Much has been written about the 300 Spartans that fought bravely against the forces of the Persian Empire, but the midweek game between Blyth Spartans and Matlock Town was a tale of one Spartan who held off an army of Gladiators.
Goalkeeper Adam McHugh produced a scintillating display to ensure Blyth’s trip to Matlock Town remained goalless.
Andrew Cartwright had already hacked one off the line before Nathan Buddle conceded a 39th minute penalty. McHugh employed mind games to put off Michael Williams before saving his resulting spot-kick.
That inspired a super-human performance from Spartans keeper as Blyth were able to thwart a dominant Matlock side from claiming all three points in their Evo-Stik Premier League clash.
Blyth boss Alun Armstrong opted for an unchanged starting line-up from that which devastated Mickleover Sports in the first half of Saturday’s 3-0 win, in the hope that history would repeat itself in this clash against Matlock.
Both sides started at a frantic pace but it was Matlock that had the first chance of the night.
Ted Cribley swung in a free kick from the left in the third minute, but Robert Dale rose up above the Matlock forwards and headed clear at the near post.
A set-piece presented Spartans with their first opportunity when they won a corner two minutes later. Matty Pattison put a ball in from the right and found Nathan Buddle in the middle. The 23-year-old got a header away under pressure but was unable to keep it on target.
If Blyth thought they had gone close to breaking the deadlock, then Matlock had almost started to celebrate in the tenth minute as Curtis Morrison got in down the right and placed his shot past McHugh. He had almost started to run off in celebration, but Andrew Cartwright booted the ball away with a goal-line clearance.
Cribley then cut out Buddle’s clearance on halfway and advanced into the Blyth half before opting to shoot from 30 yards, but his effort went well wide of the goal and out of the ground.
Blyth had the ball back up the other end in under a minute and were desperately unlucky not to test Phil Barnes in the Matlock goal. Luke Armstrong drilled a low cross into Sean Reid at the near post, but Reid misjudged the path of the ball and was unable to get a goalbound touch on the pass.
Matlock looked more than comfortable on home soil and were playing some fantastic football, to the point that they passed the ball all the way up the park to Morrison at the edge of the area. The pacy striker looked to put the cherry on top of Town’s tremendous passage of play, but his shot produced only a comfortable stop from McHugh.
While Matlock began to enjoy more of the possession as the game approached the half-hour mark, they were nearly caught out when Pattison looked to play in Armstrong. A timely interception went only as far as Reid, who fired wide from long-range.
Reid was then the intended target for Jarrett Rivers’ right-wing cross, when he drilled a ball in front of the forward. Despite his best efforts to power home a header, Reid was desperately unlucky not to meet the ball on the edge of the six-yard box.
Blyth thought their luck was in once more, when Buddle’s blasted clearance perfectly picked out Armstrong in the Matlock area. However, before the young forward could turn and shoot, the assistant had his flag raised for offside.
Next up was a superb dancing run down the wing by the left winger. While this is a familiar sight for Blyth fans with Dale, it was – in fact – Cribley who channelled his inner Spartans skipper.
Cribley shot straight at McHugh after going through the visiting side’s back line, forcing the keeper to spill his effort. Marc Newsham looked to profit from the loose ball but, luckily for Blyth, he was stood in an offside position.
Matlock began to crank up the pressure and looked to have been rewarded for their hard work when Morrison was hauled down by Buddle in the box – as Tom Kirk had no hesitation but to point to the spot six minutes before the break.
Michael Williams stepped up to take the penalty, but McHugh employed some mind games by moving the ball after it had been placed. The Spartans’ keeper had obviously got inside the head of Williams – as he dived well to his left to save his second penalty of the season and preserve his clean sheet.
If McHugh had thought his work for the half was done with that stop, then he was mistaken – as he was called into action again just two minutes later. A low cross from the left was fired first time towards goal by Niall McManus, but McHugh instinctively pulled off another spectacular save and allowed Spartans to go in level at half-time.
While it was all go at the end of the first half, the second period struggled to get going – as both sides were bogged down by a series of fouls inside the opening 10 minutes. However, there were then chances at both ends to suggest that this game was about to spring back into life.
Dale tried to pick out Armstrong with a fantastic lofted through ball, but the youngster was denied a run at goal because of a desperate defensive header by Dwayne Wiley.
Matlock then broke through Cribley, who raced onto Matthew Wade’s poor pass behind Cartwright. The ball made its way to Morrison, but he wasted the simplest of chances to convert – as Blyth received yet another let-off from Town’s forwards.
Blyth were on the back foot from another Matlock break on 68 minutes – as the hosts raced up the pitch from Rivers’ corner, despite the best efforts of Cartwright and Michael Liddle – as the former received a yellow card for his late challenge in the build-up.
The ball ended up with Morrison, who shot at goal from a tight angle across McHugh. The goalkeeper kept up his fantastic showing with a superb fingertip save to flick the ball away from its intended target.
Joe Doyle-Charles was next to go close for the home side, when he was picked out in the box by Cribley’s free-kick. The defender got his head to the ball, but was unable to get enough on it to really trouble McHugh.
While no problems were caused by that set-piece, Matlock once again thought they’d finally took the lead with 13 minutes to go. Nico de Girolamo met Cribley’s corner at the near post, but his header was punched off the line by the in-form McHugh.
It’s very rare that someone can run out of superlatives for a goalkeeper’s performance, but McHugh was trying his best to make that happen – as he kept Matlock at bay once more on 80 minutes. Cribley fired a fierce strike from 25 yards, but Spartans’ number one was able to tip it over with another great save.
With the game approaching the end, Matlock pushed the troops forward in hope of one final assault. However, McManus could only fire wide across goal with the game’s last chance.
Blyth dug in for a valuable point against a very disciplined Town side and they will no doubt take confidence from this, when they travel to Hednesford Town on Saturday.
Blyth Spartans: McHugh, Cartwright (Nicholson 70), Liddle, Buddle, Hutchinson, Wade, Rivers (Richardson 83), Pattison, Armstrong, Reid (Turnbull 59), Dale. Subs not used: Bell, Caines.