First of all the winner of this drawn game was football. It was a puslsating match full of incident and dramatic moments, tactically intriguing and contested in the right manner. One could argue that Hitchin snatched a draw from the jaws of victory, but as it was they grabbed a late but thoroughly deserved equaliser.
The last time the teams met at Top Field was in a game that was abandoned just before half time owing to torrential rain – and I remember that the rejuvenated Suffolk side looked sharp. They did today, making the most of effective counter moves, and with twenty minutes to go they seemed to be in control two goals to the good and no doubt they will question themselves how their apparent grip on the game was usurped.
Hitchin team news was of interest as the squad contained two new signings. Full-back Samuel Okoye-Ahaneku, from Wingate and Finchley and Daniel Akubuine who has a dual registration with Hemel Hempstead Town. Dan Webb made his first start and resumed his role as club captain.
Understandably the mutterings had not ceased over the last League game, a startling 1-7 reverse against Rushden and Diamonds with whom our guests fought out a 2-2 draw last week. The bulk of the 523 attendance were expecting overall improvement. Ultimately they were not disappointed, and might have been a good deal happier if Leiston skipper and goalie Samuel Donkin not performed so heroically, denying what looked like certain goals from one- on- one situations against Callum Stead.
A positive start is always desirable and Hitchin supplied this with immediate attacking options. The first foray forward won a corner, bringing a shot from Ben Walster that was blocked. Callum Stead was fouled and the free-kick from Luke Brown brought the first of some splendid saved by Donkin. This already busy keeper then saved a headed effort from Dan Webb and there was an even better save from a blistering shot from Callum Stead. It all looked promising and when Stead was put away clear on Donkin, we anticipated an opening goal but Donkin thwarted the striker and not for the last time.
With that slightly aggrieved feeling of not being at least a goal up, the home faithful received a metaphorical knee in the groin when the audacious visitors nicked a goal from what is known as against the run of play. They had seen a corner from Hitchin beaten away and man of the match Marcus Wilkinson moved swiftly along the left flank and his low cross to Liam Jackson was neatly converted. We had played a quarter of an hour. This shock to the system might well have been alleviated almost immediately when Stead’s measured pass to Alex Marsh gave this one of our heavenly twins a one-on -one against that spoilsport Donkin who reprised his party-pooping with yet another save. Curses, foiled again. Both Stead and Marsh, A, should really have scored.
A pattern had formed. Hitchin were the more aggressive in attack, and Leiston defended astutely and were alert to the possibilities of the sprightly counter move. That man Wilkinson was soon at it again. He forced a corner following a cross, and Jackson fired wide. But the most memorable moment of the match was Wilkinson’s startling solo run where he took the ball right into the penalty area, right into the goal area, shrugging off frantic challenges and he was denied a deserved goal by the foot of the post, and a corner was the only consolation. It was breathtaking stuff.
A further Wilkinson cross to Davies was dealt with coolly by Okoye- Ahaneku, who was having a steady debut in Hitchin colours. A good move from Leiston involving Saunders and Davies saw the latter’s header misdirected wide. There was a bit of suppressed panic when a deliberate or should I say controlled back pass to Tiernan Parker saw the goalie pick up the ball but not get away with it and the free kick was two yards inside the penalty box. The wall was built and did its job as Davies’ shot was deflected for a corner. This came right at the end of the half and it would have been most awkward for Hitchin to have conceded at that point.
We had reached the interval and to my mind Leiston were good value for their slender lead. Yes, Donkin had helped enormously but the visitors had defended well and were keen on the break. During the break I enjoyed relating that now famous Everton supporter ‘tweet’ following Liverpool’s 7-2 mauling by Aston Villa. ‘Who do you contact when your neighbours let in more than six?’ Wonderful. It gave me a real good laugh and the best since the commentator on that England v Iceland game when he said ‘Maradona might have been the hand of God, but today we have seen the hand of cod.’ Priceless. I wonder if anyone remembers Jimmy greaves commentating on a streaker at Highbury in an Arsenal v Spurs match. ‘Well, I know it is Christmas, but that is the smallest sack I have ever seen’. I want to mention too, the nice lady steward who once she had scanned me etc. for entry she gave me a jelly baby to soften the slight indignity. We do it better at non-League.
But Hitchin were a goal down ad there were indications that their attacking ardour had cooled. Another defeat was definitely not in our script. They started well enough with a headed effort, saved – and then Jhai Dhillon found the side-netting with his header. From a corner Barker shot wide. Then Leiston seemed to get into gear – effectively controlling the game at this point. A Leiston free-kick from the left saw Parker punch away with conviction – and they continued to break with pace whenever they could. A cross from the indefatigable Dhillon was defended, a free-kick from Leiston was low and wide. Hitchin’s play had become ponderous and imprecise – and once more Stead had a chance and once more Donkin outwitted him.
Steve Cawley had his first outing as a substitute, replacing Luke Brown. There were the usual protests at a Hitchin penalty appeal after Dhillon appeared to be fouled but the referee – who had an excellent game, would have none of it. Then, oh Lordy, Hitchin conceded a second goal after seventy-one minutes. It was opportunistic yet effective and it came from a loose ball. William Davies showed good control in tight possession and he finished smartly. It looked all up for Hitchin – but they then injected a degree of urgency into their play and we had a very exciting last period of the game.
But I am ahead of myself because this game turned in an instant. Not even one minute had elapsed before Hitchin were awarded a legitimate penalty with Dhillon being brought down. We knew who was going to take the penalty. Yes, Layne Eadie and he hit the ball so hard it is still on the way to Letchworth. And yes – Donkin was beaten at last. Hitchin piled forward; Leiston coped but were aware that they had sacrificed the initiative – but they too had their chances and indeed if Parker had not made a crucial save right at the end they might have won it.
Groans followed the errant pass, the over hopeful long pass, and every neat interception by the opposition. They clearly wanted to preserve their lead for maximum points and they had indeed worked very hard for that. But, at times, a team can emulate Roy and his Melchester Rovers. Hitchin attacks were more and more threatening but time was ticking. Indeed the equaliser did not come until the eighty-sixth minute, and it was from a rarity -Hitchin scoring following a corner. And it was a fraternal act as well. Barker won a corner and Alex Marsh’s flighted ball was met by his brother Lawrie who headed in the equaliser to the great relief of the home contingent.
There was the usual scramble, do or die in the last few minutes, to bag a winner and both sides seemed to believe that they could do it and indeed that they deserved it – but it was a draw and a really exhilarating match to watch from start to finish.
Hitchin’s next two games are away at Stratford Town and Bromsgrove Rovers, so we hope they carry today’s grit and determination with them.
Tiernan Parker, Samuel Okoye-Aheneku, Layne Eadie – PENALTY GOAL, 72 MINS, cautioned, Lawrie Marsh, GOAL, 86 MINS, Daniel Webb, captain, Ben Walster, Alex Marsh, cautioned, Jhai Dhillon, Callum Stead, Sponsors’ Man of the Match, Luke Brown, Lewis Barker. Substitutes used – Daniel Akubuine, for Okoye- Ahenaku, 90, Ryan Smith for Jhai Dhillon, 85, and Stephen Cawley for Luke Brown, 65.
Unused substitutes: Marcus Goldbourne, Rio Dasilva.
Samuel Donkin, Kyle Hammond, cautioned, Oliver Saunders, Kyle Richardson, Harry Knights, Matthew Weaire, Finlay Barnes, Dylan Switters, cautioned, Liam Jackson,GOAL,15 MINS, William Davies, GOAL,71 MINS, MARCUS WILKINSON, this reporter’s man of the match. Substitutes used. Robert Eagle for Richardson, 75, Jamie Eaton-Collins, for Liam Jackson, 62, and Matthew Richardson for Wilkinson, 90.
REFEREE: Mr A List who had an exemplary game, being ably assisted by Mr J Birch and Mr D Lander.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN