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Leamington 2 Hitchin Town 1

Monday, May 1 2017

Hitchin Town were denied a place in the National League as their play-off final turned on one moment in the 90th minute. Until then their game plan had worked perfectly after taking an early lead. However once Lewis Rolfe conceded a penalty and a second yellow card at the end of normal time, Leamington took full advantage to level from the spot and then snatch a winner deep into extra time.

Mark Burke's one change to the starting eleven at Merthyr was to go with Brett Donnelly up front instead of Liam Brooks, who was on the bench. The early stages saw both sides sound each other out as Michael Johnson saved a Jack Edwards header from a free kick while the Canaries responded with an early corner. 

However on 11 minutes, Hitchin took a step towards promotion with a set piece goal. Lewis Rolfe's freekick from the left was met by Dan Webb at the far post. His effort ran across the goal to Matt Lench who converted with his knee to add to his recent goal tally.

Hitchin had to respond as the hosts looked for an equaliser and Webb cleared up after a hasty clearance from Johnson, while the keeper saved from Edwards who had been set up after a run down the left by Obeng.

Brett Donnelly - harshly dismissed in the previous league fixture at Leamington - and Robbie Burns were proving a handful for the home defence while also tracking back to support in defence, and Donnelly was unlucky to get a yellow card after a challenge with Hood, who went down dramatically.

Hitchin came close from two Ben Walster free kicks - the first nearly fell to the heads of Webb and then Will Wright, and the second from in front of goal whistled just over the bar from some 25 yards. 

Johnson saved well from a Rob Thompson-Brown snapshot but Hitchin were on top as the game approached the interval, with Tony Breeden having to save hurriedly when Wright miscued his attempt on goal and then gathering a Lucas Kirkpatrick free kick.

Shortly before the interval, Rolfe gave away a free kick on the edge of the area and incurred a yellow card. While Richard Taundry's kick was off target, the incident would prove critical later on.

HALF TIME (45 minutes) - Leamington 0 Hitchin Town 1

Leamington pushed forward after the interval. Thompson-Brown found space in the box following a Leamington free kick but fired over when well placed. Johnson then comfortably collected another Taundry freekick.

It was not completely one way traffic as Donnelly nearly snatched a freak goal. As Breeden tried to clear from hands, the ball hit the striker's back and nearly ballooned into the goal! Kirkpatrick also put in an energetic run down the left and saw his cross cleared hurriedly for a corner.

Leamington made the first switches as Obeng - who had been a fitness doubt - was replaced by Batchelor shortly after an incident with Rolfe and then Revan replaced Gittings. While the hosts had most of the pressure, Hitchin defended resolutely and almost created a chance when Donnelly put the ball into the path of Kirkpatrick only for the alert Breeden to clear the danger.

Johnson continued to be a secure last line of defence as he collected a Courtney Baker-Richardson header from a Taundry cross. There was a scare when he came to the edge of his area to collect the ball but the assistant was well placed to rule that he had remained inside.

Baker-Richardson made space in the box after beating Rolfe but he did not have enough space to wrap his foot cleanly around the ball and shot wide. However just as the 300-400 Canary fans in the record crowd were looking at their watches again, the game turned on its head. At the angle of the goal line and the penalty box, Rolfe brought down a Leamington attacker. The referee instantly awarded both a penalty and a second yellow card for the defender. Thompson-Brown clinically converted the spot kick giving Johnson no chance.

The Brakes scented blood and seemed to gain a yard in pace. They nearly completed the comeback during stoppage time only for Johnson to pull off a magnificant save diving low to his right to palm the ball off the line from Hood. However it was now a test of how the ten Canaries would withstand extra time.

FULL TIME (90 minutes) - Leamington 1 Hitchin Town 1 

The first period of extra time saw Hitchin come under great pressure with Josh Bickerstaff joining Webb in the centre of defence, and with substitutes Callum Donnelly and Liam Brooks trying to relieve the pressure and create half chances up front.

Webb managed to tidy up after Thompson-Brown had threatened to weave through the Hitchin defence while Johnson gathered an acrobatic Baker-Richardson bicycle kick. With 15 minutes left, could the Canaries hang on and take their chances in a penalty shoot-out?

HALF TIME, EXTRA TIME (105 minutes) - Leamington 1 Hitchin Town 1

Hitchin began the final period well as good work on the right between Lench and Callum Donnelly won a corner. The home defence managed to clear before Webb could get in an effort. 

However as the clock ran down, Hitchin hearts were broken by Baker-Richardson. He picked up the ball in the right half of the penalty area and although the defence had chances to clear, he retained the ball and hit a curling shot that evaded Johnson and flew into the far corner of the goal. It was a goal worthy of winning a game but a decisive blow for Hitchin.

With time slipping away and Webb playing up front, the captain had a half chance to level the game but fired over from a corner. As the game entered 3 minutes of stoppage time, Hitchin had one final chance as Lench sent in a dangerous cross that was knocked down before Breeden pulled off a final save to deny them.

And with that, Hitchin's brave effort - and their memorable season - was over and it was the Brakes who stepped up to the National League. The Canaries were left to lick their wounds and learn from the experience to try again next season. Mark Burke admitted he was "Bitterly disappointed to lose when we'd got that close. We had a game plan that was working until that massive decision in the 90th minute. At least we turned up and performed and stood toe to toe with them and we even had a couple of great chances in extra time."

FINAL SCORE (120 minutes) - Leamington 2 Hitchin Town 1

Leamington - Breeden, Taundry, Gudger, Pond, Hood, Mace, Baker-Richardson, Gittings, Obeng, Edwards, Thompson-Brown ; subs - Magunda, Batchelor (for Obeng), Gregory (for Baker-Richardson), Revan (for Gittings), James
Hitchin Town - Johnson, Wright, Walster, Dowie, Webb, Rolfe, Lench, , B Donnelly, Burns, Bickerstaff; subs - Brooks (for B Donnelly), Bennett, C Donnelly (for Burns), McNamara (for Walster), Smith  

Leamington - Thompson-Brown (pen 90), Baker-Richardson (114)
Hitchin Town - Lench (11) 

Yellow cards
Leamington - Mace
Hitchin Town - B Donnelly, Rolfe, Kirkpatrick

Red cards
Hitchin Town - Rolfe (2nd yellow)

Attendance - 2102

Colin, photos by Peter Else

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