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Merthyr 1-1 Hitchin (Hitchin win 4-1 on penalties)

Wednesday, April 26 2017

The omens did not appear favourable for Hitchin as they approached the play off semi final at Merthyr. Hitchin had not won in their last six league games while Merthyr had run in to form with five wins and a draw from their last six games and appeared to have momentum. The near 200 mile journey meaning a 12.30 departure was not ideal either so Hitchin were clearly underdogs and the news that Kane Smith was not fit added to the problems they faced.

But as so often this season Hitchin showed tremendous resilience and on a night of high drama reached the play off final with a display that showed real guts and determination and when it came to the penalty shoot out they were nerveless and ruthless. Though it was a real team effort one player stood out as Michael Johnson put in a magnificent performance making some unbelievable saves during the game before going on to save two penalties.

Mark Burke went with a 4-1-4-1 system. This saw Josh Bickerstaff play in front of the back four with Will Wright playing at right back in Smith’s absence with Matt Lench and Robbie Burns playing wide and Liam Brooks on his own upfront. This meant there was no starting place for Brett and Callum Donnelly or Jonny McNamara which shows the greater depth in the squad this season.

The one thing Hitchin wanted to avoid was conceding an early goal but after a cautious start by both sides with just nine minutes on the clock a long throw again proved an achilles heel. It was flicked on by Ryan Prosser and was turned in by Kayne McLaggon. Prosser is a man mountain of a striker and it was his introduction as a substitute that turned the league game in Merthyr’s favour and with his height advantage it was difficult for Dan Webb and Lewis Rolfe to beat him in the air. But on the whole the centre backs limited his threat.

For Hitchin Ben Walster had a free kick blocked while Brooks had a shot well tipped over the bar by Oliver Davies with a goal kick being wrongly awarded. Hitchin had not let the early goal disrupt them  and they drew level after 21 minutes. Brooks who had an excellent first half saw a shot deflected on to the post and Burns seized on the rebound. Hitchin were playing some good football at this stage and Lench, who was a constant source of danger down the left, shot wide before Burns had an effort saved.

Parity at 1-1was probably a fair reflection of the first half but in the second half Merthyr noticeably moved up a gear. Hitchin were under severe pressure and Merthyr played some excellent football with Keyon Reffell their most dangerous player. At times the Hitchin defence was under siege and there was some heroic defending. Prosser had a header blocked on the line but Hitchin held firm.

Brett Donnelly replaced Brooks after 61 minutes and Lench shot wide soon after but it was still Merthyr carrying the greater threat. Johnson was a very safe pair of hands and came into his own in extra time  as 90 minutes passed with the stalemate still not broken.

The first period of extra time saw a thunderous free kick smash against the bar from Scot Barrow and the feeling began to grow that this could just be Hitchin’s night. Lench put a chance over the bar but the first half of extra time concluded with two great saves from Johnson, the first from a shot that was deflected and the second from Jarrad Wright. Hitchin continued to defend with their lives and the second half of extra time saw the pressure ease as penalties loomed large, but with virtually the last kick of the match that man Johnson produced another great save.

It certainly looked like Hitchin were confident going in to the penalty shoot out and Lucas Kirkpatrick made no mistake with the first penalty. Johnson then saved from  Reffell before Bickerstaff scored with ease. Prosser made it 2-1 before Wright kept his cool to maintain his 100% success rate with penalties this season. Then Kyle Copp had his penalty saved by Johnson again leaving Rolfe to win the game with a fourth successive conversion for a 4-1 triumph. Hitchin had won an earlier penalty shoot out at St Albans and this seemed to have given them great confidence.

The coach pulled in to Top Field at 3.42am but nobody seemed too worried about the lack of sleep as the enormity of Hitchin’s achievement sunk in.

So it is a play off final at Leamington on Monday and it is just reward for this Hitchin team who you can never write off. This was a great battling display and afterwards Burke said he was very proud of the performance of all the players who put their bodies on the line to ensure we reached the final. Indeed all Hitchin fans can be proud of their team and they deserve a large following on Monday as they attempt to reach the National League.

Merthyr - O Davies, A Davies, Barrow, Evans, Patten, Wright, Prosser, Richards, McLaggon, Reffell, Jenkins; Subs McDonald, Copp for Jenkins 106, Traylor for McLaggon 81, Compton for Richards 106, Bull
Hitchin - Johnson, Wright, Walster, Dowie, Webb, Rolfe, Lench, Kirkpatrick, Brooks, Burns, Bickerstaff; Subs B Donnelly for Brooks 61, Bennett, C Donnelly, McNamara for Burns 81, King

Merthyr - McLaggon (8)
Hitchin - Burns (20)

Hitchin - Kirkpatrick - scored (1-0)
Merthyr - Refell - saved (1-0)
Hitchin - Bickerstaff - scored (2-0)
Merthyr - Prosser - scored (2-1)
Hitchin - Wright - scored (3-1)
Merthyr - Copp - saved (3-1)
Hitchin - Rolfe - scored (4-1)


Merthyr - Traylor
Hitchin - Kirkpatrick and Dowie

Attendance - 1,453

Roy Izzard

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