This Derby day was a challenging one for Hitchin, playing in all yellow, and we wondered if they would strain the greens of Biggleswade, who had made an impressive start to the season with seven points from nine, and includes a creditable away win at King’s Lynn.
The narrow victory over Redditch United at Top Field manifested a tight discipline in defence and it was again on show today in what was a somewhat dour and yet absorbing encounter. Adding a good bit of zest was the presence of former Canaries in the home side, including the warhorse that is Brett Donnelly and the modest but somewhat accomplished Jonny McNamara.
The taut nature of this game is perhaps best exemplified by recording that both goals came from set pieces, that is to say corners, and both were headers. Both defences earned their suppers, not entirely aided by the slightly blustery conditions. An early Hitchin free-kick in the attacking half saw Josh Bickerstaff’s header comfortably gathered by Sam Donkin, who, along with his counterpart Michael Johnson, put in a near faultless performance today.
Another free kick from the solid Noah Chesmain was a good one, from wide on the left but the referee signalled a foul on the ‘keeper. A corner for the Canaries, taken by Lucas Kirkpatrick saw Robbie burns try a shot which was again gathered by Donkin. The fiery headed McNamara was evidently anxious to get one over his former club and he was indeed as ubiquitous as he was earnest throughout the match. His cross to Peter Clark was partially cleared and McNamara almost leapt onto the follow-up, but sent his shot over the cross bar. A shot from Ball brought the hosts a corner which was untidily cleared, yet it was already evident that both defences would be cautious and not lacking concentration for a moment.
As the ball went from end to end in a variety of inconclusive moves I felt that this game would not yield many goals. It was not so much spoiling tactics but passes that were marginally too heavy – but this takes nothing away from the anticipatory play in midfield and defence. Forward players had a hard time of it. Ezra Forde was able to hold up play and Elliot Bailey looked for any chance that might exploit a gap in the defence.
It begged for cunning or deceptive passes and Jack Bradshaw, who worked indefatigably, provided a through ball for the wonderfully named Solomon Nwabuokei – but he strayed off-side. A Chesmain free-kick was firm enough and on target, but it was straight at Donkin. An inspirational run might break through, I thought and Macsen Fraser did oblige but fell over himself mid-flight and then a header from Nwabuokei was held by Johnson.
To be honest, play was not particularly enthralling from either side, but Hitchin were marginally the more inventive at this stage and Michael King had a run and shot but it went wide. A good sign was that all players wanted to get on with it all – yet there was a curious moment later when the ball was lofted behind the goal into the undergrowth and play was suspended whilst four stewards in hi-viz jackets dutifully searched for the missing sphere. That in itself was a signal to the bench to boot on a spare from the dug-out but it seemed that, like Hitler, they appeared to only have one ball. We waited and then like buses about three came on at once. More than once I have heard a disgruntled kit-man state rhetorically, ‘Do you know how much these things cost?’
We had played just over half an hour when Hitchin won a corner – this itself coming from a Michael Johnson free –kick from within his own half. Kirkpatrick sent in the ball and Josh Bickerstaff duly obliged by scoring the opening goal. So, a successful strike from a set piece, which was not entirely unexpected, proved the major difference so far.
Undeterred, Biggleswade (always called Big Les Wade by my father), tried their luck at the other end. They won a free-kick in a good position level with the penalty area – this was all too easily defended and then Ball shot wastefully over the bar from the rebound. Bailey latched on to an inviting pass but again lofted the ball. McNamara pooped up again but shot weakly and then he had another go which was zealously defended. The half was drawing to a close but the Waders were putting in plenty of hopeful crosses. They also had, via Lucas Perry, a useful and sometimes alarming tactic of the long throw-in. McNamara and Bradshaw had the best of the crosses and at the other end Michael King’s lob proved to be too optimistic.
As the whistle for the interval went, I had made the note that it was a typical derby tight and uncompromising and then I saw that in another derby (and a near 2000 crowd), Weymouth were 5-0 up against rivals Dorchester Town. Attendances were healthy today and many travelling Canaries’ supporters helped swell the crowd at Langford Road to 532.
Hitchin were a goal up and forty-five or so minutes away from what would have been a prestigious victory against the second placed team. It was indeed heart-warming to see the excellently organised Hitchin defence and once more suggested that the alarming reverse at Needham Market would not be repeated. I did think that Ezra Forde had been industrious and willing but a little isolated, with Elliot Bailey playing just behind him. I also thought that Biggleswade set-pieces had shown potential and that the long throw was a useful addition to their attacking repertoire.
Biggleswade, in my home county of Bedfordshire now boast three senior non-league teams and I have fond memories of matches played at the homely but very friendly Biggleswade United who have successfully upgraded their stadium. The Waders, however, are the senior club and have maintained that status for some time and the Carlsberg Stadium displays some excellent attention to design.
A bit more exciting play was anticipated for the second half, particularly as the hosts would want to continue their unbeaten start to the season, and although they worked hard they did not secure their equaliser until ten minutes from time – and it was from a set piece – replicating Hitchin’s strike in the first half and in the same goal as well.
But before this leveller there would be some resilient defending from players well aware that there is many a slip betwixt cup and lip and any error could be unremittingly costly. Brett Donnelly, something of a persistent agitator had a subdued game by his standards and a characteristic tussle with Fraser earned him a free-kick, which resulted in a free-kick for the home side which Ball sent wide with his shot. McNamara was again seeking to cross, which he did and he was undeterred at clearances as there would always be the next time and who knows? No substitutes were made at this stage. A Hitchin free- kick, from Johnson in the defensive half was cleared and then the award of another free-kick to the visitors saw the tension rise and the only moment that brought public dispute. The referee handled this admirably and players from both sides saw the futility of arguing with officialdom. They do not always do this, of course.
It was becoming evident that the Waders were becoming the stronger of the two sides, and they were unfazed with the lack of success hitherto. Indeed Hitchin won a free-kick in a good position but Robbie Burns cleared the bar with his effort. A cross from the persistent McNamara managed to elude all would-be recipients and Michael king was on target albeit with a weak shot that did not test Donkin.
The home side substituted the jaded Donnelly with their French Connection, Pierre Dubois and he proved to be a bit of a handful in the penalty box, gaining an immediate half-chance. Lucas Perry caused a bit of anxiety with his long throws and the solid Jack Bradshaw saw a shot blocked. Bradshaw was like his namesake, the renowned Railway time-table, detailed and efficient. Hitchin sent on substitutes at various times – Galliford for Bailey, Belgrove for King and a late one with Smith for Kirkpatrick.
Connor Vincent had brought a fine save from the sure-footed Johnson, but from a corner, ten minutes from time Josh Urquhart headed home in illustrious style to bag and equaliser which was deserved on the almost imperceptible dominance that had now been shown by the Waders. Yet I can say that this did not mean that a fighting draw would be the inevitable result as there were further chances and near misses for both sides. Ultimately, a point apiece was an equitable outcome.
A smart move from Galliford showed a bit of thwarted wizardry and the troublesome McNamara won a corner for the Waders. This one was beaten away but the more corners they got the more it was worrying and one of course did eventually breach the defensive wall. In the centre of defence, skipper Dan Webb was commanding and there was a moment when a defensive move from Biggleswade went unintentionally wrong – the ball fell loose to the Hitchin skipper who had a chance to score. The miss was a narrow one, and Sam Donkin was able to deflect the effort for a corner. I want to highlight what happened next. Donkin had earned his bacon with that save and Webb could have won it, but the Hitchin skipper patted his congratulations to Donkin in what I thought was an outstanding piece of genuine sportsmanship and more than worthy of comment.
Both teams went for it in the unspoken knowledge that, like in those park games we remember as kids, the next goal wins it. Both had late corners and free-kicks – and we know what set pieces had done for this game. Both defences prevailed and neither squad can be accused of not trying to win it. The only ‘black’ today was Michael Johnson’s booking for a lusty time- wasting boot of the ball, after the whistle had gone, to see if he could get it into Hertfordshire at the first go.
The announcer announced honours even and so it was – indeed an equitable result – perhaps meaning more to Hitchin who start to the season has not been as sure-footed as their adversaries. Ironically, Biggleswade moved down a place and Hitchin re-enter what will be termed with more significance later on as the relegation zone. We need not be unduly worried as, defensively at least the Canaries have turned a corner. They were solid today and the team as a whole held its own. Only one goal has been conceded in the last two games and there is a definite co-ordination in their play. To my mind a really emphatic victory will boost spirits and the team can move on to fulfil its considerable potential. But we will take what there was today and until the last ten minutes or so Hitchin looked on course for a snatched away win against one of the early pacemakers. Importantly the squad has strength in depth and morale has been restored.
I hope my own morale has been restored a little, going to a match on the wife’s birthday, but a bottle of small batch gin might give me a few brownie points, you never know. I look forward to the home game with Banbury United and I am confident that Hitchin Town will continue their progress.
Sam Donkin, Jack Bradshaw, Lucas Perry, Kieren Forbes, captain, Josh Uruquart, GOAL, 80 MINUTES, David Longe-King, Jonny McNamara, Solomon Nwabuokei, Brett Donnelly, (Pierre Dubois), Matt Ball, Peter Clarke,(Connor Vincent) – other substitutes – Tom Smith, Robbie Buchanan and Luca Allison.
Michael Johnson, cautioned, Macsen Fraser, Noah Chesmain, Josh Bickerstaff, GOAL, 32 MINUTES, Dan Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Lucas Kirkpatrick, (Charlie Smith), Eliot Bailey, (Isaac Galliford), Ezra Forde, Robbie Burns, Michael King, (Scott Belgrove) – other substitutes – Matt Spring and Treymayne Charles.
Referee: Tom Danahar, who had an excellent match ably supported by assistant referees Steve Conway and Colman O’Meara.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN