This FA cup encounter was as close as the score suggests, with Lewis Barker’s close range goal just before half-time being the essential difference. If the game did not meet all expectations, it was unpredictable in outcome right to the very last kick. I had spoken to Barton’s manager, Tony Fontenelle before the game and quietly reiterated my prediction of a score draw, which I am happy to say was not fulfilled.
I had contacted ex-Canary ‘Yella’ when the draw was made and part of his text read ‘we will give a good account of ourselves’. This was indeed fulfilled and what I considered a strong Barton team contained a fair sprinkling of former Dunstable Town and Hitchin Town players who would all be comfortable at a higher level – but it is evident that ‘Yella’ inspires notable player loyalty and he may be proud of the Rovers’ gritty and earnest performance.
Our ‘Indian Summer’ continues with Sharpenhoe Road basking in sunshine. The seniority of Hitchin by one division would be adequately dispensed with by the notorious vagaries of the FA Cup – but the fact that the Hitchin team sheet had two goalkeepers among the named substitutes was evidence of Mark Burke’s limited choice owing to injuries. This, it would appear, is a problem that will not be remedied for a while – and growl you may but go you must. New loan signing from Hemel Hempstead, Steve Cawley came on as a second half substitute and suggested that his month’s stay at Top field could be very beneficial to the club.
It was not an entirely auspicious start for Hitchin who knew that their hosts clearly saw this tie as winnable, given Hitchin’s lowly position and being without a win so far in League games; the only win being in the FA cup in the last round at Wisbech town.
An early free kick from Lewis Ferrell was redolent with possibilities – and was a fair effort. I was privately disappointed that the hosts had forsaken their Blackburn style kit but according to their kit man it was difficult to wash; the new kit was stylish but not particularly attractive. Squad numbers were also employed by Rovers and this led to some confusion as not everything corresponded – so forgive any errors.
Barton produced some early possibilities and found the Hitchin defence somewhat accommodating in this respect. There was a low shot, weak but on target from Leon Okubyejo, easy for Kyle Forster, who was not troubled again in this fairly passive first half. He then tried to thread a ball through, intercepted by Sam Gibson and Taishan Griffiths.
There was a Baron shot from Nathan Tshikuna, assisted by the pace of Victor Osubu. These forward moves had us feeling edgy and it was the hosts who looked the likelier to score. Indeed they did appear to and had begun celebrating before attention was drawn to a raised flag for off-side. Marcus Crowther, given a start today was clearly intending to impress and had a good game overall. Josh Bickerstaff was to receive his customary caution and a prolonged reprimand. A free-kick from Gary Jones, a prodigy in stoutness that did not affect his decent play in this game, sent in a free-kick that was only just short of the target. Horlock saved one attempt which had our gratitude even if the offside flag went up again. This aspect was perhaps not the preferred script – and neither was Okuboyejo’s run that was impressive until he discovered he no longer had the ball at his command.
John Sonuga was having a bit of a tough time in his defensive manoeuvres and he received derision when the youngest and slimmest player on the pitch, Hitchin number nine Ross Hannah, seemed to scythe the bulky defender to the bone and when Sonuga appealed to the referee there were ironic sounds of empathy from the Hitchin massive behind the goal. Mention may be made of the large numbers of away supporters at this local derby and the attendance of 381 reflected the good level of interest in this game.
Jemale McKenzie-Lowe was another defender/midfielder who was prone to errors of judgement – particularly in the second half when his confident back pass almost gifted a goal for the opposition and was only prevented by the foot of the post. But amid the errors was some inventive play – mostly from the hosts at this stage and it did suggest again that if a goal were to come it would go to the Rovers.
Crosses by both teams tended to be on the heavy side and there was a tad too much ‘football tennis’ when the fair playing surface called out for more gracious play. Free-kicks were also on the disappointing side – but I did like the way Barton tended to switch play in the same manner that Rushden and Diamonds did. One from Gary Jones was looking good and it landed on top of the net.
Barker played a good ball to Ferrell whose intended cross was blocked – and we were waiting for a definite crack on goal from Hitchin, but it was not to come until right at the end of the half. Osubu’s corner was defended and Jack Green’s cut inwards in possession was beaten away. Anderson was fouled and Dean Drummett received a caution – one of five during the game.
With the forty-five minutes having almost expired a goal came for Hitchin – untidy and scrambled – but a goal for all that. Barton’s effort had been ruled offside to the relief of travelling supporters but this one counted at what is described as a vital psychological moment to get one in – and in this case particularly as disappointment would be felt by home players at their disallowed effort.
There was just three minutes between the disallowed and the legitimate goal. Okuboyejo won a free-kick, and from this Ferrell sent it across. Confusion ensued but it was Barker who converted – I think from his knee – someone said his hand but I did not see that at all – it was a knee for me – and after that the whistle went for half-time. I will say there were no passionate protests from home players of an alleged hand ball.
Barton would have been disappointed as they had played positively and used their pace men well. Both teams were a little nervous in some defensive moments but I fully expected the home team to come out for the second half with guns blazing. This was not exactly the case and Hitchin’s performance in this second period was greatly improved.
It needed to really as there was a fragility about play that was not conducive to comfortable viewing. Things were generally tightened up and forward moves were not just occasional enterprises. Ross Hannah, a sixteen year old in his second game was showing good touches – but a little hesitancy in one move where he went for the return pass rather than have a crack on goal. Then came the blush-inducing back -pass from McKenzie-Lowe that brought derisive jeers from the Canary supporters and a right rollicking reprimand from Kyle Forster. JML blinked in apology and I recall that he was always known as ‘Bambi’ at Dunstable. Mind you, Hitchin could have done with that goal for the sake of their nerves as the hosts did not conceded until the last kick and late corners from them could well have brought a replay at Top Field on Monday night.
We had an example of the new rule when the ball strikes the referee, but it brought moans from supporters as Hitchin were in possession and the bounce up was one of those sporting jobs that allow the player to stroke the ball towards the goalie. Jones proved useful to Barton for building moves from the left – and was left curiously unmarked as well. Charlie Horlock showed variety in his repertoire with a double fisted punched clearance and a more interesting one where he cleared with two headers, one from outside his penalty area. This amply demonstrates the legitimate aggression from Rovers – but Hitchin were the closest to comfortable than they had been.
Gibson and Osubu were tricky on the right. Substitutions were made but the public address system seemed muffled causing someone to yell out ‘Get that sock out of the tannoy’, to show that wit is not dead in Bedfordshire. New man Steve Cawley came on, as expected. Jerome Jibodu came on for Griffiths and he produced some good stuff as well. Home crosses still tended to be on the heavy side, though.
Dowie was having a fine game and seemed to appear in all areas of the pitch, and always in a severely competitive mode. A Hitchin free-kick hit the defensive wall for a corner and this brought another – and of course, the more the ball was in the Barton half the better it was. Okuboyejo was well wide with a further attempt on goal – and yet another was corner was won before long. Hawley’s touches were precise and his passing was crisp.
Jones was persistent on the left as Barton mounted further assaults for the equaliser – but Hitchin defending was aided by imprecise passing from their opponents. Osubu’s corner brought a shot that took a deflection yet Horlock was able to secure the ball. Osubu’s next shot was similarly held – but the Rovers were roving and seeking.
As we went to the last ten minutes or so – there was a feeling that Hitchin would hang on to this lead and Okuboyejo’s caution for time-wasting did suggest that they had closed up shop. The flurry of late Rovers’ pressure was defended adequately and with a little trepidation Hitchin progressed to the next round with a win as narrow as the one at Wisbech. Crowther put one over the bar as a kind of parting shot in the game and I think away supporters were glad of the final whistle.
Barton Rovers had played with spirit and a good level of skill – and they can look back at that disallowed goal and the fumbled manner of the only goal of the game. The good feature of the prize money is that a not insignificant proportion is paid to the losers and it is the case up to the Fourth Round Qualifying.
Of course I feel for ‘Yella’ for whom I worked as club secretary and mini bus driver in our Dunstable days – but it is obvious he has the respect and loyalty of his players which is a great plus for the Bedfordshire side. I enjoyed the laid back hospitality and was amused when Darren Whiley, the Barton Chairman playfully refused me entry to the board room as ‘we do admit persons wearing ties here’. I said I was Old School like our Chairman and I am sure his smile meant he misheard it as ‘I am an old fool like our Chairman’ as he said ‘Come in, Pipeman’.
So the big local cup derby finished in favour of the senior team which was not universally expected – but Hitchin move forward and now seek their first league win at Kings Langley on Tuesday.
Kyle Forster, Taishan Griffiths, (Jerome Jibodu, 63), Gary Jones, captain, Dean Dummett, cautioned, John Sonuga, cautioned, Jemale McKenzie-Lowe, Victor Osubu, Sam Gibson, (Dylan Gittens, 76), Connor Vincent, Tony Williams, (Ibby Lakulay, 85, Nathan Tshikuna.
Substitutes not used: Dan Gould GK, Lewis Thomas, Lukas Didik and Dan Olaniran.
Charlie Horlock, Alexander Anderson, (Steve Cawley, 61), Marcus Crowther, Jay Dowie, Joe Gauge, Lewis Ferrell, Lewis Barker, GOAL 45 MINUTES, Cautioned, Jack Green, Ross Hannah, Leon Okuboyejo, cautioned, Josh Bickerstaff, cautioned.
Substitutes not used: Josh Mollison GK, Lusaed Kastrati, James Verney, Dan Webb and Ciaran Gordon-Stearn GK.
REFEREE: Mr Ryan Williams assisted by Mr Miroslav Belik and Mr Thomas Beeton.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN