Didcot Town 0 Hitchin Town 0 (3-2 Pens)

Tuesday 25th September 2018 | 7:45 pm
Loop Meadow


DIDCOT TOWN 0 HITCHIN TOWN 0 AET. Hitchin won 3-2 on penalties. FA Cup 2QR Replay

No-one among the Hitchin Town contingent thought this was going to be anything else but tough – which was a realistic and not a pessimistic assessment, and indeed Didcot may well feel proud of their outstanding contribution to both encounters, where they took leave of the Competition on a penalty ‘shoot-out.’ Their disappointment was matched by Hitchin’s relief, and the Canaries may look forward to another home tie – against Hastings United in the next round.

This was my first visit to The Loop Stadium and I liked what I saw – but confess to mild disappointment in the pitch, which was not only prematurely threadbare in parts but had some curious longitudinal grooves that suggested the faded markings for American football (hand-egg, to be more precise). Maybe it was a symbolic representation of Brunel sized rails, since the railway was close by, and is a notable sponsor of the club.

I also noticed the rising full moon as the teams strode out, rising from behind the incongruity of an electricity pylon. Right – that is enough poetry, so on with the job. The Railwaymen were unchanged from Saturday, as were Hitchin – with the exception of Robbie Burns, who was injured, and he was replaced by Scott Belgrove.

It was evident from the outset that both teams meant business and the game was played at a spanking pace throughout. Hitchin had the first foray with Jack Green enabling a Trey Charles cross from the left. Macsen Fraser’s lofted ball was gathered by Leigh Bedwell. Following a blocked attempt from Green, the hosts began to play more aggressively with Seth Humphries and Morgan Williams combining to send a fine cross across the face of the goal, which did not find a connection, but another Williams cross was deflected for a corner. From this clearance Belgrove had a run that if it did not run out of steam, he ran out of pitch and committed a foul on the way.

A swift home attack saw Fraser as last man and although he coped, and won a free-kick, it did suggest a possible vulnerability. Brett Gardner was always thereabouts, but he was not as influential as he was on Saturday. Williams – who was always a worry saw his cross defected for another corner. Both Barder and McNeill who may safely be termed wing backs, had a decent part of attacking play and the former sent in another cross that zipped across the goalmouth begging for meaningful connection.

Hitchin were not allowed to settle on the ball and as the hosts began to exert more pressure, it was not relieved by clearances that went to an opponent rather than someone in a yellow and green shirt. This ensured a continual period of pressure, and Johnson needed to be alert to save a header. Spring sprung onto a loose ball and Ferrell took it up on the left, but this was intercepted and Garner combined with Williams, whose shot was just wide of the near post.

Ferrell continued undeterred and he enabled Bickerstaff to have a go, which was securely blocked and so was a neat forward ball after good play from Green and Spring. Green’s cross, trying to pick out Thake looked good – but a red and white shirted player got in the way. Hitchin were now living a little dangerously and the concession of a free-kick, centrally just outside the area was greeted with encouragement by home supporters who groaned as the effort from Seth Humphries sailed harmlessly over the cross bar. It occurred to me and I am sure many others that this game may well be settled by a set piece so it was incumbent on the players not to waste such opportunities.

After a bit of worrying action in the Hitchin penalty area, the hectic pace was temporarily halted owing to an injury, with Alex Anderson requiring treatment. On resumption we saw a typical forward run by Barder that lacked support and then Thake had a go himself, assisted by Green and Belgrove but this was defended by Didcot. Yes sir, it was lively enough and I was pleased to see Hitchin get in a meaningful shot at last, courtesy of Thake who was wide of the target. Johnson was astute enough to run from his line to cut out a crucial pass. Green was still trying and he looked for Charles with a cross and this brought a good shot matched by a fine save by Bedwell.

Barder had a crack and McNish was beginning to be more troublesome to the Hitchin defence, and a searching Williams cross was cut out by Johnson. A Spring free kick was defended by Carnell, but overall the initiative was more with the hosts, but McNish hurried his shot and wasted the effort. The game was so absorbing I was a little surprised when the half-time whistle went- feeling we had more time to go.

I had made the note that ‘Diddy had clearly edged it so far but neither keeper was severely tested.’ I also thought it would ultimately be all about stamina, especially if it went to extra-time. As we were leaving the board room after the interval, a home official made a wry comment. ‘See you back here at the end of the game, whenever that is.’ It was a good point since these two teams were closely matched in every department. My fear was that the game would be won or lost following a serious error, but the game was so tight it was clear that players were focused on avoiding just that. Trey Charles had lost his shirt number and it was explained that he was wearing the ‘blood shirt’ – so he was not just sweating for his team but shedding blood as well.

Hitchin began the half well, encroaching without reward, then Humphries assisted Gardner, whose shot was blocked I and this was followed by Barder pumping in a cross that won yet another corner, resulting in Learoyd striking wide. Gardner and Barder then replicated the move with another effort blocked by the Canary defence. Another attack was halted by an off-side flag. Anderson assisted Green whose cross was cut out by Carnell and a fine angled shot from Thake almost took some paint off the cross bar.

Williams was persistent as he was energetic, and McNish had two efforts beaten down, and Green had a header that went wide. It was all hectic stuff. A free-kick, wide on the right brought the inevitable cross with Johnson intervening confidently. Hitchin were infiltrating more – giving the game a good balance but a move from gardener and Williams necessitated Johnson to make a low and somewhat brave save with eager boots awaiting the slightest error.

There was an awkward moment when home substitute George Reid was brought down a yard or two outside the area. Williams sent in the free kick and Johnson saved the following header. Fraser had a fine run or two which brought to mind that David Coleman phrase where, I paraphrase; he opened his legs and showed his class. A long, diagonal pass from Hitchin substitute Danny Talbot. With both defences being miserly and exact it was highly probable that a solitary goal would decide this game and it appeared to come with about ten minutes to go when Learoyd got the ball in the net for the hosts. A predictable cheer went up but so did the linesman’s flag and thus the effort was over-ruled. Hitchin supporters exhaled a ‘phew’ in capital letters.

Another Diddy corner brought a shot and another save by the heroic Johnson. Belgrove won a free-kick for Hitchin which was headed behind by Webb. End to end play went into the added three minutes and eyebrows were raised when a lofted ball from Trey Charles was awkward for Bedwell but he judged it well. No-one was unduly surprised that the game went to extra time. The thought of penalties was put on the back burner as I daresay everyone wanted the game to be settled without that bit of lottery.

A Didcot effort looked to be rewarded but the effort just cleared the bar. More substitutes were employed. From a Talbot corner Fraser shot firmly and Bedwell’s parry looked good for Thake to convert but a defender just managed to ensure that the effort was tamed. So, both sides had missed a ‘certain’ goal. Green won a free-kick which Talbot struck and Bedwell saved, and at the other end Reid was well wide when he could have done much better. So, the end of the first period of extra time and if no goals, two ‘nearly goals’ and, needless to say, the tension was still mounting.

There were a few restive moments when players did a bit of pushing and shoving – almost like a safety valve to relieve the mounting tension. The most tempestuous moment that caused handbags when Diddy were convinced that there was a ‘dive’ in the box. The closest Hitchin came to scoring in this second period was when Fraser’s thunderbolt made the cross bar quiver a bit and the ball fell nicely to Thake who fumbled his shot. He then was able to have another go when he controlled a forward ball well, turned and shot but Bedwell held the effort. Substitute Galliford was lively enough among his fatigued colleagues but his run on goal was robustly blocked. Like two boxers the teams slugged it out with chances coming at both ends, yet it seemed that penalties were now inevitable. There was not much time to consider fully what had occurred hitherto – an off-side ‘goal’ for the hosts, Fraser’s shot hitting the bar, Thake’s fumbled shot – what was clear that both teams had tried their utmost in what had been a pulsating game – despite the lack of goals.

Of course there was more drama to come and here are the penalty details-

Bickerstaff went first – his shot hit the bar and he grimaced his way back to the clustered players. McNish put Didcot ahead 1-0.

The experienced Talbot struck successfully and then Woodley saw his shot saved. 1-1

Thake scored his and Johnson saved well from Williams. 2-1 to Hitchin. Galliford made no mistake – and now 3-1 to the Canaries. Barder struck well to make it 3-2

So it was down to Fraser to score the winner. He did not and Carnell had the task of drawing Diddy level again to take it to ‘sudden death’ kicks. His shot was well saved and Hitchin went through 3-2 on penalties.

I hope it is not seen as heresy, but I felt a wave of sympathy for Didcot since they had, in the two games, played magnificently and matched the nominally senior club blow for blow, and it is always more debilitating to go out on penalties.

The prize money – some £9000 is also a major factor as it is a sizeable slice of income that is increased to £15000 in the next round. It was noticeable that the Hitchin celebrations were a little muted as if the players knew they had been in not one but two physically demanding games. Didcot have another cup game to come when they face Thamesmead United in the FA Trophy and we wish them well in this. So Hitchin will face Hastings in the next round, another club a division lower in the pyramid, and after these last two encounters they will be treated with enormous respect.

Cynics might take the view that Hitchin’s achievement is lessened as it took them two games and penalties to overcome nominally ‘lower’ opposition, but such is the real beauty of the FA Cup it injects confidence into the ‘underdogs on paper’ as Didcot clearly showed. They ran Hitchin very close and played superbly in both matches. The Canaries may still be in transition from last term, and League form needs to improve, given our perilous position at present. So, we look to the next game, away to St Neots, this coming Saturday (29 September) to make this a reality.

From the board room we could hear the boys whooping it up a bit in their dressing room so let us hope that that will imbue them with renewed confidence for the bread and butter League matches before the next joust in the FA Cup.

Leigh Bedwell, Sam Barder, Cameron McNeill, cautioned, (Matthew Woodley), Lewis Hayden, Luke Carnell, Adam Learoyd, captain, Brett Gardner, (George Reid), Callum McNish, Aaron Woodley, (David Murphy)Seth Humphries, cautioned, Morgan Williams, cautioned.

Other substitutes – Stuart Cattell, Ollie Thomas, Caelan Isaac and Matthew Crowther, GK.

Michael Johnson, Macsen Fraser, Alex Anderson, Matt Spring, (Danny Talbot, cautioned), Dan Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Treymayne Charles,(Isaac Galliford), Josh Bickerstaff, Charlie Thake, Scott Belgrove, (Ezra Forde), Jack Green.

Other substitutes – Josh Millinson and Robbie Burns.

REFEREE: MrJonathan Creswick, who had a good game, and was ably assisted by Mr David Cox and Mr Mudiwa Gifford Manyange.