Matlock Town’s 2-2 draw with Sutton Coldfield was marred by two brawls which saw two Sutton players and their manager red-carded.
The unsavoury first half double fracas delayed the game for a full 15 minutes and resulted in red cards for Luke Rodgers, unused substitute Stephen Palmer and manager Neil Tooth.
It was sparked after a challenge by Craig Nelthorpe out on the left touchline and then on the half way line. Rodgers then smacked Micky Harcourt after grabbing him in a headlock to cause more trouble.
Palmer then raced from the dug out to boot Nelthorpe as fans stared on in disbelief at what was unfolding before their eyes.
Tooth, having seen Rodgers and Palmer dismissed, then entered the field to verbally abuse referee Hristo Karaivanov, who was calmly dealing with the events beside his two assistants and even referee assessor Mick Eden, who was watching over the punishments stood beside the officials.
Tooth was apparently complaining that Matlock had emerged from the trouble without a red card, but Matlock players seemed intent on trying to calm proceedings down rather than ignite matters further. To keep warm they trained at the side of the pitch while Sutton argued on.
Nelthorpe and Harcourt were unfit to continue following blows to the head which proved to be detrimental to Matlock’s hopes as both would no doubt have played major roles as the game went on.
Matlock, with Niall McManus replacing Danny Holland in attack, made the perfect start with a goal inside four minutes.
It came from Harcourt’s penetrating through pass down the inside right channel, which was missed by two Sutton defenders and Purkiss made them pay by slamming a fierce shot past goalkeeper James Wren from fifteen yards.
The unease started when a strong but fair Adam Yates tackle saw Danny O’Callaghan limp off with a leg injury but his replacement, burly Josh McKenzie, caused Matlock all sorts of problems.
He was chief creator in the visitors’ 12th minute equaliser, bringing down a Jordan Goddard cross from the left to steer a pass to Rodgers who fired past George Willis from ten yards.
Prior to the trouble, good work from both Nelthorpe and Liam Needham gave McManus a shooting chance, Wren parrying the strike before the danger passed.
The delay and trouble was the last thing anyone wanted, particularly on a bitterly cold afternoon, and when the game resumed it turned into an entertaining affair.
Purkiss had a couple of chances to put Matlock back in front but the ten men of Sutton had a surprise for the Gladiators a minute before the half-time whistle.
A free-kick, 25 yards from goal saw debutant Ryan Edmunds curl a beautiful shot around the wall and just inside the post, Willis diving full length to his right but being beaten comprehensively.
Just two minutes after the resumption, Purkiss wildly blasted a great chance over the bar from 12 yards with all of the goal to aim at to waste a gilt edged chance of an early equaliser.
Soon afterwards he pushed a low Needham centre wide but the deserved leveller arrived in the 61st minute.
Substitute Scott Maxfield, doing much to organise Matlock on the field, acted as a decoy as Ben Algar left Kyle Bryant for dead in a fine run before delivering a peach of a cross which was headed in by skipper Ted Cribley.
Now the odds looked stacked firmly in Matlock’s favour with the pattern for the rest of the game being Matlock trying to batter down the Sutton defensive door but being unable to unlock it due to a faulty final pass or questionable decision making.
Joel Kettle was nearly red faced as he headed a Maxfield centre perilously close to his own goal the ball narrowly flashing wide but ironically it was the Royals who came closest to snatching all three points.
They broke at pace with McKenzie being a thorn in Matlock’s side. A Goddard free kick was superbly tipped over the bar by Willis who then excelled again with 20 minutes to go.
Algar, so dangerous going forward, had a rush of blood with an untidy tackle on McKenzie to concede a penalty but Willis saved his blushes with a terrific dive to his right to keep out Goddard;s spot kick.
Surprisingly McKenzie was replaced six minutes later, much to Matlock’s relief, and Matlock surged forward in search of a winner.
But Sutton stood firm despite two late chances for McManus, his first a goalbound shot from Maxfield’s cross being bravely and magnificently blocked by Kettle and the second, this time from another Algar centre ending with a tame header into Wren/s arms.
Calm was needed on a day when a lot of people lost their heads, and Laurie Wilson personified that to earn star status. As for Sutton Coldfield, their first league visit will be remembered for all of the wrong reasons and they must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for the trouble.
MATLOCK TOWN: 1 George Willis 2 Micky Harcourt (14 Liam Gaughan 25) 3 Ben Algar 4 Laurie Wilson 5 Adam Yates 6 Craig Nelthorpe (12 Scott Maxfield 23) 7 Ted Cribley 8 Liam Needham 9 Joel Purkiss 10 Niall McManus 11 Nicky Travis.
Other subs: 15 Mark Hume 16 Danny Holland 17 Ryan Pugh.
SUTTON COLDFIELD TOWN: 1 James Wren 2 Kyle Bryant 3 Nathan Jackson 4 Aaron Forde 5 Joel Kettle 6 Scott Lycett 7 Andre Gonzales 8 Jordan Goddard 9 Luke Rodgers 10 Danny O’Callaghan ( 16 Josh McKenzie 8 (12 Ramone Stephens 76) ) 11 Ryan Edmunds.
Other subs: 14 Stephen Palmer 15 James Beresford.
REFEREE: Hristo Karaivanov (Sutton-in-Ashfield).
BEST GLADIATOR: Laurie Wilson.