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Leamington 1 Hitchin Town 2

Saturday, December 3 2016

This was another superb performance from Hitchin as they deservedly became the first team to win a league game at top of the table Leamington who had previously won eight and drawn two. But in truth Hitchin deserved to win by a bigger margin and it was only after they were reduced to ten men that they came under pressure and a nerve wracking eight minutes and eight seconds of stoppage time really tested their resolve. Having also won at previously unbeaten Slough, no one can doubt Hitchin are in third position on merit and the team showed a great togetherness and camaraderie throughout.

Manager Mark Burke had to miss the game through a long standing family commitment but together with assistant Adam Parker and coach Steve Conroy had set out the tactical plan at Thursdays training session. It led to Hitchin adopting a third formation in three games. At Burgess Hill it was 3-5-2 and against Hayes and Yeading it was 4-2-3-1. But for Leamington it was 4-4-2 with Kane Smith going to right back and Will Wright dropping to the bench. Michael Johnson returned in goal while in midfield Josh Bickerstaff did the holding role with Callum Donnelly playing a more advanced central role. Robbie Burns and Lucas Kirkpatrick were playing wide with Brett Donnelly and Liam Brooks up front. The system worked really well and as ever Hitchin worked their socks off pressing Leamington throughout.

It was an incident packed game and referee Mr Hardisty was a central figure as he struggled to cope and made a number of poor decisions. However the early part of the game was fairly even and, after a booking for Jamie Hood, Leamington had the first chance as Michael Johnson saved with his legs from Ryan Rowe. Hitchin were defending well and after 25 minutes started to dominate the game. The first goal arrived after 30 minutes and Smith produced an excellent chance that Brett Donnelly met with a thumping header. He was harshly booked for celebrating the goal over exuberantly as he never left the pitch. Brett became the villain for the Leamington crowd but he gave the Leamington defence a torrid time with a good display of old fashioned centre forward play while never getting a break from the referee.

Up to half time Hitchin could easily have increased their lead. Ben Walster smashed a free kick that Tony Breeden tipped over the bar before Brooks was desperately unlucky with a header that hit the bar after a free kick with Brett’s follow up shot blocked. Burns then had a shot saved as Hitchin really turned on the style but the lead was only 1-0 at half time.

Leamington came out forcefully in the second half with Smith making a great block after 59 minutes but a very good move saw Hitchin go two goals up five minutes later. Excellent work from Burns set up Callum Donnelly to play in his brother Brett who finished with aplomb. Hitchin wanted more goals and Walster unleashed a carbon copy of his first half free kick which Breeden again pushed over the bar before Burns had a shot cleared off the line as Hitchin remained in control.

But in the 75th minute the referee harshly showed Brett a second yellow card. There was certainly no intent as he accidentally made contact with Jamie Hood. The player went down in such a way as to incite a crowd reaction and Mr Hardisty, who had penalised Brett at every opportunity, reached for his cards. Brett deserved better after a wholly committed performance but to make matters worse Leamington scored from the resulting free kick with Courtney Baker-Richardson heading home. 

Matt Lench replaced the injured Callum Donnelly and Michael King replaced Brooks as the last period saw Leamington throw the kitchen sink at Hitchin. There were some inspired clearances and blocks as Hitchin defended with their typical resilience and Dan Webb and Lewis Rolfe are proving a real barrier for opposition teams. Goalkeeper Breeden joined the attack and headed a corner narrowly wide after 96 minutes. It would have been a travesty had Leamington equalised and Hitchin hearts dropped  as a minimum of seven minutes injury time was indicated. Mr Hardisty gave a corner after a Leamington forward clearly headed over the bar and he ended up playing eight minutes and eight seconds of stoppage time as he continued to exasperate the Hitchin players.

The final whistle saw great celebrations and with the players having their Christmas night out in Birmingham later on it was the perfect start to their evening. It was a real team performance and if fans wondered how Hitchin would react when they lost their long unbeaten run at Chesham three emphatic victories have provided the answer. Their flexibility in adapting to different formations and squad rotation has been seamless and underpinning everything is the work ethic that sees Hitchin as one of the hardest working teams in the league.

Teams
Leamington - Breeden, George, Gudger, Gittings, Hood, Mace, Baker-Richardson, Edwards, Rowe, Thompson-Brown, Obeng  Subs Magunda for Rowe 68, James, Olukanmi for Gittings 76, Quinn, Taundry for George 68
Hitchin Town - Johnson, Smith, Walster, Bickerstaff, Webb, Rolfe, Brooks, C Donnelly, B Donnelly, Burns, Kirkpatrick  Subs Wright, Lench for C Donnelly 80, Clarke, King for Brooks 85, Spence

Scorers
Leamington - Baker-Richardson 81
Hitchin Town - B Donnelly 30 and 66

Sendings off 
Hitchin Town - B Donnelly (2 yellows)

Bookings
Leamington - Hood, Edwards
Hitchin Town - Brooks, C Donnelly

Attendance 504

Roy Izzard, photo by Peter Else

Video from Leamington FC TV