Near neighbours Arlesey Town hosted the Canaries in this latest pre-season game – and it was welcome after the postponed then cancelled Hertfordshire Charity Cup Final against Hemel Hempstead Town.
Arlesey had a disappointing season and they were relegated to the Spartan Premier Division, and judging from their competitive display today I would not be surprised if they have a good go at returning to the Southern League in the forthcoming campaign.
As we are still enjoying the heat wave there were a goodly number of water breaks that almost matched the number of substitutions on the parched pitch. But the action had a good pace to it and saw, Hitchin, playing in all green, on the attack with immediate intent. We had barely gone beyond a minute when a cross from Alex Anderson was headed home by Robbie Burns – finishing a move that had poetic rhythm as well as questionable marking from the hosts.
Being a pre-season friendly team sheets are not always available so apologies to Arlesey for referring to their players by number. Hitchin complicated this by fielding one or two substitutes with no numbers on at all. ‘That is because we do not want anyone to know who they are’ was a remark I overheard from the Hitchin officials. Any-hoo as a different Mr Burns would say, the very useful Arlesey number nine did have a chance to equalise but he scuffed his shot – and there were not too many chances that fell the way of the home team.
I did think that Jack Green looked both useful and comfortable on the right wing and he had plenty of action in this first half. Skipper Josh Bickerstaff, who was on a hat-trick today, which was foiled by a penalty save from the diminutive but splendid Arlesey goalkeeper, was soon eager to increase the lead. He had one form shot saved and a little later saw a decent effort hit the cross bar, and none of us had noticed the off-side flag.
Hitchin’s superiority was all too apparent and both Bickerstaff and Burns headed and shot wide respectively. A free-kick, centrally just outside the area, was put just over the bar by the fiery Burns. Arlesey, however, ensured that their visitors did not have it all their own way and I liked the way they went at it, carefully marshalled by player/ manager James Hatch, whose leadership qualities I predict will be a great asset to his team. No doubt he will be working on the finishing, which was a little disappointing from the home supporters’ point of view. One shot went well wide when the striker had adequate time to set his sights more carefully, and they did need to defend well as the Canaries looked hungry for more goals. The Arlesey number eleven had a shot on target but it was low and lacked power and Michael Johnson was not tested. Elliot Bailey’s effort was saved and an Arlesey free kick, wide on the right was sent in imperiously but was missed by all and went out, almost apologetically, for a throw-in.
Three minutes before the half-hour mark Arlesey conceded an avoidable penalty which was emphatically converted by the reliable Bickerstaff with a fine left- footed strike found the bottom right corner. As the net bulged I thought of the recent documentary by Jonathan Meades. In one section he looked at the language used by commentators on football and he asked why we always say the ball hit the back of the net when it really is the front of the net. All right, he is a smart-arse and I should get out more.
I enjoyed the way that Hitchin passes were consistently accurate and they made excellent use of both flanks. The home side were provided with a decent opportunity with a free-kick centrally just outside the area but it was completely wasted and sailed into the undergrowth behind the goal. Their number two, who had been impressively involved had a good shot that needed careful monitoring by Johnson. The lively Ezra Forde saw his shot blocked by good defending and Bailey put another one over the bar after smart provision from Forde. An Arlesey free kick suggested potency but the resulting header was comfortable saved. Jack Green fired in a venomous effort that was saved at the expense of a corner.
Hitchin looked comfortable with their interval lead of two goals and after the break the usual multi-substitutions were made, causing some confusion of identity with hitherto strange faces of triallists and numberless shirts. As far as I could make out Bailey, Burns Forde and Green made way for Trey Charles, Patrick Tshikala…and well I cannot claim accuracy here – except that even earlier Jay Dowie replaced Kieron McCaffrey. I will endeavour to get this right when the season begins in earnest. I was however, not the only one confused by substitutions that seemed to mingle with the water breaks.
What did not change was the comfortable level of superiority of the visitors, which was expected, of course. Arlesey had two successive free-kicks, the first held by Johnson and the second was superbly defended by Toby Syme. Jack green’s header went wide and one of the Arlesey substitutes shot just wide. After a fine effort from Lucas Kirkpatrick an able bit of provision from Trey Charles enabled Josh Bickerstaff a tap in from close range to make it 3-0. The orange clad home goalkeeper excelled with two really fine saves and another effort from the visitors was cleared close to the line. Hitchin were awarded another penalty and we expected Bickerstaff to complete his forest hat-trick of the season, but he was splendidly foiled by the Pickford- sized home keeper.
I was mildly surprised by the local derby type of niggle. Not too much, but the exceedingly competent referee sorted it all out with some avuncular finger-wagging, suggesting that he would stop pocket money for a month. James Hatch, following an Arlesey free-kick looked certain to get his side some compensation but he fluffed his lines a bit. The hosts still looked for a goal but the game ended with a Hitchin flourish with a goal from Charlie Thrake and two late misses that in a League game would have had a lot more ‘oohs’ from spectators. I particularly liked the exciting moments created by Patrick Tshikala, who had moments in possession within the penalty area where it seemed he would walk the ball into the net.
In many ways it was a ‘form’ result, given the disparity of the teams’ league status. I will point out that Arlesey did dismiss this disparity with an earlier pre-season game with a 1-0 win away to Dunstable Town. There will be many changes before we see a ‘default’ Hitchin Town line-up, I suspect, but as such the game was entertaining and the hosts tried their best right to the end and they will have gained much from their performance today.
We wish James Hatch and his team all the best for the forthcoming League and Cup programme.
The Hitchin Town squad today was:
Michael Johnson, Alex Anderson, Toby Syme, Jonny Butler, Lewis Fennell, Josh Bickerstaff, two goals, 27 and 65 minutes, Kieron McCaffrey, Elliot Bailey, Ezra Forde, Robbie Burns, goal, 1 minute, Jack Green. Subs- Lucas Kirkpatrick, Jay Dowie, Patrick Tshikala, Trey Charles, Kieran Barnes, Josh Miles, Charlie Thrake, goal, 88 minutes, Jack Taylor and Craig Pateman.
Report by Pipeman