Hitchin found their resources stretched to the limit due to a combination of injuries, suspension and unavailability and despite this produced a thoroughly professional performance to progress to the quarter finals of the BigFreeBet Challenge Cup. The ninety minutes failed to produce a goal but an exciting penalty shoot-out saw Josh Bickerstaff keep his nerve to net the decisive penalty to send Hitchin through 4-3.
Rushden missed their first penalty with Michael Johnson producing a fine save from Liam Dolman. Elliot Bailey, Jay Dowie and Ben Walster each scored well struck penalties but Joe Curtis, Tom Lorraine and Callum Westwood made the score 3-3. Then Robbie Burns put his kick over the bar but Jack Ashton put his kick wide leaving Bickerstaff to produce the knock out blow.
Hitchin introduced recent signing Kevin Byrne to play alongside Dan Webb and he showed great maturity hardly putting a foot wrong. Toby Syme moved to right back with Ben Walster coming in at left back. Bickerstaff and Dowie were the defensive midfielders behind Bailey, while Trey Charles and Jonny McNamara played wide with Burns the central striker.
The pitch was very heavy and both sides did well to play good football on such a surface. Hitchin had the slope in their favour in the first half and started very brightly. Bailey, McNamara and Walster all came close early on before Burns headed the best chance just wide. Johnson saved from Curtis but was not overworked in the first half. Hitchin remained on the front foot and Charles shot just wide before a Walster free kick led to a goalmouth scramble. Hitchin came closest to scoring on 45 minutes when a McNamara cross was deflected by Burns but did not quite cross the line.
The second half saw Rushden with the slope in their favour and they seized the initiative. Hitchin had to defend well against a team high on confidence after a long unbeaten run and who look on course for promotion. Luke Fairlamb came close and Jack Ashton missed their best chance but on the whole Hitchin limited their clear cut chances. With a number of players lacking match fitness and with the testing conditions Hitchin were not as dangerous in the second half but showed the resilience that has become part of their DNA.
A draw was probably a fair result over the 90 minutes but with so much against them this was a performance that delighted manager Mark Burke who was particularly pleased with the clean sheet. This is a competition that Hitchin can certainly target as many of the fancied teams have been knocked out and this display saw Hitchin bounce back after the disappointment of Saturday.
AFC Rushden and Diamonds – Heath, Gilchrist, Smith, Punter, Dolman, Ashton, Westwood, Curtis, Diamond, Robbins, Fairlamb Subs Brown, Gyasi, Lorraine for Robbins 71, Oulton for Smith 80.
Hitchin – Johnson, Syme, Walster, Dowie, Webb, Bickerstaff, Byrne, Bailey, Burns, McNamara, Charles Subs Donnelly, Kirkpatrick, Coley—none used.
AFC Rushden and Diamonds – Westwood, Robbins
Hitchin – Syme
Attendance – 222 (approx 40 from Hitchin)