This fifth consecutive league defeat proved harrowing, especially since the Canaries had come from a two goal deficit to take a remarkable lead and then concede twice to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, if I may be permitted a hackneyed phrase.
The corresponding figure had also thrown up a notable game where Hitchin had come from a two goal deficit to pull a goal back and attack with prominence in the closing stages, and were denied no fewer than three times by the frame of the goal and the deserved draw stubbornly refused its favour.
But what a game of football it was – full of excitement and dramatic incident, as the score line suggests. It was also a match that showed how set pieces can expose vulnerability and how sheer force of character can determine the outcome. The beginning proved a little inauspicious as the hosts made a tentative start and were soon second best in gaining and retaining possession. It also showed that the persistence in the long ball was as frustrating as it was persisted with, and the game ached for Hitchin for want of a more varied, penetrative approach.
The visitors looked assured in their charcoal grey shirts and lime green shorts, and soon they were probing with combinational play, looking dangerous with every forward move. It was some time before we saw a direct threat on either goal. A free-kick for Rushden, about twenty yards out was entirely wasted by the appropriately named Ben Diamond. Then there was some anticipation when both Alfie Cue and Isaac Galliford had shots blocked. Chesmain looked for a cross and won a corner, taken by Galliford. Bickerstaff headed it forward, Cue managed the cross but it was defended for a throw.
Pleasingly, Cue employed the long throw, which if it did not work this time – it did later to good effect. This bit of pressure was all very well, but if truth be told, the visitors had settled the better in terms of confident football. They exploited Hitchin’s penchant for the long, searching forward ball by using this to build a counter move.
We had moved to the fourteenth minute when a predictable forward ball, saw Hopkins mop it up, advance on the left and get in a perfect cross for the unmarked Ben Diamond to head the visitors into the lead. A little forethought might have prevented that and now we were in familiar territory – only this time there was no immediate recovery – indeed a second goal for the Diamonds came a few minutes later – and from a set piece.
Chesmain’s cross had fallen on stony ground, Nolan was contesting possession at each hopeful lob towards him, but it needed a more subtle approach. Diamonds simply had more composure on the ball, their play being sophisticated by comparison. The second goal was scored by Rushden skipper Tom Lorraine after nineteen minutes. A Hitchin approach broke down and the counter was immediate. Berry-Hargreaves and Punter combined and the former’s cross brought a corner – and a good deal of apprehension for home supporters who have winced at the timorous defending we have seen from this particular set piece. The apprehension was justified as Lorraine increased the score with aplomb.
It looked like a possible rout was going to ensue – but to Hitchin’s great credit, this did not occur and their positive reaction ensured that the game was going to be competitive to the very last kick. Pulling a goal back after twenty-four minutes was a fine tonic. It emanated from a long throw by Alfie Cue, whose personal coach, namely his Dad, encouraged the action from the touch line. Galliford smashed it in on the volley and hope sprang eternal, well sort of. It was a vital moment as Hitchin had seized the opportunity and boosted their chances of gaining parity in a game that had looked like producing an embarrassing result.
Hitchin’s own set pieces were indifferent at this stage, but they were beginning to play with a suggestion that a greater variety of ideas might surface. The long ball idea was still failing to produce opportunities, but they had at least stanched the wound to a degree.
It became exciting stuff, but honesty compels me to report that Tom Lorraine really ought to have notched up a third goal for his side when he just avoided the off-side and found himself with just Michael Johnson to elude. It was a good shot but an outstanding save from Johnson made us think, for this relief, much thanks. Alfie Cue popped up with a shot that was just wide – a smart half volley it was too. Diamonds won another corner and my eye started twitching. It was untidily defended, but that would do for now.
A fine move from Galliford, via Green, saw Nolan with a real chance, that he struck firmly but it was blocked by a defender. The next effort was a blistering shot from Alex Anderson that was too high. Similarly, a shot from Ben Farrell was well wide of the target. Whilst it remained just 2-1 there were realistic opportunities. Another effort involving cue, Chesmain and Galliford was thwarted.
That was the score at the interval and I do not think that anyone expected just how the dramatic second half would unfold, with the lead changing hands and a winning goal at the death. The first thing to say is that Hitchin improved dramatically and if ever they deserved to win a game this season it was this one. For some time it looked like that had and had that been the case we would all be applauding the handsome comeback. There was a double comeback and for this we may praise the efforts of both teams.
The principal feeling of disappointment for home supporters is that, after a magnificent comeback from a two goal deficit – and a grasping of what may have been a winning lead was eclipsed in Roy of the Rovers style. Cain had slipped the ball to substitute Ezra Forde, who fell over himself in his eagerness. Forde had replaced Anderson, presumably to add strength to the attack. As a matter of fact Hitchin so dominated this second period that, once they had equalised and taken the lead it did seem that at last the three points would be gained – and in memorable style.
Repeated attacks and a variety in play characterised the home side’s play and the formerly composed Diamonds were looking decidedly inferior. Who could foretell how deceptive that turned out to be? A corner for Hitchin brought anticipation. Webb and Cain were in there but defenders prevented a goal attempt. A curious decision from the referee in not awarding a free-kick to Hitchin after he had played the advantage (that brought none) saw a corner for Diamonds. Johnson claimed that cross well.
The first goal of this half came after sixty-two minutes. Repeated Hitchin attacks were interrupted by sporadic forward moves from Diamonds that were inconclusive. Another long throw from Cue was awkwardly defended – but the tactic was well-justified in my view – since it caused both confusion and uncertainty. Nolan was a presence, as he has been in many a season – but it was a while before he received his best chance.
The Hitchin equaliser was a just reward for repeated pressure. Cue crossed to Nolan who slipped it back to Galliford, who turned – passed to Chesmain. Forde became involved as Chesmain hit the ball forward. Dan Webb espied Galliford and the assistance was vital and Galliford scored his second goal of the game and Hitchin were deservedly level.
They had eradicated a two goal deficit that – because of the early score times it might have been debilitating. This was play of character and it was to get better before a rather startling climax. Nolan tried an overhead but missed- the ball was spending more time within the opposition penalty area and this was all good. Taking the lead was more than just an optimistic wish. Hitchin were in the ascendancy now.
Eleven minutes after the equaliser, Hitchin took the lead and Matt Nolan’s celebration took on the relief and gladness of home supporters. Before then Alfie Cue and Ezra Forde had chances, but all credit goes to Diamonds’ keeper Ben heath who made at least two magnificent, goal-denying saves.
Nolan’s goal was well taken, but Cain had fired in a beauty beforehand, well saved. It was all good because it was all simple. Galliford had a run that brought the best save of the game from Heath. Cain’s corner fell to Nolan and yes, another goal from a set piece – this time to Hitchin’s credit. It was still remarkable – to come from that two goal deficit to taking the lead and then controlling the game. Well, almost. Almost. Surely we could hold out for the last quarter of an hour or so or even extend the lead
What hurts just a bit is that the Diamonds’ equaliser came with one minute of normal time to go and their winner was in the third minute of the four minutes added on. Credit to Rushden for this remarkable recovery and they and their supporters were naturally delighted and this game will be talked about gladly by them for the rest of the season.
We had it all, dismissed penalty appeals, near misses, good saves but a final plunge into the despair of conceding the defeat with just seconds to go. Even a draw, in retrospect might just be acceptable. Diamonds looked like they were accepting defeat until that late equaliser.
The employed a triple substitution to signal that all was not up with them and it worked well as the equaliser was netted by one of them and the winner was scored by a full-back.
And, yes, that equaliser came from a set piece – another corner. Substitute Jack Bowen belted it home and travelling supporters erupted in joy, presumably thinking they had snatched a draw after being the poorer team in the second period. Imagine their joy – and their team’s when they got the winner at the death.
Hitchin pressed and pressed well, instinctively feeling that this game could be won again, if you see what I mean. Cue had a blocked shot and Belgrove had a couple of chances as well as Forde whose header flashed across the face of goal looking for a connecting boot.
Pressing hard can leave gaps and this is what happened, a late scamper up the field by Diamonds saw that dramatic winner. The scorer was Matt Berry-Hargreaves and 0nce more we had to leave Top Field in a dismal mood, but this time with a slight feeling of disbelief.
Shoot me down, but this was an enjoyable game of cut and thrust and unpredictability – entertaining and exciting almost throughout. It started andante but moved to a dramatic crescendo – but be that as it may no points came Hitchin’s way again and we feel impoverished and denied.
Two away games at St Ives and Stratford Town follow within a week. The task is onerous but full credit must be given to Hitchin for the splendid way that had reduced the deficit and then taken the lead. It is a pity that that lead could not be sustained and that it was sacrificed so late in the game.
Michael Johnson, Alex Anderson, (Ezra Forde, 45), Noah Chesmain, Josh Bickerstaff, Daniel Webb, captain, cautioned, Lewis Ferrell, Michael Cain, Jack Green, Matt Nolan, cautioned –GOAL 73 MINUTES, Isaac Galliford, TWO GOALS, 24, 62 – SPONSORS’ MAN OF THE MATCH, Alfie Cue, (Scott Belgrove, 85). Substitutes not used – Moses Olanrewaju, Craig Packham, Jay Dowie.
AFC RUSHDEN AND DIAMONDS
Ben Heath, Matt Berry-Hargreaves, GOAL 90+3, Nathan Hicks, Jack Westbrook, Alex Collard, cautioned, Blaize Punter, Albie Hopkins, Ben Farrell, (Joe Curtis), Tom Lorraine, captain, GOAL, 19, (Jack Bowen, GOAL 89), Ben Diamond, GOAL, 14), Declan Rogers, (Sam Johnson). Substitutes not used – Ben Acquaye.
REFEREE: Mr G Marasca, assisted by Mr W Perry and Mr D Lander.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN