Hitchin were hit by early goals in both halves and were more or less stuffed in Staffordshire, being reduced to ten men after half an hour with the dismissal of Jack Green – but they did manage to get to the interval all level, having hit a superbly worked equaliser. That was about as good as it got.
I was pleased to drive to Arnold Bennett’s Staffordshire, since I am reading one of his novels – but the Five Towns were some distance away from this magnificent Keys Park Stadium that is indeed of Football League standard, with excellent facilities and a plethora of volunteers. I think it must be the flagship stadium of the division – the only drawback being that the sparsely filled terraces yield a lack of atmosphere.
Hitchin – its players apparently contrite after the meek second half showing against Lowestoft wanted to make amends and my theory is that a fine stadium unconsciously raises the visiting team’s game, but it was again unproven today. The team had one or two changes and new signing Kai Phelan was in the number five short as skipper Dan Webb was injured and the captaincy fell to Josh Bickerstaff. New signings Joshua Coldicott-Stevens and Jamie Jellis were on the bench, the latter scoring late on his debut after coming on as a substitute.
The only other change was Bradley Bell starting and Max Ryan being on the substitutes’ bench.
As Hitchin supporters made their way to their spot behind the goal, communications officer Chris Newbold let slip a remark after just five seconds play ‘Is it still nil-nil?’ He was being cynical but five minutes later it was one -nil to the hosts, with Hitchin, all in green, hardly having a meaningful kick.
There was a cluster of white shirts around the wonderfully named Osebi Abadaki, who had cut in from the right and let rip with a low shot that found the bottom right corner. This followed a free kick from the left that might have been better defended.
Not a good start then, and, presumably for the sake of comfort, Canary fans launched into a routine barracking of the officials, and were indignant of amused home fans who chirped in with the occasional remark. They also reacted with disdain at the numerous, hopeful long balls that sought in vain for a friendly connection. We needed better than this – but attempted crosses were blocked and the hosts were sprightly running in attack. Thomas Fry sent a whizzer across the face of goal that begged but did not get a touch from a home player.
Abadaki had another shot that was defended and then Jacob Hutchinson had his shot blocked, with Dhillon trying to find any advantage. Hitchin had nervously contained the ebullient hosts but needed a more imaginative approach to finding the equaliser. They were fighting to obtain meaningful possession, and not long after the half – hour mark a very rash challenge from the normally ‘cherubic’ Jack Green saw him incur the wrath of opposing players and most of the crowd, and he was summarily dismissed for the offence.
The aftermath of this was that oft held belief that ten men often play better than eleven and this might well have been the case for the remainder of the half. I had wondered if it would be case of damage limitation but credit goes to Hitchin for the way they adjusted their play. There was still the long ball, but now some more creative play in midfield and along the flanks. They were meaner in defence too, and an example of this was when Thomas Fry was on a purposeful run, he was tackled timely and well. Fry then combined with Glover whose effort safely cleared the cross bar.
A free-kick from Hednesford saw a King header saved by Horlock. But then Phelan’s run and the subsequent play by Marsh and Dhillon was anticipatory and Marsh’s cross found Barker who scored a notable equaliser two minutes before the interval. It was a well constructed goal and greeted as such by Hitchin supporters who were derided with the home chant ‘You only sing when you’re drawing’. Yes, but the singing was not sustained and for good reason.
Yet, when we went to the interval we felt that Hitchin had done well with their ten men, especially after a rather shaky start. The Pitmen had not needed to dig into their reserves but they had been contained and were presumably a tad annoyed that they had allowed the Canaries to regain their perch. Our feeling of well-being was somewhat reduced almost immediately after resumption. There was an ironic cheer when Charlie Horlock was the last player to emerge from the tunnel – and it seemed almost indicative of what was to come within the next few fateful minutes.
The hosts began as if they had been instructed that nothing but a hatful would do against the gallant ten men of Hitchin. Well, the hitmen of the Pitmen bagged three more – and two within minutes of the whistle. Lewis Barker’s fine equaliser was swept away Daniel Glover’s fine headed goal that restored the lead with a flourish. Worse was to come for Hitchin and very soon as well. Five minutes in Kieran Morris’ header made it 3-1, following a free-kick from the left.
It was as if the hosts had revealed an astonishing weakness in their opponents for being a man short and it seemed that there was no way back from this. I had pondered the rather modest attendance of 314 – since on my one and only other visit to this ground was in front of 1350 who saw the Pitmen gain promotion after defeating Dunstable Town 2-1 – but they had trailed 1-0 for a long time and the game hinged on the dismissal of Darren Sarll. That was a good few years ago.
So, back to this game – well , it became no better for Hitchin whose rhythm was rocked and attacks were few. The hosts spread play illustriously, but it was not until the eighty-third minute that they scored again – and this goal came from a cross that sailed in from the right and was scored by substitute Andre Brown.
Two of Hitchin’s three substitutions were those of the new boys – Coldicott-Stevens and Jellis – the third being the ever eager Max Ryan. Jellis was the earliest on at fifty-eight minutes and he did well. There was a good free-kick from Hednesford that needed a clearance close to the linen and a defensive error saw O’Hanlon have a chance. This brought one of a series of corners that were defended reasonably well.
There was some small consolation for Hitchin in stoppage time when Hednesford goal keeper Andrew Wycherly went wandering off his line and following this mix up Jellis was able to find thr bottom corner of an unguarded goal. It made no difference to the result, of course, but it was worth seeing and we will all remember that Jellis was the latest Hitchin player to score on his debut.
A second successive defeat then and a slip a little bit down the table. It makes the Stratford Town game next Saturday a little more important as they lost again today and they, like Hitchin, will want to reverse the loss of form. There was some restoration of character in the latter part of the first half and some of the second but there is still much work to do. We are confident that it will be done.
Andrew Wycherly, Matthias Curley, Samuel Griffiths, Ben Bailey, cautioned, Kieran Morris, GOAL 50 MINUTES, Maurice Chambers, (Charlie Gatter), Ben O’Hanlon, Reece King, cautioned, Daniel Glover, GOAL, 48 MINUTES, (Andre Brown, GOAL, 83 MINUTES), Thomas Fry, Osebi Adabaki, GOAL, 6 MINUTES (Izak Reid).
Substitutes not used: Carter Lycett and Jose Veiga GK.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, dismissed straight red card, Ben Walster, cautioned, Lewis Rolfe, cautioned, Kai Phelan, Joshua Bickerstaff, captain, Lewis Barker, GOAL, 43 MINUTES, (Max Ryan 83,), Jhai Dhillon, (Jamie Jellis, 58, GOAL, 90+2), Jacob Hutchinson, Alex Marsh, Bradley Bell, (Joshua Coldicote-Stevens, 65,).
Substitutes not used: Joe Gauge and Brett Donnelly.
REFEREE: Mr P Stonier assisted by Mr S Clayton and Mr M Malone.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN