Clichés are old hat and should be avoided like the plague goes the joke, but this really was a game of two halves insofar as the hosts and eventual winners quietly dominated the first period, took an early lead and established comfortable control – but had to endure significant pressure from Didcot Town in a second half where the prophecy from some spectators of the game going to penalties was all but fulfilled.
Hitchin Town were nominal favourites given their higher status, but the Railwaymen have proved their worth in reaching the final, where, I was told the phrase ‘runners-up’ was to be replaced by ‘finalist’. The kick-off was delayed until eight o’clock owing to traffic congestion and when we did get underway, it was the Canaries who showed the greater promise in terms of creative football.
But before the hosts settled in to their forward play, the notable Marlon Agyakwa ran in possession and fired one in that Michael Johnson tipped over the bar and the ensuing corner from George Reid was punched clear. Hitchin asserted themselves and in the next foray Toby Syme forced a corner and this was firmly headed home by Connor Vincent – a crisp, clean goal that saw no significant defensive challenge.
At this stage it seemed unlikely that this would be the only goal of the game as Hitchin took the initiative and went on to dominate the half. But amidst this were further efforts from Agyakwa that needed close monitoring. A good cross from Jack Green, working on the right, was snatched by Leigh Bedwell in the Didcot goal and Charlie Smith tried one from range that went wide.
Significantly, Hitchin looked comfortable in possession and denied the visitors any notable cohesion in play, but a second goal for the hosts would have been welcome, especially as the one gilt-edged chance for the Railwaymen came after the half-hour mark when Seth Humphries managed a cross under pressure and George Reid fumbled the chance by falling over his feet, so to speak.
Vincent headed over the bar in another attack and Diddy skipper Adam Learoyd protested overmuch, after he sent Jack Green into an unwanted bit of acrobatics and the culmination was a reprimand and a caution for the Didcot general.
It was a manifestation of frustration of course as his side had not been able to penetrate beyond the sold Hitchin defence. Didcot had defeated three Premier division sides en route to this final and were now appearing to be short-changed by a well organised Hitchin team.
At the interval it had been clear which side had been the better team, but a slender one goal lead in a cup final often exposes fragility and the managerial exhortations in the dressing room must have been rather forthright – especially for Didcot who came out for the second half with renewed vigour and came desperately close to sending this final tie into a penalty ‘shoot-out’.
It must not be supposed that Hitchin had decided to sit on their slender advantage. They had effectively contained Didcot in the first period suddenly found themselves actively involved in an unrehearsed script. The nominal underdogs had found something to bite on and they were straining at the leash. Didcot found a fluidity of play and made as much as they could from this seizure of the initiative. Felipe Barcelos had a shot that was well saved by Johnson and a later free-kick from the same player nestled on the roof of the net and the warning signs to Hitchin were clear.
Reid also had a pop but saw his effort go wide. There was good work from George Jeacock as well and clearly Hitchin needed to work towards re-establishing their earlier dominance. Charlie Smith had a good run but his cross was too heavy and Didcot forced a corner that needed an emphatic punched clearance from Johnson.
Both sides made maximum substitutions in this half but the pattern of play was largely unaffected. Didcot made valiant attempts to get on terms and tensions were revealed when Lewis Rolfe was cautioned for an industrial challenge on Barcelos. The usual delay and exchange of views did not affect the away side’s momentum – except some passing became imprecise and the hosts continued to frustrate efforts with their robust defending.
Michael Johnson was outstanding and his save from a Seth Humphries’ shot was a vital one, as was his confident stop from a Matthew Woodley free-kick. He also held well a header from Didcot substitute Morgan Williams. All in all it was an admirable effort from the visitors who were further frustrated when a Johnson clearance struck a Didcot player and but for the awkward bounce it may have handed an equaliser on a plate.
Hitchin kept their nerve and were adamant in defending and breaking out when they could but goal efforts were wayward and unconvincing. Yet they had, as it turned out, stubbornly defended their lead and had done this generally well and ultimately it ensured that a piece of silverware will adorn Top Field to add to the last success in 2006.
It was a welcome success but even the most die-hard home fan could not deny that the Oxfordshire side had made it a hard and entertaining game in the second half ensuring that Vincent’s clinical header was not followed by meek submission. They were worthy runners up, sorry, I mean losing finalists.
Michael Johnson, Toby Syme, Ben Walster, Lewis Rolfe, cautioned, Dan Webb, Captain, Josh Bickerstaff, Jack Green (Patrick Tshikala, 76), Matt Spring, Connor Vincent, GOAL, 9 (Jonny McNamara, 81), Robbie Burns, Charlie Smith (Brett Donnelly, 61),
Substitutes not used – Josh Mollison, GK, and Kevin Byrne.
Leigh Bedwell, George Jeacock (Louis Joyce, 87), Matthew Woodley, Lewis Hayden, Stuart Catell, Adam Learoyd, captain, cautioned, George Reid ,(Morgan Williams, 68), Sam Barder, Felipe Barcelos, Seth Humphries ( David Murphy, 84), Marlon Agyakwa.
Substitutes not used – Ollie Thomas and Cameron McNeill.
Referee – G Heron, assisted by J Hobbs and M Heavey.
Report by: “Pipeman”