A somewhat feisty second half, full of incident ensured this was far from a dull score-less draw, since we witnessed two missed penalties and two dismissals. Vitally, Hitchin showed a good level of recovery from the poor showing against Welwyn Garden City in the League Cup on Tuesday.
There are two schools of thought. The first is that it is commendable to hold the League leaders to a draw on their own turf but the second is that two miss two successive penalties is sheer profligacy that we can ill afford. As such it means that the first league win still eludes us. If just one of those penalties had beaten Jack Harding, then three points would almost certainly have been gained. But a point is a point, and more are needed to steer the club away from the dreaded bottom three slots, and I know it is early in the season.
It was a day of glorious weather at The Spencer Stadium, with many of the four hundred and five spectators in shirt sleeves, and water breaks for the players were quietly and sensibly permitted. Predictably there were many changes from the League cup game but one of these was soon a hobbling casualty and had to be replaced. I am speaking of Brett Donnelly who started as the recognisable striker, but an awkward fall in the first few minutes saw him replaced by Alex Anderson.
Home commentators may be forgiven for thinking that Hitchin had come ‘to park the bus’, but they have strikers on the injury list and put out the best team they could, which did have a lot of central defenders and yes, they did play five at the back. It did seem that we would need this extra precaution since the hosts soon began passing the ball around with a majestic style. One home supporter lugubriously outlined his team’s style as lots of passing that had the tiresome anti-climax of unfulfilled finishing moves. I would agree with this to a point, since Charlie Horlock was nor severely tested – but did have a slice of good luck when he was beaten in the second half when a great shot from John mills, from the right and from range struck the far post and rolled along the goal line into the keeper’s grateful arms. Everyone thought it would be a goal and I still feel the sense of relief that it was not, conceding that it would have been a worthy winner.
Yet this first half was not particularly outstanding and to underline that I had my voice recorder going for some minutes before I was able to record anything of particular note. The hosts had most of the possession at this stage and what was apparent was how composed the Hitchin defence was for the entire half and my lead note was that they had achieved some kind of contentment with containment. That in itself does not win games but it does do a lot for the rebuilding of confidence. Josh Bickerstaff was a good deal more comfortable in a position that suited him better. New signing Layne Eadie showed particular composure and indeed qualities of organisation.
Anderson’s appearance was ultimately fortuitous, even if did lessen the attacking options – but not in the second half when all and sundry wanted to have a crack on goal or at least the preparatory work towards that objective. The problem in this first period was sustaining a period of meaningful possession as The Puritans were greedy in this respect. Their was huge potential in their sweeping moves, often switching play and players such as Charles Hawtin and Claudio Dias being involved in some well-crafted interchanges – yet the crosses , when they did come were over generous and dealt with accordingly. Hitchin’s long clearances were less than encouraging as they seemed always too optimistic or played into a space where no green shirt was placed. But they did have an effort or two that was not to be deemed inconsiderate.
Jack Green, always a competitor, had a header go wide, but Jack Harding, a local lad, much revered by the home faithful, and making his two hundredth appearance was not seriously troubled and proceeded to cover himself with glory and earn not one but two bottles of bubbly for his heroic penalty saves in that tumultuous second half.
Alex Anderson was presented with a real possibility with a flick forward but astute play from Connor Roberts denied him that fulfilment. Hitchin defenders were showing some prowess in holding the line but the forward distribution ensured they did not have much of a breather before the next multi-pass assault even of they ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
Eadie’s free kick was almost choreographed, given his lengthy tactical instructions, and it resulted in a wayward header from Bickerstaff. At this stage I glanced at my team sheet – supplied in good time, (Welwyn please note), had a score-line of 0-0 beside the team names – a prophetic insertion, perhaps? But to sum up this half it would be sufficient to say that the home side had more possession, more style but they could have done with less art and more matter, to paraphrase the Bard.
The Hitchin contingent was reasonably pleased and possibly a bit relieved that a goal had not been conceded – with the consensus being that if the Puritans breached the defence once they might do so again and we would be looking at another defeat.
This first half was akin to a gentle vicar’s tea party given what occurred in the blood -letting in the second half that saw those infamous penalties and the two dismissals that reduced both teams to ten men. I will add that Hitchin’s performance in this period was one of great improvement and showed character.
The Spencer Stadium continued to be bathed in welcome sunshine and an immediate attack saw Green seek Eadie for a chance which was carefully thwarted – there was a shot straight at Horlock as well.
During the first half, those stylish moves from the hosts were beginning to lose composure, possibly through frustration, but Hitchin were becoming more dangerous on the break. – moving the ball around with greater confidence. Defending was still a prodigy of stoutness, with the odd blip, but to err is human. Max Ryan had a moment where a bit of control would have permitted the shot, but he was cleanly denied. Barker’s intended shot was stoutly blocked, and then Banbury won a couple of corners. This gave hope to the home crowd but they were beaten away if not artistically, it was with emphasis.
Then the drama really began. The hitherto unspectacular Okuboyejo had a definite chance and was clearly fouled in the penalty area and the shrill whistle and the pointed hand gestured a penalty kick, which was, of course hotly disputed by those in Banbury red with yellow piping. The decision was correct and irrevocable, but there was an inordinate delay before the kick was finally permitted. We were two minutes short of the hour mark and Jay Dowie, who converted a penalty against Wisbech in the FA cup was selected for the task.
I was amused by our fixtures’ secretary, Chris Newbold, who made the withering comment in the direction of the referee that he has ‘seen VAR take less time than this penalty kick.’ I feel Chris would be a fine pundit on a post match analysis for the humorous asides alone. Right, the penalty. Dowie against Harding. Wallop. Harding saved to a great predictable cheer. Then hey, what was this , Max Ryan was prostrate in the penalty area and appeals were full and plenty from those in green shirts and those in red were also giving their views. The referee went to consult the linesman and after the customary waving away of distraught players there was a meaningful conversation which resulted in the award of a second penalty and also the dismissal of Lee Henderson. This fine player had already been cautioned and I think he received a second yellow – some thought it was a straight red. I did not get a chance to speak to the referee afterwards as I needed to get home to compose this report.
Anyway, off he went and the Puritans were one fewer in number. Dowie did not take the penalty – this was left to the combative Bickerstaff who placed the kick the same side and Harding saved again and there was a bit of pushing anD shoving as Bickerstaff and others tried to follow up. I thought of Oscar Wilde.. and I will paraphrase. To miss one penalty is unfortunate, but to miss two is downright careless. Thereby victory was ultimately denied and good gracious we nearly lost it when John Mills’ shot struck the foot of the post and was gathered fortuitously by Horlock.
‘He can score an own goal, but he can’t score a bleedin’ penalty’ was one sour comment aimed at our Josh but it does take some nerve and sense of responsibility to be given the onerous job in the first place. The rest of the game was frenetic and both sets of supporters may well have thought that the other team would nick a late winner as that does happen, and if it happened to us we might have faced chants of ‘nil-nil and you messed it up’. Then there was a cross for Anderson that left him with a real chance to score but the ball clipped off the top of his boot. It would have been a wonderful goal. But I will remember how Mills’ effort struck the post and that, if it had been a goal, could have been the final word.
We had not yet done with significant incidents. Max Ryan, still pumped with adrenalin committed a rash challenge and was dismissed for a second yellow and the numerical advantage, which had not yet manifested itself was lost. An own goal would have completed the bizarre nature of these closing scenes. Both teams were going for the winner- Giorgio Rasulo taking corners from both sides, Jack Westbrook lording it, unmarked in midfield, and substitute Gedeon Okito (a player I knew well in his former career at Dunstable Town, along with Claudio Dias), doing useful stuff on the left flank. Dan Webb defended with gusto, putting the ball into the sinister adjoining foliage behind the terraces, heedless of the angry ball boys, and this was suggestive that a point gained was better than one lost and so we concluded with a draw that is both pleasing and frustrating to both sets of supporters for contrasting reasons.
With the emotional stress now filed away we were able to pick the best pieces from this and say at once this was a good overall performance from Hitchin, particularly in the second half – but that sweet smell of victory- albeit from a penalty was sacrificed and consequently we still seek a first league win and this takes us to the next opportunity on Monday night when we entertain Rushden and Diamonds. I take much hope from the Banbury supporters who said to me ‘you are not a basement side’. For this, much thanks, but we need points to prove this.
Jack Harding, man of the match, Connor Roberts, Pablo Heysham, Jack Westbrook, captain, cautioned, Charles Hawtin, Giorgio Rasulo, Claudio Dias, (Eddie Odihambo, 85,), Jannai Gordon, (Ricky Johnson, 82), Lee Henderson, dismissed after two cautions, 60. John Mills, Anderson Cayola Villarrroel, (Gedeon Okito, 65).
Substitutes not used – Roger Ngaah Bosio and Denilson Silva.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, Layne Eadie, Jay Dowie, Dan Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Max Ryan, dismissed, after two cautions, 72, Lewis Barker, Brett Donnelly, (Alex Anderson, 10), Leon Okuboyejo, Josh Bickerstaff.
Substitutes not used – Ciaran Gordon-Stream, Joseph Gauge, Marcus Crowther and Lusaed Kastrati.
REFEREE: Mr Daniel Pattison, Worcestershire, assisted by Mr Jonathan Price, Worcestershire and Mr Joshusa Hackett, Warwickshire.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN