The Canaries gained a slightly fortuitous point today against what turned out to be a rather impressive Alvechurch side that not only came from behind but almost snatched a late winner, denied only by Michael Johnson’s magnificent save that kept that precious point intact. This also underlined how important was Charlie Smith’s perfect eleventh minute free-kick that established a slender lead that became increasingly difficult to defend.
The Worcestershire club gained fame in the early 1970’s with their FA Cup tie with Oxford City which went to a painful number of replays before The Church had their prayers answered. The rule has changed now, but I also recall Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday enduring a similar marathon in more recent times, with the Gunners prevailing. Think of all that extra time in each replay; players were perhaps made of sterner stuff then. I am glad this game did not have extra-time as Hitchin were hanging on a bit at the end.
The consensus on the last outing for the hosts was that they were smiled kindly upon by providence at the expense of a rightfully aggrieved Godmanchester Rovers. Here I must add a correction that the second strike in the finale of that game was an own goal. I was mistaken in my giving the credit to Scott Belgrove; although I asked Peter Else, the photographer, who whipped through his frames and said it was Belgrove who scored. Well, forgive me, but everyone makes mistakes, as the Dalek said as it eased itself off the dustbin.
Hitchin had made subtle changes by moving Macsen Fraser into midfield with Alexander Anderson taking the right back slot. Jack Green was moved flanks. Other than that I noticed on my team sheet that the referee must be a person of importance as he was down as A. List.
Well another day, another dolour, perhaps. It did not augur well that The Church were quick out of the pews and played some crisp and co-ordinated attacking football. So, off we went with the familiar tentative start by the Canaries. Alvechurch seemed to make a declaration of attacking intent and were soon posing awkward questions. Mitch Botfield combined with Josh March who sent in an awkward cross defended by Jack Green and tidied up by Lewis Ferrell. A Church free-kick was crossed by March and the sprightly Kieron Cook (who dished up the goods all game) had a promising run which forced a corner.
Tom Turton, my choice for overall man of the match, sent in the corner and this brought a header from Cook that Michael Johnson tipped over the bar. Johnson had an outstanding game and we are indeed grateful for that. Moments later he held a free-kick effort and we were still waiting for the Canaries to get on song.
Well, after eleven minutes, there was a set-piece opportunity that was maximised. A free-kick was awarded to Hitchin, centrally, just by the ‘D’ of the penalty area. Charlie Smith presided, of course, and he delivered a perfect strike that gave the Canaries the lead. Celebrations of this were a little tempered with some rueful comments that Hitchin found it beyond them at present to keep a clean sheet. This was a little like enjoying yourself at a party but being reminded that you had an early start for work the next day.
Jamie Willetts, something of a towering defender was astute enough to sense counter play and this he did aided by Taylor Morrison but the move conceded a free-kick. This was beaten away as was a similar move from Hitchin’s Chesmain and Belgrove. Cook’s pace was a worry for the home defence and in one smart move he was going great guns until neatly dispossessed. Belgrove and Josh Bickerstaff constructed a half chance that was defended by the tall Willetts who saw the opportunity for counter play. The Church won a corner (they seemed to get so many to our empty quiver so far), and Turton’s high cross was met by Cook who was only denied by a quivering cross bar.
This was a warning and it did seem to me that this visiting side were more than good enough to get a goal or two. They won another free-kick and Willetts aimed for March who had to be content with yet another corner. Turton obliged and a foul on Johnson relieved the growing tension. Green managed a shot on target – but it was easy for the keeper and at the other end, yes, Church won another corner which Johnson met bravely but with the kind of grimace that suggested he would like a little respite. Morrison won a free-kick for the visitors, wide on the left but a shot came in and once again Johnson saved and was probably looking forward to his half-time cuppa so his stinging hands could recover.
Fraser was intercepted on a run, and Botfield combined with Josh Ezewele in two identical moves that were dealt with – if just a little nervously. Charlie Thake had a run but his reverse pass, though a good idea, was easily anticipated and before the half came to an end, the ubiquitous Turton had a shot , well held by Johnson – he of the stinging goalie gloves.
The whistle went for the interval and it was clear that Hitchin, with their slender set-piece lead would have to work very hard to keep a clean sheet in the second period.
Today’s match observer was Lee Forrester, a former referee, who told me his father, Paul, still a referee at this level, would be coming to the match. He did. He evoked a memory of a Representative Match played at Creasey Park, between the English Police Federation and the Welsh Police Federation. It was a competition run on the old lines of the Home Championships, which were abandoned, as I recall, when the Scots stole most of Wembley Stadium. There were enough coppers in the ground to fill a goodly number of piggy banks and what was noticeable was the astonishingly polite behaviour of the players. Forrester senior was refereeing and after about half an hour he made a plaintive request. Players who had been accidentally tripped received apologies from the perpetrator as they were helped up – goalkeepers were praised by the opposition for decent saves etc. Mr Forrester, when the ball went out of play said, with some frustration. ‘Will you lot stop being so blanking NICE to one another?’ His request went unheeded and an amicable 1-1 draw was the result and all had a decent meal afterwards generally complimenting one another’s performance. Even I was rendered almost speechless by such Corinthian values redolent of yesteryear. I recall I had more handshakes than a Royal opening a Centre for whatever is the flavour of the year.
What a contrast to some of the snarling stuff we have seen, with players almost ready to biff an opponent on the hooter with only slight provocation. Today’s game was mostly clean with just a couple of cautions – one for what is euphemistically termed as ‘taking one for the team’. I privately viewed the resumption with some trepidation as, it appeared to me, Hitchin were now at their most vulnerable and so it proved to be.
Turton was in like Flynn from the off and his pass to Danny O’Callaghan brought yet another save from the purple clad Johnson. Thake, Green and Bickerstaff put a move together that looked as if it had potential, but it was defended. The trouble was that Hitchin were direct but the simplicity of their forward moves allowed anticipatory defending. As well as that, some Hitchin forward moves degraded into a bit of back pedalling to retain possession. Thake was dispossessed on an optimistic run as was Fraser, and Green had a good shot that went wide.
Substitutes were employed by both sides, with Hitchin using their maximum number. But before this the Church struck and it was a cunning goal at that. We had played fifty-one minutes and that man Turton saw a chance for a deceptive through ball beyond the home defence that March ran onto and levelled the scores. It had been coming, I suppose, and no objective observer could say with honesty that they did not deserve it.
Hitchin’s response was as it should have been – they went forward – Fraser was fouled on a run, and the free kick from Smith was disappointingly high over the cross bar. Green had a good run but shot wide; Bickerstaff combined with Fraser but this was well defended. A free- kick aimed at Webb was just a shade too heavy for connection. Alvechurch had a free-kick from the right – taken by Turton and the resultant header went just wide.
The Church were still winning corners, and please correct me if I am wrong, but I do not recall Hitchin getting one corner, so we could all anticipate a Smith in-swinger, well at least until he was substituted. Talking of substitutes, the eager Galliford had a speculative shot from range and it went wide to no great surprise – but Green, Chesmain and Webb had a bit of vibrant pay and Webb was only just wide of the target. For every Hitchin move of aggression it seemed to be matched and exceeded by the opponents’ zeal in counter play. They are, without doubt, a compact and organised side, with talented players and I was impressed by the way they utilised all areas of the pitch, switching play to suit.
It may seem like heresy but honest reporting impels me to record that it was the visitors who seemed the more likely to go into the lead. The current Hitchin squad are yet to achieve their full potential but I do not think they will remain in that trio of places that is given the name of a zone beginning with a capital R. Nevertheless they have to battle for the points and the opening games have been a little underwhelming. I am still convinced that some team soon is going to get a sound thrashing but I hope it is sooner than later.
All very well, but we had the rest of this uncertain game to get through. It was on of those situations where one of the teams could have got a cheeky lead that would be sustained until the final whistle – but in real terms it seemed to favour Alvechurch. They had the edge in attack, were anticipatory in defence despite a high line and they had an eye for goal, an open eye, whereas Hitchin had a half closed one – but at least they were still trying to get through.
What marked the closing stages was a top-drawer save from the heroic Johnson who was in essence the man who earned the point today. It was his laudable save of the day from substitute Aaron Birch that sealed the result. Cook had sent in a cross and Johnson had parried for a corner and from this Birch rose to the occasion and Johnson made it more of an occasion with a truly admirable save. Mind you, those last minutes revealed some earnest Hitchin attacks that might well have afforded a Godmanchester type of finish. Well, we would have taken it even if the aesthetics of the game would have groaned in despair. No doubt three points would have been better than on but hands up we may say that we are grateful for the one.
It might not have been the relief of a point had Turton’s free-kick been converted by Birch right at the fag-end of the game. It was not to be and Hitchin somewhat timorously gained a point and were glad of it. The assessor and his Dad were convinced that it was Turton who scored the goal and that March failed to connect. I spoke to the Alvechurch players afterwards and March assured me he was the scorer. He is on a goal bonus and that might have something to do with it. Turton, I was informed also runs a junior academy for West Bromwich Albion. Good show that man.
It was a good game overall – clean and competitive and a vital one for Hitchin who are anxious to shake off the credit given to what is termed ‘luck’ and march forward under their own aegis. Alvechurch proved more than worthy opponents and I enjoyed their positive style of play. And what comes next? Yet another home fixture, and spare a thought for the unsung hero, Mick docking who has to put out a full programme. We take on Didcot Town, who were here for the League Cup final and they went down to a solitary goal but proved to be superb opponents. They will see it all as unfinished business and it looks like a classic cup-tie will be seen at Top Field.
But for now, we gain a point but need more to move away from the bottom three and start climbing the ladder of the division. It is within our scope and the sooner it is achieved the better we will all feel.
Michael Johnson, mentioned in dispatches, Alexander Anderson, Noah Chesmain, Lewis Ferrrell, Dan Webb, captain, Josh Bickerstaff, Macsen Fraser, (Treymayne Charles, 59), Charlie Smith, GOAL, 11 MINUTES, SPONSORS’ MAN OF THE MATCH, (Isaac Galliford, 72), Charlie Thake, Scott Belgrove, (Matthew spring, 59), Jack Green, other substitutes- Ezra Forde and Michael King.
Matt Sargeant, Josh Ezewele, Taylor Morrison, Tom Turton – this reporter’s overall Man of the Match, Kyle Morrison, Jamie Willetts, captain, cautioned, Dave Bellis, cautioned, Mitch Botfield, , (Aaron Lloyd , 58), Josh March, GOAL 51 MINUTES, Danny O’Callaghan, Kieron Cook, mentioned in dispatches, other substitutes- Luke Yates, Paul Evans, GK.
REFEREE – Mr A List presided over the match well and was ably assisted by Mr R Allinson and Mr S Gregory.
ATTENDANCE – 365
REPORT BY PIPEMAN