole dynamic of the game changed drastically from then on and Matlock would go on to win a famous derby 2-1 thanks to second half goals from Ross Hannah and Reece Kendall. By beating their fiercest rivals at home, Matlock Town had ended 2021 at the top of the NPL Premier Division. Were the Gladiators really going to do it and secure promotion by winning the title itself?
There was certainly no new year hangover for the boys in blue with the Gladiators claiming ten out of a possible 12 points in the first month of 2022. January started off with a very entertaining and eventful 3-2 win away at Hyde United in freezing conditions, which saw Matlock come from behind to take all three points. Another three points on the road followed at struggling Witton Albion although the Gladiators were well below par over the whole 90 minutes and had to soak up a lot of late pressure from Witton to cling onto victory. Matlock then went toe to toe with Jonathan Greening's Scarborough Athletic at Causeway Lane. Despite ending as a goalless draw, the game was a good watch and Scarborough played some of the best football seen of the season so far. January ended with yet another first versus second battle in the league: this time it was at home against fellow surprise promotion contenders Bamber Bridge. The Gladiators capped off an excellent month with an excellent 2-1 victory to extend their stay at the top of the league. It was a carnival atmosphere at the stadium and in the clubhouse straight after this game. It looked like the Gladiators just couldn't be stopped...
For me, Matlock's season can be split into two parts. The first part ended with those jubilant celebrations at Causeway Lane following the huge Bamber Bridge victory. The second part started as soon as the whistle was blown at the start of the home game against Lancaster City on the 5th of February. It was an awful game with barely any chances of any nature. Despite the turgid performance, it looked at least that Matlock would still claim a point but a goal for the Dolly Blues with virtually the last kick of the game to seal a 1-0 defeat for the Gladiators was an absolute sickener. It was a very strange performance considering the scenes of the previous game. Was this just a little blip? One of those games? Did it just require a good kick up the backside from the gaffer? What followed would be an immensely tough final part of the season where the goals in the final third dried up dramatically and alarmingly. Strong criticism would also come from some fans - saying that the Gladiators had lost their swagger and were becoming far too direct and predictable in their approach when in possession. A huge chance to make amends for the Lancaster game arrived just three days later with a home match against relegation-doomed Grantham. However, it was another strange and subdued performance overall. The game ended as a very frustrating 0-0 draw. Next up was an away trip to Whitby Town. In arguably the worst weather conditions I've ever watched a match completed in, Matlock gained a creditable 2-2 draw in extremely cold and windy conditions which must have frozen the bones of everyone in the stadium. While Matlock still weren't firing on all cylinders, it was certainly an improved performance from the previous two games. Matlock would then go on to be outplayed by title favourites South Shields at The 1st Cloud Arena in a rearranged Tuesday night match which was still played in front of an enormous crowd of over 2.600. The month would end with an injury-time equaliser to claim a 1-1 draw at FC United of Manchester in an extremely feisty game. Despite a very below-par month, Matlock were still well in contention for the title. All they needed to do was just rediscover that goalscoring touch in the final third of the pitch for the final third of the season...
March began with a much-needed 2-1 victory at Gainsborough Trinity. With the Gladiators also fighting back from a goal down to win this game, it looked as if this would be the game that would restore momentum and resume Matlock's sensational title challenge. Sadly, this did not prove to be the case as Matlock's lack of a clinical goal scorer only became more apparent, particularly at home. Matlock threw away good early chances to only draw 1-1 at home against Ashton United and this was followed by a draining 1-0 defeat at home against Atherton Collieries where Paul Phillips said he paid the price for "over-committing" and having too many forwards on at the end in a desperate attempt to drag the ball over the line and stay in the title race. With Matlock desperate for some late inspiration from somewhere up front, the Colls went up the other end and scored in injury time to win an awful match 1-0. Hopes were high that a Derbyshire derby away at Mickleover would provide the venue for a morale-boosting game up front but a deeply disappointing performance saw Matlock lose 2-1. Matlock's goal only came from the Mickleover goalkeeper slapping the ball into his own net. Criticism intensified from some fans; some were very unhappy at what they saw as unnecessary long-ball tactics and an approach that was far too direct. Manager Paul Phillips stated that his team just weren't playing on the front foot anymore and not being willing enough to win the second balls. He very openly agreed that the performances up front were simply "not good enough." An improved performance followed in a very tricky away match at Scarborough Athletic where both sides cancelled each other out in a 0-0 draw. Matlock couldn't build on this though and could only draw 0-0 once again three days later at home against Radcliffe. With the title race now all but gone and being fought out between Buxton and South Shields, the question now was could Matlock Town recover enough form in April to avoid falling out of the play-off places altogether?
Lack of goals was now becoming a huge concern with the finish line in sight. April started with yet another 0-0 draw; this time at home against Morpeth Town. Chances were created at least but Matlock still weren't taking them. At this stage of the season, the defence were simply phenomenal and had gone up yet another level. Whatever tweak of the shape or change of selection Paul Phillips went with though, it didn't seem to change the fortunes in the attack. The next game away at Basford United was absolutely crucial with both teams desperately struggling to score in recent matches. After 371 minutes of game time without a goal being scored by any team in a match involving Matlock Town, Jesurun Uchegbulam ended the goal drought in style with a fantastic run and strike to help Matlock defeat Basford 1-0 at Greenwich Avenue with a goal in the 81st minute. It was by no means a pretty game but the win was all that mattered. The celebrations for the end of the goal drought proved to be one of the most joyous moments of the season for the travelling Matlock supporters. Incredibly, the next game at home against Nantwich Town was another 0-0 draw; Matlock's fourth goalless draw in their last five games. How it ended 0-0 was anyone's guess as Matlock squandered some huge chances to break the deadlock in the game. At this stage, manager Paul Phillips said that there wasn't really anything more that he or the management could do in terms of getting the team to put the ball in the net. Matlock's hopes of finally securing a play-offs place would have to go to a nerve-shredding final day after they were defeated 1-0 by their fierce local rivals Buxton at The Tarmac Silverlands Stadium. A last gasp header from skipper Liam Hughes in injury time almost changed everything. However, his header from a corner missed the target by mere inches. This meant that not only had Matlock still not secured a play-offs place but Buxton had also all but secured the NPL Premier Division league title by beating their biggest rivals. A few days later, Matlock were officially deducted one point for fielding an ineligible player for two games earlier on in the season which did not help matters. On a nerve-jangling final day, it finally all came together in an electric atmosphere at Causeway Lane. A stupendous debut goal from Benito Lowe and an 89th minute goal from Alex Byrne secured a 2-0 victory for the Gladiators at home against Warrington Town. The victory meant that the Gladiators finished the 2021/22 season in fourth position in the league table. Their reward: a one-legged play-off semi-final at third-placed Scarborough Athletic. After a very open and engaging first half from both teams, Matlock were outclassed by the Seadogs in the second 45 minutes. In the end, the pressure became too much and the Gladiators conceded two excellent goals in the 74th and 83rd minutes of the game. Liam Hughes bundled home a header deep into injury-time but it was too late: Matlock lost 2-1 to Scarborough and the battle for promotion was sadly over after a valiant and hard-fought effort.
There can't be any debate that Matlock's strongest area of the pitch was their defence. Ryan Qualter was absolutely outstanding throughout the campaign. His aerial abilities, his tackling and his leadership skills have all been exemplary. For me, Qualter was Matlock Town's best player of the 2021/22 campaign. None of the defenders performed badly though and this cannot be emphasised enough. Ioan Evans was an inspired replacement for Sam Egerton early on in the season. Egerton was an excellent centre-half, so it was gutting to see him depart the Gladiators so early on in the season. Phillips couldn't really have brought in a better like-for-like replacement though. Evans often went under the radar but the Welshman had an excellent 2021/22 campaign. Reece Kendall is a bit of a revelation. Over the season as a whole, Kendall's contributions have been superb. His inclusion in the England C stand-by squad this season is testament to that. Jamie Sharman has also had a solid season and did well to recover so quickly from his facial injury which kept him on the sidelines for a while. The return of Adam Yates from retirement has been nothing short of extraordinary. After offering his services once again to help out the team following an injury crisis in defence, Yates ended up being a key figure for the Gladiators in the final few games of the season. He looked like he'd barely missed a beat and his performances were sensational considering his boots were already hung up at the start of this campaign.
In between the sticks, Shaun Rowley was excellent until his long-term injury occurred. Hopefully, Rowley will appear for Matlock again sooner rather than later. Joe Young, who was brought in on loan by Paul Phillips from Wolverhampton Wanderers, was outstanding for the Gladiators. It's not just his shot-stopping abilities that sets him apart. His anticipation, his pace off the line, his decision making: all sublime. He has a huge future ahead of him and I'll be eagerly looking to see how his career progresses now that he has returned to Wolves. A special mention must also be given to Paul Cooper, who deputised for a few games and grabbed some important clean sheets. He did a solid job. His command of his area definitely needs to improve but there is certainly potential there.
Every midfield needs a Mark Lees. I think I'm right in saying that Lees did not miss a single game this season. His efforts were tireless and as Dave Wild puts it, he is the glue that keeps the team together. His leadership skills are also excellent and I'd be amazed if Lees doesn't end up becoming a manager once his playing days are over. Callum Chippendale and Alex Wiles both performed very well and worked extremely hard; it's just a shame that they couldn't be fully fit for the whole campaign. It would be nice if they could just add a few more goals to their gameplay too! Alex Byrne was simply untouchable in the first half of the season. The amount of assists he'd produced by the time January had come around was extraordinary and he was also the club's top goal scorer this season. The second half of the season was a tough one. With Matlock really struggling to get in the right areas in the final third as the season wore on, one had to feel sorry for Byrne when, time and again, excellent deliveries into the box would only be headed away from the opposition.
Liam Hughes worked his socks off for the Gladiators this season and is clearly very proud of being the club's captain. I feel like due to his playing style, Hughes was often used as a scapegoat by some supporters when things weren't going well. This was sad to see as Hughes always did a great job in holding the ball up but quite often there was no other Matlock player ready to meet the flick-on or to win the second ball. Hughes plays a huge role in how Paul Phillips approaches games and had a big part to play in Matlock's excellent start to the season. Hughes picked up 12 goals this season but will know he could have scored a fair few more. It was a tough old season for Ross Hannah who only scored four times this season.I feel like his two (extremely harsh) suspensions so early on in the campaign really disrupted his rhythm and it took him a while to get back to where he wanted to be. He would have been absolutely gutted as well to have not started many games in the final quarter of Matlock's season. Finally, the man, the myth, the legend: Jesurun Uchegbulam. There is no question how brilliant this young man can be. You just wish he showed it more consistently. He's produced some fine moments this season and grabbed nine goals to his name but the potential is enormous. Whether he meets it all depends on one person: himself. Hopefully, as Uchegbulam keeps maturing, his consistency will improve. It will be very interesting to see how the fans favourite gets on next season. Every Matlock supporter will be willing him on and rooting for him.
So, has this been a successful season for Matlock Town? In my opinion, yes. Emphatically so. I know the management staff won't think so because no trophies were won; but for me, success doesn't automatically mean a trophy being lifted.
A first play-offs place in 15 years is the obvious landmark for why many will argue that this has been a great season for the Gladiators. While definitely significant, for me, the fan engagement with the club is the reason why this has been a very successful season for Matlock Town. The first for many a year, I will add too. The atmosphere at The Proctor Cars Stadium after the victories against Buxton, Bamber Bridge and Warrington Town were the clearest examples of a successful season for the Gladiators. The crowd numbers were great and everyone was hugely involved with supporting the club. It showed a fan base that's now really engaged with the club and the community. After the two null and voided seasons that we've experienced at this level of football, this was the best result of all for the 2021/22 season.
The other reason why I think this season has been a big success for the Gladiators is that it has set the foundations for an amazing 2022/23 campaign. We all know what Matlock are missing: a clinical centre-forward. If Paul Phillips can find this holy grail in the coming summer, then the Gladiators have a great chance of finishing in the top five again next season. Lots of the Gladiators players share Paul Phillips's vision for the club; because of that, I think the vast majority of the players that Phillips wants to keep will stay at the club for next season. The club is in very good hands and there is a huge amount to be excited about for the club's prospects next season. The club are forming an identity now - it's not just little old Matlock Town any more.
Manager Paul Phillips had this to say in a raw, emotional interview straight after the play-offs semi-final defeat at Scarborough Athletic:
"It can go one of two ways: we can come back stronger and go again or we can go into the new season with a hangover. I know which way I want to go. I don't want this season to be a flash in the pan and fall back to where we were".