It was not entirely happy hunting in Huntingdonshire today. Both teams had emerged successfully from epic FA Cup ties but today were indeed concentrating on the League. Mind you, Hitchin did need to with only one recorded win before today and that against out of form Redditch United. Maximum points would not have raised us beyond the bottom three owing to goal difference ( enter the ghost of Needham Market) but on the plus side the team have now, with today’s draw gone half a dozen league and cup games without defeat and that is worth a mention.
Also worth a mention was the fine hospitality received from our opponents and a big plus was the pristine pitch at Rowley Park after the scarred a threadbare Didcot town playing surface, that was not entirely conducive to fine football. A bonus too was the sunshine and lack of wind – excellent conditions for the game.
Hitchin were without Dan Webb and Charlie Smith but it was good to see the return of Noah Chesmain, now recovered from injury. In the absence of Webb, Josh Bickerstaff took over the duties as captain for the Canaries. Before the kick-off I was mildly amused at the non-functioning electric scoreboard. It read a dramatic score-line of 8-8 and the time elapsed was eighty-eight minutes. Now that would have been a game and a bit and I am pleased to report that both defences were nowhere near as profligate. We had no goals today but the Saints could point out that they would have scored two but for the woodwork, both of these chances coming in the second-half.
This was not a dull, goal-less draw and I do not agree with those who implied that it was a poor match of little enterprise. The total commitment of both teams throughout was laudable and if defences were dominant it was not for lack of effort. An early Hitchin move was headed clear by Matt Miles, who replicated this seconds later and went on to have an outstanding game for the home side.
Ben Worman exchanged passes with a sprightly Dion-Sembie-Ferris that forced a corner, taken by skipper Johnny Herd. It was one of a number of well-taken corners that called upon the anticipation of Michael Johnson, who kept a second successive clean sheet and played with calm assurance. A move from Jack Green and Isaac Galliford was thwarted by miles and a run from Scott Belgrove resulted in a Hitchin corner. This led to a shot from josh Bickerstaff that was deflected for another corner and we saw Galliford pass again to Bickerstaff whose next effort was saved by Harry Reynolds. A good home move involving Tom Wood, Taylor Parr and Johnny herd resulted in a looping forward ball snatched safely by Johnson. Those who claim dullness may like to recall the variety in attacking play – including a couple of cunning Hitchin corners that might have gained reward.
A long through ball to Belgrove had too much pace for the striker and a free-kick, wide on the left from Chesmain was defended at the expense of a further free-kick, well taken by Spring who picked out Alex Anderson who could only manage a weak shot. At the other end the Saints had another corner but it was safely shepherded out for a goal kick. The lively Green tried matters with Chesmain but the chance was nullified by Taylor Parr – and the same two players tried again with Green clearing the bar. The next Hitchin effort was intercepted by the astute Miles who made sure of his intervention by lofting the ball clear out of the stadium. I recall the secretary of one club who, witnessing such carelessness always yelled at the ‘offending’ player ‘Now go and get the ball back, you clown.’ Apparently on more than one occasion when he grudgingly went to retrieve the ball, small boys had got there before him and retreated to the middle distance with their prize, emitting unflattering catcalls to the pursuing and angry official. I never told him that boys will be boys as he would have cuffed me round the ear or elsewhere. I never let on that I was amused at his usual comment and odd pronunciation of ‘Thieving bar-steds’.
Chesmain was increasingly getting forward and managing a cross or two – with miles defending precisely. A corner from Spring saw Green shoot wide. Sembie-Ferris was matched for pace by Claudio Ofuso (an outstanding player), and his shot was held by Johnson. A dangerous moment came when a Herd corner sailed across and begged for a connecting header which thankfully was not forthcoming – and it was indicative of how forward players on both sides just failed to produce a star moment. But I will add immediately it was mostly because both defences did their jobs to the letter.
Saint Neots were slightly the better in attack at this stage, if one looks at the accumulated chances. Worman underlined this when he provided a chance for Nabil Shariff but again Johnson was there to save. I must say that so far I have not seen a keeper who exceeds Johnson in talent or consistency – and our man was the hero at Didcot in the penalty competition. Mind you he was caught off his line in another home foray and relied on a defender to head clear. Charlie Thake had a half chance but could not improve this and the striker did not have the most illuminating half. Was this post Didcot fatigue, I wondered.
A Macsen Fraser free-kick was held by Reynolds and a finely constructed, multi-pass move by the hosts in stoppage time proved to be too elaborate and shortly after the whistle indicated the end of the half. I say again it was not a bad half as all players had shown rigorous commitment and both defences had done the jobs assigned to them. More could have been made of possible goal chances but it had been more or less an even game and a clean, competitive match.
There was a similarity in style to the Didcot game, but of course there would be no extra time in this league match. I discussed the FA Cup opponents of next week, Hastings United, who no doubt had a spy in the stadium as we had despatched our own informer to watch them. My private plea was the avoidance of a replay (and extra time), since the long journey home would mean a very, very late night for me and the completion of my report. What I detected, or wanted to detect was a more solid Hitchin Town, who in their unbeaten spell have answered certain questions. So far the hosts had pressed hard but failed to breach the defence. Hitchin are a very resilient side.
Having said that they did so in their very first assault on goal in the very first minute (not even giving me as chance to ignite the Second Half Pipe when a low, firm shot struck the foot of the post and it led to a fair amount of home pressure that if nullified, asserted itself in a rather dominant last fifteen minutes or so. With the current deadlock, substitutions were inevitable and indeed imminent. Spring, Thake and Green made way for Ezra Forde, Trey Charles and Jay Dowie for the visitors, and the hosts employed Russell Short, Dylan Williams and ex- Dunstable Town man, Gary Wharton. I am not sure of the reliability of the information received, but the ex-Dunstable man was out for a long time with a broken leg and having recovered from this accidentally walked into a door and ensured a further period of enforced recuperation. The man who told me this said he would be not asking for this player’s lottery numbers.
Wharton displayed no signs of trauma relating to his misfortune and he had a few good goes on goal as well as acting as provider. Ezra Forde was a target man but was so closely monitored it negated chances of success. But he provided a bit of concern to defenders as did Trey Charles. But the pattern of this half saw gradual Saints domination and pressure and they oh so very nearly took the lead when Sembie-Ferris unleashed a beauty of a strike that looked certain to find the top corner but the ball struck the junction of cross bar and upright. Close, but no cigar, as the phrase goes.
St Neots bagged a few more corners and these were good, but so was Johnson in intercepting them. The game took on a familiar pattern on the home side pushing forward, not wanting to drop home points, and the away team absorbing the pressure and relying on canny counter play. #the trouble was, that forced to play deep, Hitchin could not staff the penalty area for would-be crosses, and more than one went begging.
The game’s solitary caution was doled out to substitute Russell Short, who went from saint to sinner and was given short shrift and a yellow card by the referee who, I may add had an excellent game insofar as we seemed hardly aware of him, which is a positive sign. I also note that we seem to be allocated more and more youthful officials and they have been expertly trained for their duties. The game had flowed without pedantic intervention and had been keenly contested without so-called professional fouls. This added to the overall enjoyment of the game as a fair and sporting contest.
There was a Hitchin chance with a Lewis Ferrell header but an infringement had been spotted. Forde had a determined run in the box but lingered too long for effectiveness and Wharton’s shot from range was comfortably saved by Johnson. He also sent in a cross that was smartly defended as well as lofting another effort way over the bar. There was an odd spell where a free kick from the Saints keeper went straight to Johnson who then booted the ball up field and this went straight to the opposite keeper. This happened twice in succession and I thought maybe they were giving the outfield players a breather. Well, we went to the last part of the game with the hosts pressurising and constructing good forward moves that were unfulfilled and the odd counter from the visitors that went astray for lack of bodies forward – but one could hardly blame Hitchin for settling for a point away from home. A snatched win was apparently beyond them but the point was a valuable one and the unbeaten run continues.
Despite some unflattering and distinctly lugubrious comments from those in both camps, I believe if I had been playing I would have settled for the point knowing that the team had worked well and hard. A point is a point and away from home as well. I do believe that St Neots will be less satisfied with the point since they had struck the woodwork twice and if they had gone in maximum points would have been the outcome, I am sure. I will stick by my view that this was a good game – tactically sound, more or less and the efforts from players were praiseworthy. One Saints’ official summed it up by suggesting that both teams were saving up their goals for their forthcoming FA Cup games. I hope he proves to be a prophet.
ST NEOTS TOWN
Harry Reynolds, Matt Miles, Johnny Herd, captain, Harry O’Malley, (Russell Short, cautioned), Tom Wood, Taylor Parr, Dion Sembie-Ferris, James Peters, (Gary Wharton), Nabil Sharriff, Ben Worman, Claudio Ofuso, (Dylan Williams), other substitutes- Dan Olaniran and Devante Stanley.
Michael Johnson, Macsen Fraser, Noah Chesmain, Matt Spring, (Jay Dowie), Lewis Ferrell, Josh Bickerstaff, captain, Alex Anderson, Isaac Galliford, Charlie Thake, (Ezra Forde), Scott Belgrove, Jack Green,(Trey Charles). Other substitute – Josh Mollinson.
Referee: Mr Robert Evans – a fine game and well assisted by Mr James Wetherall and Mr Joe Woolmer.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN