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Thetford Town player-manager Matt Morton reflects on Step 4/5 inter-step play-off defeat at Barton Rovers and missing out on promotion this season

Matt Morton says he will use Thetford Town’s Step 4/5 inter-step play-off defeat as fuel to ignite another push for promotion next season.

After finishing runners-up in the Thurlow Nunn League Premier Division, the joint-best finish in the club’s history, Thetford’s hopes of a promotion to Step 4 for the first time rested on Saturday’s clash at higher-league Barton Rovers.

A 2-0 defeat in the play-off game at Sharpenhoe Road meant the Brecklanders missed out on a move up the Non-League pyramid, while Barton preserved their status in the Pitching In Southern League Division One Central.

Thetford Town player-manager Matt Morton Picture: Mecha Morton
Thetford Town player-manager Matt Morton Picture: Mecha Morton

Thetford player-boss Morton now wants to use the disappointment of the weekend’s result to spur the club on for another tilt at promotion in 2023/24.

“All we can do now is remember what we’ve done and get over the disappointment and rebuild for next season,” he said.

“One of two things can happen now. We can build and go again and challenge for the title next year, which won’t be easy as other people will strengthen as well.

“Or we can throw in the towel and say it was great while it lasted. My job (as manager) is to get the players we’ve got to still want to be here and go again and then add one or two to make sure it’s something that’s achievable.

“I think that’s all you can do. In my time in management and as a player disappointment hurts, but I wouldn’t have won as many other things if I’d have allowed those disappointments to stop me.

“You look at Gym United’s history and in the National Cup we lost to Wolverhampton (Casuals) in the last 16 one year.

“We could have said that’s wonderful, we're in the top 16 clubs in the country, but we didn’t.

“We said with one or two we can do better and we went on next year and got to the final, losing after 127 minutes against the best team I’ve probably ever played football against.

“That’s what we’ve got to do here at Thetford. We’ve got to use this as fuel to go again and it will be a travesty if what we’ve built over the last two years we let go to waste.”

Morton finished Saturday’s play-off at Barton watching on from in the stand, having been shown two yellow cards midway through the second half.

After a goalless first half which had seen both sides hit the frame of the opposition’s goal, as well as Thetford’s 35-goal striker Dan Gilchrist being denied by goalkeeper Matt Boylan, it was Rovers who struck first with a moment of real quality.

Ashton Grant’s fine volley from outside the box, just five minutes into the second half, put the Step 4 hosts in front.

Kieran Gauthier made it 2-0 with a header from a corner on 76 minutes, by which point Thetford had been reduced to 10 men following Morton’s departure six minutes earlier.

The player-boss cut a frustrated figure at the full-time whistle as he felt his dismissal was an error of judgment by the officials that seriously hampered his side’s chances of victory.

“The most overriding feeling I have is anger, if I’m honest,” Morton said. “I just think the decisions that have gone against us are so pivotal and scandalous in such massive games.

“One of them (against Ipswich Wanderers) swung the title race and the second one has just killed promotion for us.

“As well as being angry I’m devastated for the players and the committee and the chairman and the fans who have supported us and worked so hard.

“We’ve assembled the best team I think that the football club has had, and that’s by the omission of fans that have been following for 50 years.

“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s why we love the sport. One minute it’s ecstasy and the next minute it’s agony and today is a moment of agony.”

While a memorable season has ended without promotion for Thetford, Morton will now look to use their 2022/23 campaign as a stepping stone towards greater success and looks at the recent rise of Ipswich Wanderers and Stowmarket Town as examples to follow.

“I want to say thank you to supporters,” Morton said. “I think they’re brilliant and come rain or shine, good result or bad result, they’re always with us and clapping us off, mainly because they know the effort’s there.

“They’re fantastic and you can’t fault them. The numbers have grown and they’re coming because they’re loving what they’re seeing, and we’re loving what they’re giving us.

“Hopefully that continues and we can grow again. You’ve only got to look at certain other clubs like Ipswich Wanderers.

“You look at the gates they used to get and now when we played them there was 501 people there. It makes a difference, they get behind the team and they make it difficult for the opposition and it’s great to see.

“You compare Stowmarket to when I started playing football and to where they are now and it’s ridiculous.

“They were barely playing in the First Division (of the Thurlow Nunn League) and now they’re playing at Step 4, holding their own, and took Needham Market to a shootout (on Friday in the Suffolk Premier Cup final).

“They’re getting 300 to 400 fans every week and that’s there for Thetford. It’s a sleeping giant and we’ll continue with the project. It’s very difficult to go and abandon it like this.”