Anticipation was in the air as well as optimism and expectancy – there always is on the opening day of the season. Yet this was always going to be a hard test against a strong Kettering side. The Poppies had an ultimately disappointing season last term, being defeated in the play-offs by Slough Town and you can safely bet they will be looking to move up in the present campaign.
Hitchin, with a satisfactory performance against Bishop’s Stortford in the Hertfordshire Charity Cup behind them, were looking to make a good start to their League fixtures. They played reasonably well – or really as well as they were allowed to today where they found their creativity somewhat stifled against a balanced and organised opposition.
In ideal conditions and on a pristine pitch, the game began with a pleasing pace that was generally sustained until midway through the second half where we witnessed some disputatious moments over trivial incidents. This was happily overcome and the game reached its conclusion with Hitchin applying some pressure in order to gain an equaliser to the snaffled only goal of the game.
The general phrase is ‘end to end stuff’ and it was like that – but with the ball spending a little too much time in the air. I say this because it suited Kettering whose tall defenders dominated aerially and with an almost nonchalant attitude. ‘ We are playing a flat back four’ announced a cigar smoking Poppies’ fan,’ with only one up front’. He added that it would be interesting – and it was with the Canaries keeping just Elliott Bailey in a striker role where he often became an isolated figure.
Early on Macsen Fraser won a free-kick and Matt Spring found Jack Green who shot well but just over the crossbar. Another cross from Fraser was cleared by the experienced and impressive Gary Stohrer. A long punt from Michael Johnson received just a coup0le of touches before it went for a Hitchin corner – partially cleared but it allowed a Charlie Smith header, held by Paul White. Next up we had a bit of combinational play involving Josh Bickerstaff , Charlie Smith and Lucas Kirkpatrick, marshalled by Matt Spring, won another corner. This was the cunning corner that has in the past brought a goal, but it seemed to be anticipated by Kettering – indeed it emanated in a quick counter attack where Rhys Hoeness ran in possession and won a corner for his side.
This led to a bit of smart play, a whipped in cross and an optimistic appeal for a penalty, but the referee merely signalled another corner. Lathaniel Lowe-turner presented Stohrer with a chance that was blocked. There was a sustained bit of Kettering pressure and signs that they were dominating the midfield and by now putting a good few crosses into the Canaries’ penalty box. Ben Milnes and Lindon Meikle combined in a move which finished with Rowe-Turner firing wide. For all the intricate preparatory play neither goalkeeper was called upon to make a goal-denying save. Jack Green and Toby Syme tried a move that was intercepted, like so many. Defending had been cautious and conservative but anticipatory.
The only goal of the game came after twenty-two minutes and had a slight touch of good fortune about it. Indeed it was hard luck on Michael Johnson who made an excellent save from Michael Richens, but he appeared to palm the ball upwards and the bounce favoured Rhys Hoeness who finished from close range. Kettering had been perhaps the more creative so far, but the goal was untidy if opportunistic. Even so it represented the need to snaffle up any unconsidered trifle and as such it made Hitchin’s task a lot more difficult. It was already clear that the visitors’ composure in defence was masterful and unyielding – and in a sense Hitchin, with their high crosses, played into their hands – or rather their heads since headed clearances became an almost monotonous feature.
Kettering made it difficult for the hosts to attack through the middle and often forced square or even reverse passes. Jack Green was often the intended recipient of a diagonal pass but he was soon challenged by defenders and Bailey, despite his efforts often found his pockets picked. The underlying strength of the opposition was made apparent since Hitchin, although mostly contained, were generally playing well and I noticed just a handful of unforced errors. Indeed I made a note that several players from both teams were able to run in possession through the crowded midfield yet were unable to find a telling pass. There just seemed to no ‘lebensraum’ – and even the relative freedom of free-kicks were found wanting.
It was, happily, football of good quality if we ignore the inaccurate finishing. Lindon Meikle, for example was the recipient of a smart pass and was in the optimum position to score but he blasted embarrassingly wide. Matt Spring was restricted from being his usual commanding self but he was still instrumental in starting moves. A free-kick for Hitchin wide on the left from Fraser saw Lucas Kirkpatrick have a go, but found the goalkeeper undeceived. Fraser had a typical run at the defence but his finish was just clear of the crossbar. Ben Toseland combined with Rhys Hoeness and it won a corner. The corners in this game were generally high into the box except when Hitchin tried their cunning corner move – but they were all more or less defended with varying degrees of skill – with the usual partial clearances providing a further opportunity that was meek in the execution. Josh Bickerstaff had a shot deflected for another corner but the imperious headed clearance from the Kettering defence was the usual outcome. Bailey had a half chance and founds the ball lifted neatly away from his foot.
A sign of the growing tension or perhaps frustration came when Green was fouled on the run by Stohrer who was cautioned and as the half ended the best we got from the home side was a free-kick shot on goal by Smith and a stoppage time header from skipper Daniel Webb. Dion Kelly-Evans had a fine run on goal but his cross was well defended.
I felt the game had flowed well despite the often congested midfield. Kettering in chess terms had ‘gained a tempo’ from their goal and they were adept at containment as well as being ready for counter play – often with a sweeping pass to the flanks – and they had less trouble than Hitchin at carving their way through the middle. As such they deserved their lead and gave evident notice that they knew how to retain it.
Where there is tension, there tends to be errors and at this stage I thought that if Hitchin could be flustered in the box then so could Kettering despite their defensive prowess. A set piece might bring a fortuitous half-clearance- and indeed a tactical substitution might make all the difference. These were all tried without ultimate success. The second half had a scrappy period with some players exhibiting an uncalled for petulance over essentially minor matters. Durrell Berry disputed the award of a corner to Hitchin was so comically vehement that he still argued the toss after receiving a caution. Jack Green’s ‘coming together ‘with the Poppies’ keeper was seen by visiting supporters as a hanging offence or if not, at least transportation to the colonies. The referee’s correct decision in making Spring retake a free kick was seen by home supporters as sheer pedantry; yet if a goal had come as a result of such insistence all would be forgotten and forgiven.
Meikles’ wild shot I have already referred to. Strohrer initiated a move and when substitute Michael Shalamo was bundled off the ball, the other participant, Michael Richens reacted with ungentlemanly force and got away with an unsustained schoolmasterly finger wagging reprimand from the referee. These incidents marked the low point of a game that was generally played in the right sporting spirit. A Kettering free-kick from near the half way line was defended.
Hitchin, when in possession from the defensive third were ever eager to get the ball forward – but more than once they omitted to check if there was a Canary to receive the pass. Bailey was still isolated and needed support. This came from Charlie smith and Lucas Kirkpatrick, when they could, but Kettering were still gaining a kind of territorial advantage. Smith’s majestic pass was aimed at Green and it found him with such force that our Jack could only chest the ball behind for a goal kick. No, better things were needed – and they did try but found all avenues blocked.
Hitchin employed all three substitutes – Trey Charles for Jack Green, Michael King for Lucas Kirkpatrick, and Kieran McCaffery for Matt Spring. Kettering had brought the rather impressive Michael Shamalo on for Ben Toseland, Rhys Hoeness gave way to Brett Solkhon and Andre Borg came on for Michael Richens.
I had hoped that Trey Charles’ pace and exuberance in imaginative play might be a telling factor but he did not seem to have the time to really get going. But it did signify a real intent to go for the equaliser. Similarly Shamalo had both pace and imagination and indeed a trio of chances to double the lead, as well as a couple of crosses that went begging across the scantily defended Hitchin goal area. Borg had a decent run that suggested that all in his path would be assimilated but resistance proved not to be futile. Hitchin’s player of the match, Charlie Smith kept plugging away, winning a corner from a deflected cross – pumping in an in swinger for Paul White to gather. Borg had a shot saved but Lewis Ferrell boldly went into opposition territory to set up a chance or two or to spoil a move at the other end. There was a scuffed shot from Hitchin that if met cleanly might have bulged the net and a run from Fraser saw a pass that might just have reached Charles after good work from Syme and King.
Charles after weaving inwards finished with a meek shot when he did have the option of passing – and really, we cannot fault Hitchin for effort and endeavour. But as the game was reaching its conclusion It occurred to me that this was one of those gaes when you almost knew that whatever the effort there would be no goal. Call it bad luck or not getting the rub of the green – I prefer to think of it in empirical terms. Kettering defending was disciplined and simply efficient. They played properly right to the end and did not fart about by the corner flag to waste time. They secured a workmanlike victory away from home and on the opening day it is an added fillip.
Whilst I was sitting in the stand after the game, chatting to the assessor/ observer, manager Mark Burke had a brief chat with me and I was hugely impressed with his calm assessment and indeed his agreement with my hesitant remarks. He was objective and fair in his summation and this to me is a great bonus, having worked with one or two managers with other clubs who refused to admit that on any occasion, the opposition deserved their points.
My pinks were a little tickled when visiting supporters displayed optimism, expectancy and perhaps a little prematurely saw their team off the field with the chant ‘We’re gonna win the League.’ I wish I could see forty-five matches ahead. I never believe we can predict the future yet I always listen to the weather forecast.
Today’s game was a s close as the score suggests but the Poppies were just a bit quicker to the ball, had a shade more anticipation, and of course seized their chance and gained the victory.
Hitchin travel to Needham Market in Suffolk on Tuesday, not an entirely unexplored venue as I do believe the team met in an FA Trophy match. They dumped Chesham united out of the FA Cup last season and I predict another hard game.
Michael Johnson, Macsen Fraser, Toby Syme, Matt Spring (Kieran McCaffrey, 65), Daniel Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Jack Green, (Trey Charles, 81), Charlie Smith, sponsors’ man of the match, Lucas Kirkpatrick, (Michael King, 74), Elliott Bailey, Josh Bickerstaff. Other substitutes- Ezra Forde, Patrick Tshikala.
Paul White, Durrell Berry, cautioned, Ben Toseland, (Michael Shamalo, 45), Gary Stohrer, cautioned, Lindon Meikle, Ben Milnes, Rhys Hoeness, GOAL, 22 MINUTES, (Brett Solkhon, 77,), Dion Kelly-Evans, Declan Towers, Michael Richens, captain, (Andre Borg, 77,) Lathaniel Rowe-Turner. Other substitutes – Orin Pendley and Mason Rhiney.
Referee – A List assisted by E Mills and R Allison.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN