It was a classic case of self-destruct at sunny Top Field today when the Canaries were unseated from their dominant perch and went down to the only goal of the game poached by Jack Self after fifty-four minutes. I was reminded of the wise words of a veteran defender of former days who told me that you can batter the opposition all you can, but if you do not score, that battering will ultimately count for nothing. I will add that Hitchin deserved at least a draw today for their effort and enterprise and will indeed look back on the chances that brought narrow misses.
The Puritans came defending an unbeaten start to the season with two wins and two draws and they will be pleased with the general good fortune that enabled them to continue this run to a fifth game – yet they deserve credit for their resilience under pressure and their legitimate spoiling tactics. As such it was not a pretty win, but they will not care.
Hitchin skipper Dan Webb was missing, presumably injured, the armband being passed to Lewis Ferrell, and Jack Green was passed fit, with Isaac Galliford making a start. And it was a determined start, with highly suggestive forward moves and greediness for possession. After ten minutes of mutual probing, the Puritans barely got a look in. Ezra Forde looked strong and Matthew Spring looked set for an influential part in the match. He was instrumental in some early moves with Charlie Smith and Jack Green – the latter being often unmarked on the right wing and not unnoticed by Michael Johnson in some lusty forward balls. Green did essay a shot albeit a little weak and straight at the keeper but, importantly Hitchin was the attacking side.
Charlie Smith had a go, with the unspoken suggestion that he would soon get going fully and if his shots might be wayward his corners would cause mayhem. Indeed one did almost by accident when an unintentional air shot from Robbie Burns saw the ball fall to Green who fired just wide. At this stage there was not much going forward for Banbury but two players were showing more than willing – Gregory Kaziboni and Ravin Shamsi. It had the effect of being a token attack such was Hitchin’s overall dominance at this stage.
An early lead for the hosts would have made an enormous difference and would have reflected the flow of play – but it turned into a kind of struggle to translate chances into at least one goal. Naturally enough the Puritans were not in a giving vein and also added a bit of gamesmanship here and there. Jordy Neathe prevented a quick free-kick and was the first of four cautions for the visitors. That free-kick was cleanly cleared as were others but still the Hitchin pressure was insistent. A vibrant pass to Forde from Green saw the striker fail to control the ball and the obdurate Banbury defence snuffed out chances with grim regularity.
Giorgio Rasulo won Banbury’s first corner after twenty-two minutes and this was smartly defended but at the cost to a slight injury to a Puritan. Whilst treatment was carried out there was an impromptu drinks break and something of a briefing for the Banbury team who gathered around their manager. It was reminiscent of those pre-season matches where the temperature had soared. On resumption a Hitchin attack saw Galliford in with a chance but Goff did well to anticipate the danger.
The Canaries continued to construct good moves which were executed precisely and with pace but the final pass was often a shade too heavy for meaningful connection. Being forced to defend, Banbury did so with patience. Forde won a corner at the expense of a knock on the ankle. Burns put in a decent cross with Goff gathering. Neathe had a lazy shot from range and shrugged his shoulders at it going wide. Kaziboni got a bit hot under the collar in the interpretation of the entire ball going over the line. It never ceases to amaze me how players and often spectators become incensed over a minor or trivial moment. Burns won another corner and smith obliged, but again this was well defended.
Kaziboni and Shamsi scampered up field like small boys who had rung a doorbell as a prank and the cross resulted in a corner, with Lee Henderson having a go to no effect. Kaziboni fancied his chances and blessed with pace he had a good run in possession until he ran into traffic – yet he persisted and won a corner. This was a good one and had possibilities as it showed Hitchin’s defence momentarily off-balance. I was mildly amused that the exacting referee held up play to allow Ezra Forde to do up his boot laces and I bet he added time on to the second like a good chap. The next incident of note was when Steve Diggin dug in on Lewis Ferrell, who winced in pain at the feral rather than domestic challenge and Diggin’s name was entered in the referee’s notebook.
But the real frustration was for the Hitchin players who had dominated play, created the better chances and lacked the finishing emphasis. I take the view that the Puritans were the better pleased of the two sides at the interval. They had absorbed the pressure and the more frustrated their opponents became it would probably work in their favour. I also thought that if they came out for the second period strongly and forced matters they could well swing matters even more in their favour. A two goal lead would not have flattered Hitchin who had the task of maintaining their supremacy, which, unfortunately they did not.
We were a little delayed before the second half kicked off, as the referee made a bit of a show by counting the players of both sides; he wagged his finger with emphasis at each number and It took so long he seemed to be counting the spectators as well and did not heed the inevitable remarks of getting on with the game. I did not find fault as I felt he had a good game and kept things going when he could. Maybe he thought Banbury had slipped in a couple of extra defenders.
Once underway there was an immediate Banbury attack involving Diggin and substitute Ricky Johnson. Hitchin resumed their own aggression and Forde had an attempt blocked, and then a long clearance from Johnson saw the ball fall to burns who flicked the ball up nicely and volleyed strongly but over the cross bar. It was a nice piece of skill and would have made a memorable opening goal. A Galliford cross saw Green head the ball but not as cleanly as he would have liked – yet it did cause a bit of a scramble in the penalty area before the ball was cleared from danger.
Kaziboni had another characteristic run and he won a free-kick. Shamsi got in a header form this, but Michael Johnson was safe hands again. Burns combined with Galliford and Chesmain who cut in well but the move was anticipated and snuffed out. Shamsi was cautioned and Smith shot wide from range. Then, a little unexpectedly, Banbury took the lead and it was a notable effort, with Jack Self-rising to a cross from the left and heading the ball neatly into the net. We had played fifty-four minutes and given the flow of play it was perhaps expected that the hoists would be the team to score – and this poached goal tended to exploit the element of surprise.
Any sense of dismay can be cancelled out since we have all seen this – the team on the receiving end of play nips in to snatch an opener. But any continued sense of injustice was eradicated by the fact that from this moment the visitors began to play with far more assurance and poise. They could have added to their score as well in one or two more significant moments and it was left for Hitchin to affect a recovery of their former dominance. This they did not do – yet a frantic closing period saw chance after chance when they made desperate bids to gain what would have been a deserved equaliser.
Individual players were performing well – Macsen Fraser, Josh Bickerstaff and the talismanic Matt Spring. All were on task and yet the Banbury net stubbornly resisted the collective efforts. Banbury had a good chance when a bouncing header just cleared the cross bar and from a Smith corner a firm header from Bickerstaff was but a whisker wide. Even a good ‘set-piece’ chance just outside the area went begging and a corner was scant reward. Burns combined with Forde but although it was a good effort the Canaries began to be prone to errors, often unforced, such was the frustration of not getting off the mark with the imperious play hitherto.
Shamsi won a corner and Johnson tipped the shot clear and shortly after Macsen Fraser ‘took one for the team’ the euphemistic phrase meaning here that his industrial challenge halted the forward flight of an opponent, and the caution was inevitable. The rhythm from Hitchin was off the beat at least until that frantic closing period where a dramatic equaliser would have sent home fans home feeling a lot better.
But they still tried; Galliford and Chesmain put together a fair move, Bickerstaff sent forth a probing through ball but the goalie rushed to clear the threat. A good cross to the tall Banbury substitute, Ricky Johnson, who found it was even too high for him. Kaziboni was a thorn in Hitchin’s side both on the flank and in the middle and he was aided and abetted by Shamsi. I wondered why Banbury had saved all their classy stuff for the second half.
Fereel and Trey Charles had a go, with the latter fouled for a free-kick wide on the right. A shot from Spring was well wide and I noticed that Charles Hawtin was getting more and more into his defensive role. Now it was Banbury’s turn to gain the corners and Hitchin’s to defend them. After Bickerstaff was cautioned there was an amusing moment when a Banbury player needed treatment and the jolly decent referee signalled for the man with the magic sponge. This gentleman ambled rather than walked and a Hitchin spectator made the loud and somewhat comment that it was the physio himself who needed treatment as it was doubtful if he would reach his player. We do get a bit irate at times when trailing, do we not? But the brow was mopped and the player could face the remainder of the game with lantern-jawed heroism and we moved to the frenetic last period where Hitchin threw everything at the stoic Banbury defence.
Substitute Kirkpatrick sprayed in corners, Bickerstaff and Spring sent in optimistic but generally accurate crosses. Shots went in and many from close range in those hectic penalty area scrambles that are entirely unpredictable. One Bickerstaff cross was the cause of such panic that I was astounded that it was cleared at all – yet it was and credit goes to that unyielding Banbury defence as it does to the Hitchin lads who were indeed desperate to score and unlucky not to do so.
Time added on came and of course, when you are losing it goes so quickly you feel there is a mistake and if you are ahead it seems to last for ever. But be of good cheer since Hitchin went down fighting and did not accept defeat until the final whistle.
The result was not a good one, of course and I feel that manager Mike Burke will want to alter things with immediate effect – such losses to paraphrase Mr Churchill and not ending a sentence with a preposition – up with such results he will not put.
In the final analysis, Hitchin were the better team in the first half and with a slice of fortune could have been a couple of goals to the good. Banbury’s resurgence gained impetus from their snatched goal in the second half and their resilience in defence was notable. Their ability to counter quickly whilst not quite in the same class as leaders Kettering (who have won all their games so far), was indeed a major factor.
There is a short interlude form League games when the canaries host Harrow borough in the first round of the League Cup at Top field on Wednesday.
Michael Johnson, Macsen Fraser, cautioned (Sponsors Hitchin Town man of the match), Noah Chesmain, Matthew Spring, Lewis Ferrell, captain, Josh Bickerstaff, cautioned, Jack Green, (Treymayne Charles, 61), Charlie Smith, (Lucas Kirkpatrick, 84), Ezra Forde, (Michael King, 67), Robbie Burns, Isaac Galliford. Other substitutes – Elliott Bailey and Alexander Anderson.
James Goff, Jordy Neathe, cautioned, Charlie Wise, captain, Charles Hawtin, Jack Self, GOAL 54 MINUTES (Lewis Gabbidon, 89), Steve Diggin, cautioned, (Ricky Johnson 46), Ravin Shamsi, cautioned, Lee Henderson, cautioned, Gregory Kaziboni, this reporter’s man of the match, Giorgio Rasulo, (Mark Bell,) Jack Finch.. Other substitutes – Amer Adwadh and Ryan MacDonald.
REFEREE: Mr A Wilson, an exacting performance, ably assisted by Mr P McVey and Mr T Beeton.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN