In front of a bumper attendance of 1,278, Hitchin may have extended their unbeaten run to double figures, but had to come from behind, with ten men to force a replay at Fetcham Grove on Wednesday (24 October). For many spectators it was a little nostalgic to welcome back ‘The Tanners’ to Top Field a club that has met the Canaries several times in the Isthmian League of yesteryear.
The Tanners are of equivalent status, plying their trade in the Isthmian Premier and have a distinguished record in the FA Cup. With prize money at a sizeable twenty-five grand the game was of monumental importance to both clubs. Home news was that Dan Webb was suspended, but Charlie Smith, on the bench was presumably free of injury, unlike the still rehabilitating Macsen Fraser. The Tanners included among their initial starting eleven, former Canary Shaun Okojie.
The weather, like the pitch was perfect and the many travelling supporters added to the fine atmosphere in the stadium. What transpired was a vigorous game with the usual tension, controversy with for Hitchin some early despair that gave way to relief and elation. We began with a couple of long punts up field by Michael Johnson, hoping to pick out Ezra Forde or Jack Green but they were cleared by William Salmon. The Tanners responded eagerly and more artfully, soon forcing two successive corners, but not until Green had time to turn on a sixpence, or a tanner, if you like and fire nervously wide.
The pace of Alfie Cue was impressive, as was his ball control and ability to put in decent crosses – one of these was deflected for a corner and from this, Jerry Nnamani lobbed over the bar. Hitchin’s nervousness was suggested by their tendency to opt for long passes up field, but they were soon able to settle to more of their accustomed passing game. It was all very tight but the Tanners were able to cut the occasional swathe through the Canaries’ defence and they began to probe quite deeply into the Hitchin defensive half.
The opening became very much an even contest but all this was dramatically altered after twenty-five minutes when Jay Dowie received a straight red card for dangerous play – his high kick had clipped Leatherhead skipper Elliot Benyon. This meant that the Canaries would be playing some seventy minutes with ten men and once again the anomaly of the ‘ten men playing better than eleven’ was witnessed. From the free kick, Johnson gathered quite calmly. The dismissal made the sizeable away support a good deal more vociferous and the chants seemed to resonate with a London pronunciation of ‘Levver-ed’, which is not surprising given how much Greater London has made incursions into the county of Surrey. They taunted Canary fans into a response and it all added to the splendid atmosphere.
Importantly, Hitchin appeared unfazed by the dismissal and played with admirable spirit. A cheeky lob from Alex Anderson was saved by Zaki Oualah, whose pinkish/red outfit almost made him look like an outfield player, with the Tanners playing in a red and white changed strip. A free-kick from Noah Chesmain picked out Isaac Galliford whose effort was cleared. Cue, with a characteristic run had his pockets picked by the tracking back Green and by now full-back Crossley Lema was aiding his defensive duties with some forward runs, being left in space unmarked at times. One of his crosses was aimed at Robert Culllen who had a pop but it went wide. Lema than combined with Okojie and Thomas Cooney in a bit of smart play that ended limply in an off-side decision. Green won a free-kick, centrally at about thirty yards and this culminated in a low, accurate shot from Matt Spring that was comfortably saved.
Cue, almost on cue, then clipped an effort just over the bar, before yet another Lema cross saw Okoije head wide. To add to his contributions Lema had his own shot that was well over the bar. Galliford was on hand to try a shot for Hitchin, held by Oualah and then Travis Gregory caused some alarm with a fine shot on the run that was deflected for a corner. Johnson rose to clasp the cross and there was another awkward moment when Cullen robbed Spring of the ball and proceeded to have another go on goal, which Johnson again saved – the ball going out for a corner. From this Okojie, seemingly determined to score against his former club, rose high and headed just wide. At this point the visitors were appearing to be taking full advantage of their numerical supremacy and Hitchin had held out until the interval but had played with commendable spirit.
The odd psychological feeling for me was that the referee had blown about twenty minutes too early – but I put this down to how much the game was engrossing. There was much talk about Dowie’s dismissal, and the suggestion (from home supporters) that Okojie ought to have been shown red instead of yellow for his apparent elbowing offence on Anderson. I did speak to the referee afterwards and he confirmed that Dowie had gone for dangerous play but felt that Okojie’s offence was not at all in the same category. I know there will be disagreements there.
Yes, the Tanners had shaded it, as you would expect, given the dismissal, but as the second half progressed they did seem to lose a degree of impetus. As I could not get the internet on my phone, I could not look up other scores and this led to my thinking about Leatherhead’s ‘natural’ nickname of The Tanners – an obvious pun on leather. I made the note ‘will it be hell for Leatherhead?’ If so, it would take a remarkable performance. Tanner to me and many others was another name for the old sixpence (two and a half pence to youngsters). And for that legendary coin, I recall it bought for countless youngsters, entry to that great Godsend for many parents – namely the Saturday Morning Pictures – a special three hours of entertainment of ‘B’ films, a serial (with its cliff-hanger ending) and a cartoon – all for sixpence, a tanner. You could also buy a full size Mars Bar for that or no fewer than three ‘cigarette lollies on splintery sticks’. For a savoury you could get two packets of crisps with a little blue bag of salt inserted. Yes, I know, nostalgia is not what it used to be.
There had been no goals but this was to alter quite soon and inevitably it seemed, in favour of the visitors. Leatherhead found the left flank a favoured territory for forays and after a nippy piece of defending from Salmon and a wasted cross from Anderson. Leatherhead won yet another corner. This was a good one inasmuch as it caused mayhem in the penalty area, with a shot from close range hitting the foot of the post, and Travis Gregory was there to re-connect and, in the words of Michael Johnson, ‘he had the whole goal to choose his spot’. Celebrations were fulsome, a kind of red pyramid of Leatherhead players and the delighted cheers and applause from their supporters. They may have formed a pyramid but they left a mountain for the Hitchin players to ascend. We had played fifty-two minutes by my calculation as we did not re-commence until 4:10 pm.
To use the colloquial phrase, this was ‘a big ask’ for Hitchin, (why are so many popular phrases so ungrammatical)? Yet, what followed was entirely admirable, with one exception. That exception was Galliford’s caution for simulation – he had ‘gamely’ tried to win a penalty but the referee’s yellow card, in front of the packed clubhouse end of home supporters, was a brave and correct one, and clearly spelled out, you are not fooling me, son. Ironically within a minute or two of this Hitchin were awarded a penalty, a legitimate one this time, with Jack Green being fouled in the box, and the referee adamantly dismissed appeals from Leatherhead players.
Up stepped skipper Josh Bickerstaff, who, I say, miserably reminding all, had missed a penalty at Bedworth on Saturday. He was facing the expectant full house at the clubhouse end and he did not let them down as it was a real beauty of a penalty. The relief was as tangible as the jubilation. I even threw my notebook into the air, catching it dexterously to no praise. When this subsided I glanced at my watch and noted that we had played fifty-seven minutes and there was a comparatively long time to go, with ten men as well.
The goal celebrations were a little marred, with the possibly provoked negative reaction form the Leatherhead keeper, who was subsequently booked. But, leaving that side it was indeed remarkable. It was a manifestation of tension, quite understandable if not necessarily condoned. Off we went again and a familiar romp along the left flank brought Leatherhead a free-kick and another chance for Okojie who headed over the cross bar. Benyon and Cullen combined and the latter’s header was cleared only as far as Nnamani whose forward pass was neatly cut out. Another Tanners’ corner saw spring adeptly clear close to the goal line and A Galliford shot on the turn went wide. A quickly taken free-kick for Leatherhead saw Gregory’s effort well defended.
Then, somewhat curiously, the impetus seemed to forsake the visitors, which could not have been deliberate since they must have felt that under present circumstances they could go on to restore their lead. Hitchin rallied superbly and were, marginally, the better team in the second half – even allowing for those dangerous runs along the left flank and resultant crosses, which brought out the best in Michael Johnson. Charlie Smith came on for Scott Belgrove and he set up Bickerstaff with an opportunity that went over the bar. Trey Charles had come on for Forde, which I thought was a good move, given that the latter could cause problems in the penalty box and had the pace to dazzle defenders.
Johnson saved superbly from Nnamani’s fierce shot but Hitchin looked positive going forward and a lob from Charles won a corner. I hoped for a Smith in-swinger and the wish was granted but this was cleared only to fall to Chesmain who struck wildly over the bar.
The ten men looked as if they might win it right at the end, and that would have been something to celebrate – but despite the persistence after clearances from leatherhead, they found Johnson in a rampant mode and he well deserved the nomination of man of the match. There may not have been a last gasp Roy of the Rovers winner for either side, but not for lack of effort. Perhaps it was the occasion but of all matches this season, and I have been at them all, this was the one I enjoyed most. It was a super cup tie and made all the better for the best attendance of the season.
So, we look, optimistically to see if that part of Surrey has a fringe on top for Hitchin Town. We are still in the hat which behoves me to mention that the draw for the next round will be made in the clubhouse at Top field and will be broadcast live on National and probably international television. This is on Monday evening. So, what with the article in the Daily Mail and televised focus, Hitchin town finds itself firmly on the national football map.
After the match I spoke briefly to the referee about the major incidents to clarify matters for myself, and I also spoke to Man of The Match Michael Johnson who dismissed claims that he had had a wonderful match. ‘My kicking was all over the place and I should have been better at crosses’. He modestly thanked me for the view that so far this season I have yet to see a better or more consistent goalkeeper. He told me that Mark Burke’s half-time talk had given the players a good deal of inspiration – which had emphasised the need not to concede, but he was full of praise for his colleagues who had done ‘an effective job’. He told me that they had ‘stuck at it and got the reward’. I said it was still hypothetical but which team did he want, if the team were successful in the replay.
‘Sunderland, away’ was his instantaneous response. It was Jack Green’s as well, but he added that he would not mind Portsmouth. There is no doubt that Leatherhead players, officials and supporters were having a similar joust at speculation – and we are well aware that they hold home advantage for the replay and let us hope that is remains at eleven versus eleven throughout. I thought their committee were a polite and sporting bunch and I look forward to the visit to their ground.
As a last word I will reiterate our Secretary’s thanks to the Hertfordshire FA and Tring Athletic who agreed to postpone Wednesday’s match, it was graciously done and entirely appreciated.
Michael Johnson, MAN OF THE MATCH, Alex Anderson, Noah Chesmain, Matt Spring, Lewis Ferrell, Josh Bickerstaff, captain, PENALTY GOAL, 57 MINUTES, Scott Belgrove, (Charlie Smith), Jay Dowie, dismissed, straight red card, Ezra Forde, (Tremayne Charles), Isaac Galliford, Jack Green.
Unused substitutes: Josh Mollison GK, Charlie Thake and Robbie Burns.
Zaki Oualah, cautioned, Crossley Lema, Thomas Cooney, D’Sean Theobolds, William Salmon, Jerry Nnamani, Robert Cullen, Travis Gregory, GOAL, 52 MINUTES, Elliot Benyon, captain, Shaun Okojie, cautioned, Alfie Cue.
Unused Substitutes: William Seager, Kanil Blonski, John Ufuah, Andrew Blake, Alexander Cooper, Balai Dembele.
REFEREE: Mr R Gardner, who had an effective game, ably assisted by Mr J Crofts and Mr R Williams.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN