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1994-95: Clouds of glory
 What next for Hitchin? That was the question being asked by the Top Field faithful as they looked back on two enjoyable seasons

After a  promotion and consolidation in the Isthmian Premier, the Canaries would go on to claim national headlines the FA Cup. But the summer of 1994 was a little uneasy for the club. Steve Conroy, leading scorer in 1993-94, had defected to Stevenage, and the influential Rob Johnson – about to embark on a career in physiopherapy – left to join his home town club, Bedford.

Andy Melvin brought in Ian Rutherford, an honest forward with an average goalscoring record, and the veteran midfielder Stefan Emmanuel. Both struggled to fill the boots of Conroy and Johnson. To make matters worse for Melvin, the experimental “kick-in”, replacing throw-ins, was being tested by the Isthmian League. Melvin was among the fiercest critics of the experiment and his mood seemed to affect the Hitchin team.

Hitchin were held on the opening day by Kingstonian at Top Field and a couple of days later, an accomplished performance at Purfleet, highlighted with some fine goals from Ian Scott and Shaun Marshall. But then, for a period lasting some months, the league programme seemed to bypass Hitchin. The team looked to lack fitness and passion and the crowd was getting restless. Furthermore, the team’s discipline was found wanting – Steve Miller, Paul Price and Gary Williams were all sent off in the first half dozen league games.

The FA Cup offered some respite, but there were some sticky moments in the first qualifying round tie at Newmarket, the bloodstock capital of Britain. The Eastern Counties League side led 1-0 but goals from Tony Caines and Mark McGonagle gave Hitchin  a 2-1 win. The winning goal was scarcely a classic and may have been stopped by the Newmarket keeper if the rutted surface had not deceived him. “You lucky buggers,” he said as the final whistle was blown. McGonagle didn’t see the en d of the game having been sent off and it was almost his last contribution of the season as he seemed to drift out of contention.

The next round was dramatic. With barely a minute remaining against Tiptree United, Hitchin were 1-3 down at Top Field. The home fans were streaming out of the ground, assuming the cup run was over. “I was ready to throw the towel in, give someone else a chance to run the team,” said Andy Melvin. But then, the game – and possibly Hitchin’s season – changed. Gary Williams pulled one back in the 90th minute, but it was still seen as nothing more than consolation. Hitchin dashed forward again and Gavin Covington raced down the flank, crossing for Williams who bravely dived amongst a sea of torsos to equalise. Cometh the man, cometh the hour! 3-3.

The replay was not quite a formality, but it was certainly comfortable for Hitchin, running out 4-2 winners among the allotments and cottage gardens than fringed Tiptree’s ground.

When the pre-drawn FA Cup draw was made in the summer, it looked as though Hitchin would meet Stevenage in the third qualifying round, but Cambridge City surprisingly won 2-0 at Broadhall Way. It set up another exciting tie with Williams coming to the rescue again, making the score 3-3 with just second remaining. The replay was even more compelling, with Marshall scoring two sublime goals and Paul Price, a former FA Cup winner, heading the winner to send Hitchin through to the fourth qualifying round by a 3-2 scoreline.

Hitchin’s FA Cup journey took them to Burton Albion with a place in the first round proper at stake. This was one of the great Hitchin away performances, against a team that was riding high in the Southern League Premier. Shaun Marshall tormented the Burton back-line and in the 32nd minute, scored the sort of goal that was becoming his trademark in 1994-95. Hitchin held on to win 1-0, thanks to a superb defensive display and Marshall’s virtuosity to secure a first round place for the first time since 1978. The draw for the first round paired Hitchin with Football League Division Three side Hereford United.

League form continued to be erratic but by now, Hitchin had their minds of other things. The game at Hereford captured the imagination of the public and some people felt this may be the Canaries best ever chance of claiming a scalp. Hereford were, after all, scrambling around the foothills of the Football League.

On Saturday November12 1994, a damp morning, the Hitchin party left for Hereford. The team and officials stopped for lunch at Ross-on-Wye and were treated like minor celebrities. When the floodlights came into view, the buzz on the coach became a noticeable silence. If there were pre-match nerves, it did not show in the game, for Hitchin played with tremendous spirit at Edgar Street and two moments of brilliance by Marshall – in the 29th and 43rd minute – gave Melvin’s side a 2-0 lead.  Hitchin’s fans, massed behind the goal, some 500 strong, could not believe their luck. But the second half saw shell-shocked Hereford come out fighting and by the 58th minute, they had made it 2-2. In fact, they may have won the tie had the woodwork not intervened. By the final whistle, the Canaries were hanging on. The replay would create history.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to know Hitchin Town. There was strong demand for tickets and the TV cameras were at Top Field to record a memorable night. Hereford silenced the majority of the 3,098 crowd when they went a goal ahead with a soft header from Steve White. Jon Bone equalised in the 18th minute and the visitors received another blow when Richard Wilkins was sent off. Again, Hereford took the lead, though when Pick headed past Sylvester. After 53 minutes, it all-square again, Williams shooting home from Ian Scott’s perfectly placed through-ball. Micky Wilson gave Hitchin the lead after 62 minutes, a shot from the edge of the area. It was left to Marshall – who else? – to clinch a famous win, running through to shoot home as the crowd invaded the pitch and red flares were lighting up the sky and shrouding Top Field in smoke. As the people ran on, referee Graham Poll took the teams off but in the process, he had blown the whistle to end the game. So 4-2 to Hitchin, the club’s first FA Cup giant-killing.

Hitchin would find Wycombe Wanderers, managed by Martin O’Neill, a tougher nut to crack. In fact, the Canaries’ round two opponents punished their Isthmian League hosts by 5-0. Simon Garner, a veteran goal-poacher, scored a hat-trick in front of the BBC Match of the Day cameras. “We were terrified of this game,” said O’Neill. “This could have been a very tricky tie.” It wasn’t – but Hitchin had already had their moment in the sun.

 Back to the league, Hitchin strengthened their side in the second half of the season with the acquisition of Richard Wilmot, from Halifax, ex-Luton and Colchester centre half Tim Allpress, and former Northampton full back Ken Gillard. Hitchin lost twice in their last 12 games and after their cup exploits, had the confidence to climb the table. By the time the final game came, a win at Yeading would give them a top five finish. Ian Rutherford’s goal did just that.

It had been a marvellous season – never-to-be-forgotten cup ties, national recognition, the goalscoring exploits of Marshall (pictured left against Wycombe) – 43 goals in all competitions – and a team that could arguably go on to claim its place among the club’s finest. If only it was that simple...

BBC TV Match of the Day was present at Top Field for the Wycombe game. Here's Clive Tyldesley's' commentary fact sheet for the game.

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