For the second successive match the key to victory was notable consolidation in the second half after a very jittery first period. Hastings United came to Top Field possibly unaware that the Hitchin Town scout had reported them as being a very strong team who were doing very well in the Isthmian league, where they play at Step Four. For the third successive FA Cup match, the Canaries faced a nominally lowers team and at home and such opposition was wisely never underestimated. It will also be remembered that United had won an FA Cup replay here some seasons ago. Mention must also be made that our opponents today recently reached the First round proper, losing to Middlesbrough, after what had been a fine run in the greatest competition in football.
The generous prize money of £15,000 was, of course, not to be sniffed at and as well as that Hitchin were looking to make it a sequence of eight matches unbeaten, which is quite impressive , given the modest start to the campaign. No doubt Canary supporters noted the return to Top field of Hastings’ goal keeper Charlie Horlock, who, I was informed, had made some eighty-seven appearances for Hitchin, prior to his return to Sussex with Eastbourne Borough.
The hosts were able to name skipper Dan Webb, back from injury and the team went into the persistent rain for their second cup game in a week, having overcome Royston Town in the League challenge Cup on Tuesday. Curiously this present match replicated much of that earlier game inasmuch as the Canaries were largely unimpressive in the first period before a stronger and pleasingly cohesive display in the second half.
Once underway it was noted that United had a couple of real pace men in Dayshonne Gelding and Daniel Ajakiaye and they, with Hassan Ibrahim asked a number of serious questions of the as yet unsettled home defence. Had their exuberant efforts been matched with accuracy the visitors from Sussex might well have taken an early lead. In one scintillating move Gelding’s cross to Ajakiaye brought a header that was only a whisker wide. Gelding’s latching onto a long through ball in another move saw a shot that was just wide of the far post. The fact that we are used to these early scares does not make it more comfortable, even if the Canaries have shown remarkable resilience under pressure in the latest batch of games.
Hastings were a little cautious themselves in defence, playing their way out of danger with accurate passing and organised play. they were able to block a shot from Ezra Forde and the first corner came for them when Jay Dowie. Tom Vickers whose bulk belied his athleticism had a shot blocked for a corner, which was adequately defended and cleared but this brought a familiar swift riposte and a free-kick inside the Hitchin half that brought another corner – which was taken smartly and aimed at Tom Climpson, with Michael Johnson intervening in timely fashion.
A combination that involved Jamie Fielding, Gelding and Jack Dixon served as another warning despite being dealt with in crisp fashion by the home defence, who were still a bit tardy in picking out a home player with their clearances. Ajakiaye provided the assistance for a shot from Vickers that was not too far wide of the target. After about twenty minutes I made a quiet note that the most realistic chance for a Hitchin goal could well come from a set piece – and this indeed turned out to be the case – but not in the first instance. This particular effort saw Matt Spring (whose influence grew as the game progressed), struck firmly but wide.
Then there was another opportunity in a very inviting position. Alex Anderson had won the free-kick on the edge of the area. This delightful cross was met by Lewis Ferrell and despite the challenge his header went beyond Horlock’s reach and a significant home cheer greeted the vital goal – which was a little bit against the flow of play hitherto. The effect was positive as soon another spring free kick went for a corner – aimed at Webb ( a fine poacher in these situations), but he was outwitted by Horlock.
Galliford then secured a corner and this gave battling Josh Bickerstaff two goes on goal, both blocked but another cross saw a Ferrell header that was not that far away from bagging number two. Hastings responded with positive forward play and good play from Emmanuel Mensah. Sam Adams and Fielding gave Vickers on the left a chance. There was a foul and Vickers’ free kick flashed across the Hitchin goal and was deflected for a corner. Johnson rose to grasp this and he was a spectator to the next Hastings free kick that went wastefully wide.
Johnson tried a couple of route one punts and these were dealt with by Climpson and Dixon and I feel they were aware, like the rest of us that the route one option does work favourably on occasions. Ibrahim’s pace was again a factor and he was fouled in possession and the free-kick was well worked but the final cross from Mensah to Gelding had too much weight even for a player of his notable pace. At the other end, Belgrove, who had been caught off-0side on a couple of moves put in a shot that was held by Horlock.
Right at the end of the half Dowie defended very well at the expense of a corner, which after it was defended, saw the end of an intriguing first half. Hitchin were ahead – had been under some pressure but they had managed. What was lacking was a successful strike from open play and Hastings had shown so far the greater finesse and had been a trifle unfortunate in not maximising the several created chances.
Here is my little half-time unrelated bit where I quote from the amusing Meaning of Liff (sic), the second volume where place names are given their own definitions. I picked out these in relation to recent opponents (or would be opponents). A Hastings is defined as ‘things left behind after leaving in a rush’ an Alvechurch is a ‘place of worship where the clergy outnumber the congregation’, A Royston continues the religious theme and is ‘the chap at church who holds onto the last note of a hymn much longer than anybody else’, whereas a Hemel Hempstead is ‘the unsynchronised mumbling of a congregation at prayer’. There now, that is not too long is it?
Anyone having a little prayer for Hitchin would find that plea given some consideration as the home side came out to a much more satisfying second period easily discounting any accusation that this was a ‘fluke’ of a victory. For Hastings, oh what a falling off was there, and they did not fulfil their considerable potential. Indeed they contributed to their sacrifice of the early initiative by conceding a penalty four minutes into this second half, when Fielding was adjudged to have fouled Forde. Josh Bickerstaff converted with power and this was a severe blow to the Sussex side, who, although they had their moments, their discomfort was growing.
Hitchin were now playing with pleasing cohesion and confidence, despite the canny substitution of the visitors that brought on Sam Cruttwell who was very active and sometimes unmarked on the left flank. Mensah had a run and a shot that did not test Johnson overmuch and neither did his next lunge which cleared the cross bar, a feat replicated by Dixon not long after. Galliford gave way to Jack Green who took responsibility for three successive corners, each one floated in enticingly but adequately defended. Webb had a header deflected nicely for the keeper and erelong Charlie Thake came on for Belgrove. Dowie won another corner which saw a shot blocked and the still eager Cruttwell again tried his luck but Johnson had his eye on a clean sheet.
Gelding came back to life on the right and provided sub Adam Lovatt with a reasonable chance. In terms of cautions, Hitchin collected four – one seemed a little harsh and Hastings only caution was for Fielding who had given away the penalty. It is pleasing to report the high standard of the officials in contrast to the questionable refereeing at Royston on Tuesday night.
Neither side relaxed, of course, and there was an expected bit of pressure from United that could have brought some recompense – but the likes of Spring and Ferrell defended with precision. Cruttwell gave all he could and a cross saw Lovatt shoot wide again, but it was deflected on its way out, with Johnson holding the corner. We can all remember the dramatic last few minutes against Godmanchester. But one or two misplaced passes and a failure to keep the ball in play from a counter move did suggest that it was all up with Hastings, who along with the last two lower league teams made the difference in quality paper thin.
Hitchin were able to move forward and gain territory, boxing in their opponents who still sought the telling counter move. Thake had a reasonable chance and a good run but he was dispossessed, but it used up a portion of the considerable period of time added on for stoppages and substitutions. Hitchin held firm and the rainy day had some metaphorical sunshine at the glad tidings that the team had reached the fourth qualifying round – which is a step away from the First Round Proper. Proper has a real buzz about it and we are indeed delighted at a crack at continuing the notable progress in the FA Cup.
Hastings were gracious in defeat and indeed wished us well for the next round. But before that there is the away trip in the league where Bedworth United form the opposition. Mark Burke will not need reminding that these bread and butter games are just as vital in the long term as the rich cake of a victory in the FA Cup. So, eight games without defeat – and thus we have good reason to think this may continue.
Michael Johnson, Alex Anderson, cautioned, Noah Chesmain, Matt Spring, sponsors’ HTFC man of the match, Dan Webb, captain, cautioned, Lewis Ferrell, GOAL, 24 MINUTES, Scott Belgrove, (Charlie Thake), Jay Dowie, Ezra Forde, (Robbie Burns), Isaac Galliford, (Jack Green, cautioned), Josh Bickerstaff, PENALTY GOAL, 49 MINUTES, cautioned, other substitutes – Josh Mollinson GK, Trey Charles, Charlie Smith and Patrick Tshikala.
Charlie Horlock, Jamie Fielding, cautioned, Jamal Hewlett-Mundle, Tom Climpson, Emmanuel Mensah, Jack Dixon, (Kevin Ogboe), Sam Adams, Hassan Ibrahim,(Adam Lovatt), Dayshonne Gelding, Tom Vickers, (Sam Cruttwell), Daniel Ajakiaye. Other substitutes- Sinukaye Christie, Antonio Walker-Barth, Thomas Taylor and Panache Makwiramiti.
Referee: Mr H Gilroy, assisted by Mr D Jarrett and Mr L Scott – all three having good games.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN