It was a case of deja vu as Hitchin defeated St Albans 4-2 on penalties in the Hertfordshire Charity Cup after a 2-2 draw in normal time. Last season the Canaries had triumphed in the same way in the semi-final at Clarence Park.
The Canaries line-up was close to that which started against Wealdstone on Saturday with James Budden starting at the back in place of the absent Will Wright. Kavan Cotter was included on the bench, having played for Luton in the 2-2 draw at Top Field at the start of July.
Hitchin got off to a perfect start after just three minutes when Brooks got on the end of a Budden clearance. He forced Harold Joseph into a poor back pass which yielded a corner. The first ball was scrambled away but Jack Green was on hand to convert for Hitchin’s first competitive goal of the season.
Brooks continued his good form with a shot from the edge of the area that went over the bar before being involved in an incident that might have seen the visitors reduced to ten men. The striker ran clear of the defence and was brought down by last man Jack Saville. In keeping with the competition the referee was extremely charitable and did not show even a yellow card. Ben Walster’s free kick got no further than the defensive wall.
However the Canaries did not have to wait long for a second goal. Walster delivered a teasing cross which James Russell fumbled and Green was on hand again to double his, and the team’s, advantage on 14 minutes.
St Albans bounced back almost straightaway. On 17 minutes, Sam Merson teed up Zane Banton and his shot found the corner of the net from the edge of the area.
Saville tempted fate again with a crude challenge on Jay Dowie and Walster’s curling free kick was tipped away by Russell! At the other end, the referee extended his generosity to Hitchin as a clumsy foul by Dowie on Layne Eadie was unpunished by Mr Grimsey and by Charlie Walker, whose effort went wide. He also chose to warn Budden for a robust challenge rather than show a card.
Michael Johnson was called into action to save from Walker after he and Banton had linked up well. However, the Canaries more than matched their National League South opponents in terms of possession and chances, although it must be said that St Albans looked less menacing than Wealdstone had done a few days earlier.
Half time – Hitchin Town 2 St Albans City 1
St Albans looked to get back into the game but, while the visitors pressed, Hitchin broke well. Brooks ran at the St Albans defence before setting up substitute Connor Vincent for a shot that went for a corner. Then Green and Vincent attacked in tandem down the left but the midfielder chose to shoot rather than pass and Russell was able to prevent a hat-trick.
St Albans’ fortunes started to improve when Shaun Lucien came on for Eadie. The wide man forced a save from Johnson when he cut inside from the left and shot, before sending in a deflected free kick which Johnson did well to tip away.
Hitchin still had chances to extend their lead with Russell saving from Brooks after the striker got on the end of a neat build-up involving five players. The Canaries also went direct as Vincent brought two saves in rapid succession from Russell.
If Lucien’s arrival had given St Albans a fillip, the arrival of Rhys Murrell-Williamson for Walker yielded a tangible reward. The substitute’s first involvement was a dangerous cross that Johnson did well to punch away, while his second contribution was a shot that went just past the post.
On 79 minutes though the two substitutes combined to level the scores. Lucien got round the Hitchin defence and cut back from the left for Murrell-Williamson to slam the ball home for St Albans.
Both sides had half chances to clinch the match in normal time as Green nearly turned in a Vincent cross while Lucien fired into the side netting. However neither side could break the deadlock.
90 minutes – Hitchin Town 2 St Albans City 2
So, like last season, it came to a penalty shootout. Five of the first six penalties were successful – Rolfe, Walster and Brooks finished confidently but Banton’s effort for St Albans came off the outside of the post. Vincent’s effort was saved before Murrell-Williamson sent a very poor effort well wide. It took a moment to appreciate that the potentially decisive kick was going to be taken by Johnson but the keeper tucked his shot perfectly into the corner of the net to give victory to the Canaries.
Hitchin join Hemel Hempstead in the semi-finals of the Charity Cup, with two more quarter-finals yet to be played. More immediately they now have one final warm-up at Arlesey next Tuesday before league business begins at Merthyr on 12 August.
Penalty shootout – Hitchin Town 4 St Albans City 2
Hitchin Town – Johnson, Dowie, Walster, Rolfe, Budden, Webb, Clifton, Kirkpatrick, Bailey, Brooks, Green; subs – Vincent (for Bailey), Smith (for Kirkpatrick), C Donnelly, McCaffrey, Cotter (for Dowie)
St Albans City – Russell, Herd, Eadie, Gardiner, Joseph, Saville, Kiangebeni, Thomas, Walker, Merson, Banton; subs – Fry, Monlouis, Bender (for Gardiner), Murrell-Williamson (for Walker), Lucien (for Eadie)
Hitchin Town – Green (3, 14)
St Albans City – Banton (17), Murrell-Williamson (79)
Rolfe – scored Hitchin Town 1 St Albans City 0
Merson – scored 1-1
Walster – scored 2-1
Banton – missed 2-1
Brooks – scored 3-1
Lucien – scored 3-2
Vincent – saved 3-2
Murrell-Richardson – missed 3-2
Johnson – scored 4-2
Attendance – 254