No excuses are offered here for a somewhat surprising score-line and a bit of an embarrassing defeat for the Canaries at Broadwater tonight. Hitchin admittedly were without some established players but with a majority in the side having first team experience they really ought to have done better.
But take nothing away from a vibrant and often exciting Berko team who are currently fighting it out at the top of the Southern League Division One Central. This domestic tie was the Hertfordshire Charity Cup and before the kick-off we were informed by the referee that for this tie the Sin Bin concept would be utilised. This would be new to these two Southern League teams and I half expected some contraptions to be wheeled on to the side of the pitch for the unwilling recipients. As it turned out there was no need for such temporary punishment and the only caution was Hitchin substitute Brett Donnelly.
The Comrades were expected to exert early pressure – and that Hitchin would absorb this before imposing themselves on the game. Not a bit of it. There was something hungry and urgent about the hosts and they were urged on by a very vocal group of young supporters behind the goal who employed a full repertoire of the usual chants and jibes against the opposition. They, at least had an evening of gleeful celebration as their heroes put the senior team to the sword, aided by a couple of woeful defensive errors.
Two probing crosses from the right seemed to expose Hitchin’s defence in aerial terms, which they fully exploited as the game progressed. Bradley Bell managed a deflected shot for Hitchin following a counter move and there was a half chance for Steve Cawley but already the home side were looking the more earnest and the sharper. Their movement off the ball enabled confident passing but as yet they were not testing Charlie Horlock who was barracked incessantly by those ebullient youths behind his goal.
Restricted to counter moves Hitchin tried to create something from through balls, with Cawley trying to set up Hutchinson but Xavi Comas Leon was quick to cut this out. At the other end Lacey had a weakish shot and then there was the unfortunate injury to Lewis Rolfe, who, I hear, might have suffered a broken nose. Both club physios attended to him in this long delay and he was replaced by Kye Tearle, a youngster who was making his Hitchin debut. We had played almost the half hour and there was not that much in it in terms of goal attempts, but the hosts looked likelier to score.
There was a suggestive flick from Bell but we were some way away from a real belter on goal. Summerfield did hit one but it nearly ended up on the railway line. There was a dangerous cross from the evergreen Danny Murphy that almost caught Horlock out. The Hitchin chairman leaned towards me and said ‘I think a goal is coming’. He was right but it was not for Hitchin. Berko forced two corners and following these Jonathan Lacey scored a peach of an opening goal. This was before stoppage time in this first half and for the six additional minutes they could well have added a second. One thing was clear – the hosts had imposed themselves with authority and Hitchin were looking incomprehensibly meek – and this was all the more surprising after their praiseworthy performance at Tamworth on Saturday. Yes it was a changed team tonight but the nucleus was there.
At the interval I was pleased to re-acquaint myself with a few officials I recall from earlier visits – back in Spartan League days. Lee Bircham, on the Comrades managerial staff was there along with his brother and father. I was pleased to learn of Berko’s resurgence since that reformation and it is good to know that they have a realistic chance of promotion to the Premier Division.
As far as the game went, we of the Hitchin contingent had some trepidations as it seemed unlikely that their standard of play would increase dramatically in the second half. What substitutes left were untried with the exception of Donnelly and Bickerstaff – and these could not be viewed as entirely match fit. Tearle had done well and it was good to see him get a run out. Da Silva would also enter the fray – but our main concern was the ineffective play of Gouveia and Hutchinson. Cawley looked off colour and so did the defence that was to commit a few blunders in a eyebrow raising second half for Hitchin.
Hitchin began well enough, but soon fell away as Berko once again employed some sweeping moves that had characterised their earlier play. Da Silva came on for the off-colour Gouveia. Coldicott-Stevens had a deflected shot but nine minutes into this period we watched aghast as, faced with a routing clearance from the back both Jack Green and Ben Walster combined to mess the whole thing up and this gave Alex Witham a comparatively simple task of scoring once he had unwittingly gained possession. Following this Summerfield had a deflected shot and there was no doubt now which was the better team on the night.
Five minutes later another error from Walster saw him botch a clearance and once again Witham exploited this to the maximum and scored his second goal of the evening. Even with these errors we cannot really excuse Hitchin’s meek and mild showing. Cooper almost made it four but for a Horlock save. Berko saw fit to give home debut to Jack Wood and it was a game he will remember – and he replaced Summerfield. We thought the comedy of errors was finished but there were one or two ironic comments when Brett Donnelly found himself cautioned once more and shortly after this Jack Wood slotted home the fourth goal – with the assistant’s flag not raised for the offside appeal.
There was the thorny realisation that Hitchin had not launched a serious attempt on the Berko goal and what efforts we did see seemed weak. Bell and Hutchinson both shot wide but apart from this there was very little penetration and this does raise some concern. I wonder if the players took the view that being only a domestic competition it was small beer. I find that hard to believe as any player, once out of the dressing room and on the pitch really does want to give it a go.
This is not the end of the ‘domestic’ road as the Hitchin team of whatever composition still need to face Hemel Hempstead Town at Vauxhall Road next Tuesday in the Herts Senior Cup quarter-final (11 February). It may not be the highest priority for both teams, embroiled as they are in vital league games but we hope for a greater presence from the Canaries.
I do not take anything away from Berko’s handsome victory tonight – and I am not surprised that they are promotion/title candidates in the Central Division – and all of us at Hitchin wish them all the best in this venture. Yes, there were two ‘gifted’ goals but there were a further two – both well taken and there is no doubt who deserved to win tonight.
Xavi Comas Leon, Dan Akubuine, Danny Murphy, Matt Cooper, Ryan Kinnane, Steve Hatch, (Ashley Morrisey), Lee Stobbs, Arun Amu, Alex Witham TWO GOALS, 54 AND 59 MINUTES, Jonathan Lacey, GOAL, 45 MINUTES, Will Summerfield, (Jack Wood, GOAL, 70 MINUTES.
Substitutes not used: Chamberlain, Toomey and Rogers.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, Josh Coldicott-Stevens, Layne Eadie, Lewis Rolfe, (Kye Tearle, 27 minutes), Lewis Barker, Bradley Bell, Stephen Cawley, (Brett Donnelly, 59), Jacob Hutchinson, Diogo Freitas Gouveia, (Rio Da Silva, 45).
Substitutes not used: Theo Reed and Josh Bickerstaff.
REFEREE: Mr J Perry, assisted by Mr M Mellor and Ms J Horwood.