The young guns of the illustrious Arsenal came to Top Field and both teams served up an entertaining and very even game in front of 654 spectators. A draw was probably the equitable result and the Hitchin players can feel proud of their effort and commitment.
Mind you, within a minute of the start a bit of a blooper from Charlie Horlock saw a poor clearance right into the path of an eager Gunner who shot instinctively and it just took a touch for a corner. This was a short one and resulted in another one that was over hit. An Arsenal free kick was defended by Harry Draper and Jack Green, who both had fine matches.
Then, suddenly it seemed, there was a chance for Lewis Barker at the other end, following a crisp cross from the right, the effort went just wide. A Hitchin free-kick was taken, wide on the right by Charlie Hayford, and it was aimed for Harry Draper, whose effort cleared the cross bar. A chance for Max Ryan was supremely defended by Levi Laing. Some slick play from the north Londoners saw Sam Greenwood blast wastefully, but as the game went on he showed what a good prospect he is.
A Hitchin free-kick was so awkwardly defended it looked for a moment that the Gunners were going to be dashed sporting and give us the lead with an own goal An Arsenal free kick saw Greenwood chance his luck with a snap shot, which Horlock held comfortably. A hopeful cross from Max Ryan was not met with a Hitchin connection and Tom Smith easily cut out a cross from Jack Green.
These highly trained young professionals from Arsenal were having to work hard and were not allowed to be as slick as I am sure they can be, owing to a certain Hitchin hunger. Matthew Dennis’ blocked shot brought a corner, which was adequately dealt with. I was surprised that we had reached the interval without a real ‘goalie-testing’ strike, but the game had been even so far.
Hitchin’s connection with Arsenal is commemorated in the board room with a painting depicting the two captains shaking hands before a match to mark the unveiling (so to speak) of the original floodlights in 1962. They were also there for the very recent inauguration of the new lights – and of course, the U18 Arsenal manager Ken Gillard is a notable name of the past as a Hitchin Town player.
The second half was a good deal more enjoyable than the first and not just because of the goals but the near misses as well. It was expected that the visitors would make their training and fitness more apparent but this was not the case. Hitchin fought doggedly and deserved parity against their youthful, full-time opponents.
But at first it did seem that Arsenal had decided to turn on the style, as, four minutes into this second –half they seized the lead with a ‘text-book’ goal. There was a swift move along the left and a deft low cross that was smartly converted by Matthew Dennis and it was thus one-nil to the Arsenal which is a familiar chant and a possibly copyrighted score-line. There were a number of spectators in Arsenal replica shorts but, this being pre-season, they have not yet attuned their chanting chords, presumably.
Hitchin hit back with a Hayford free-kick and Max Ryan turned and put in a decent shot that hit the junction of the post and cross bar, with Draper able to secure the follow-up. It was a marvellous moment and now, in the fifty-third minute Hitchin were level. Both Draper and Hayford had impressed – the former for his bustling, committed style and the latter for his free-kicks and astute defending.
There followed another good move when Barker was able to cross the ball only to find that Draper could not deal effectively with the pace and thus could not control the ball for a chance on goal. Greenwood put one over the bar for the Gunners. Substitute Jay Dowie was relishing the play and he won possession and was able to get his shot away, which Smith held.
Mo Ahmed (so, that is his surname!), had a shot himself, with Smith untroubled. An Arsenal move involving Stan Flaherty and Greenwood resulted in another save from the reliable Horlock, who also saved Greenwood’s next effort. The pace of the game did not relent and both teams seemed to fancy that a winner might come their way. Another Ahmed shot saw Draper attempt the follow-up. Arsenal did not have nearly as much possession as they had in the first period but they were swift in counter attacks and these were mostly fluid.
Of course there was a barrage of substitutions – Arsenal used all of theirs (eight in number) and Hitchin used seven of their nine. A late Hitchin free-kick afforded Hayford the chance of a direct shot which was on target but saved by Smith. Luke Plange was wide in his effort for the Gunners. A stoppage time cross from Hayford got the butterflies fluttering but this was defended and we all had to settle for a draw. I do not suppose I was alone in wondering just how many of the visiting team might make it all the way to the first team of Arsenal or any other professional club. I wish them all the best and will add that, on greeting them as they arrived; I found them all to be very polite and unassuming.
We are grateful to Ken Gillard for bringing his young charges to Top Field and wish them all the best in their future careers. Hitchin travel to Eynesbury Rovers on Tuesday (30th July) and to Bedford Town on Saturday (3rd August), with the season proper commencing one week later.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, Alex Anderson, Charlie Hayford (reporter’s Hitchin star man), Dan Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Max Ryan, Harry Draper, GOAL 53 MINUTES, Lewis Barker, Mo Ahmed, Dev Simms.
Substitutes used (all second-half), Jay Dowie, Scott Belgrove, Kieran Barnes, Joe Gauge, Marcus Crowther, James Verney, Taishan Griffiths.
Not used – Kieron Gordon-Stream and Leon Okuboyejo.
Tom Smith, Ryan Alebioso, Joel Lopez, Miguel Azeez, Lev Laing, Mazeed Ogungbo, Matthew Dennis, GOAL, 49 MINUTES, Stan Flaherty, Sam Greenwood, Alfie Matthews, Kido Taylor-Hart.
All second-half substitutes: Jason Sraha, Hubert Graczyk, Luke Plange, Nathan Butler- Oyedeji, Catilian Cirjan, Zane Monlouis, Zach awe, Henry Jeffcott.
REFEREE: Mr D Knox, assisted by Mr A Walker and Mr C Geelan.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN