A win in this game was particularly desirable for Hitchin, in order to lay the ghost of that 8-1 mauling in the corresponding fixture at the start of the season – but it was not to be and the Canaries suffered their third successive defeat after that splendid run of four league wins.
It all began well, though. Kicking towards the covered end, Hitchin enjoyed good early possession and were soon creating chances, with some good, flowing football. In fact, it could not have been more positive for maybe twenty minutes. But net gains and losses against the Market today were governed by an astute tactical awareness from the visitors, playing in their very dark blue away kit. They simply absorbed the pressure before subtly applying their own and with almost insidious ease they took quiet control. In many ways this was a classic ‘away performance’, that is to absorb the expected pressure and to hit back when the opportunities arose.
The team was changes somewhat owing to unavailability and/or injury. There was no Jack Green or Isaac Galliford. Edwin Mensah returned to the colours and new signing Moses ‘step over’ Olanrewaju made a start.
But the early opportunities fell grandly to Hitchin who fell short of the needed finish. An early goal from one of these earnest forays may well have made a major difference. Pretty football does not always get its reward. Ezra Forde had an initial go, with Alfie Cue sending in a cross that was cleared. There was a free-kick from Michael Cain that almost went for a corner – but what was noticeable here that the visitors unwittingly lost possession and thus had to defend stoutly. Some passes were too heavy or overly ambitious – but the initiative was definitely with the Canaries. The telling phrase could well be ‘only connect.’
It seemed that everyone was in on the attacking act, but we had to wait for a goal chance of some seriousness. A free-kick in the defensive half saw Webb push the ball through to Moses Olanweraju who lost out to Joseph Marsden, but it was noted just how efficiently the Needham defence was operating. Cue sent in a long throw for a blocked shot from jay Dowie. Forde looked like having a go before he lost possession within the penalty area.
Chesmain sent a long ball forward, ushered out by Kieran Morphew who went on to have an outstanding game and was influential in the final result. Marsden placed a cross that was absorbed and again Hitchin went forward, often with an elaborate manner. Moses had a shot that went wide. This was in fact the first shot on target and it took fully fourteen minutes.
This did not deter from Hitchin’s eagerness and Dowie then shot wide. With a bit more matter and less art Hitchin may have achieved a breakthrough. Two shots from Hitchin was the actual statistic but the potential was still there. But so were Needham, when they broke free – Mills put in a cross and Marsden had a pop and it was on target and served as a reminder that the hosts were not going to get it all their own way, despite the eagerness and effort.
Cain had a shot and a follow-up, after the parry from Jake Jessup. Saw Dowie pump it in but it went for a corner. Webb had a crack himself, as he often does from corners – this time it went over the bar. The sheer presence of the earnest and honest Alfie Cue was encouraging since he knows no other way than playing it simple, and that is often the best way. Moses, with his stylish step overs and his flashing red boots was nice but ultimately unsatisfying. I had the feeling that if he clicked them three times he would end up in Kansas with Dorothy wondering if she met the wizard at all. The clinical purity of the first Biggleswade goal and the opener for Needham was a boost to the idea of playing it simple.
Josh Bickerstaff sent in an almost slow motion lob that was never going to beat the visiting keeper who looked about seven foot nine inches tall. After the prolonged aggression from Hitchin the game changed significantly as we reached the half hour mark. There was an almost lazy shot wide from James Baker and then the visitors forced no fewer than three successive corners and they scored from the last of these.
Mills and Sturgess combined and Needham skipper put in a wonderful header that, if unsuccessful, was the closest we had got to a goal. The second corner saw an effort hit the bar, Kamanz won another corner and things were a little fraught for Hitchin. There was an untidy clearance and then in went the third corner, punched away by Johnson. Market had exploded into aggression and a goal came from it.
Mills sent in the cross and skipper Heath converted – finding the bottom right corner with nonchalant ease. It was not a cheeky goal but one constructed with classical simplicity. Hitchin had been elaborate without conclusion, Needham had seized the moment – and thus were a goal ahead. To that extent I cannot say it was against the flow of play since what counts is maximising the opportunities. But this Needham side was indeed coming alive.
There was a moment when Moses had a chance if a header but it glanced off his sweaty brow. Hard contact might have deceived Jessup. It was the last real Hitchin chance of the half. Possession might be nine tenths of the law but laws can be broken with impunity. Marsden had skipped past players in the penalty area and was only just rebuffed – and thus we went to the interval with some disappointment.
Every match has its controversial moment and we all see things differently – but there was a consensus among home supporters, and I am told, the visitors’ bench staff that Ezra Forde was denied a penalty shortly after the restart. I saw referee Tim Donnellan look immediately to his assistant, Bob Trinder who did not signal an offence at all. I was more or less level with it and was unsure. The referee told me that Forde was ‘leaning against the player’. I can accept that but there have been occasions when, to quote the cliché, the referee had no hesitation in pointing towards the spot. I hate that expression. Had a successful penalty been awarded it may well have influenced the final outcome.
Never mind that – Cue followed up later with a shot over the bar, and I was more and more impressed with Keiran Morphew’s defensive qualities as well as his part in starting counter moves. His brother Daniel was equally adept. I did like the fact that Alfie Cue espoused the long throw and right at the end, when it did not matter that much in terms of the result, it brought success. Adam Mills had a long range shot that was saved – but during the course of this half there were a number of occasions that Needham could have extended their lead.
They scored their second, following a corner. They had defended efficiently and got the ball to the other end and won this corner. Across it came and it fell nicely to Joseph Marsden who scored from close range. It was a devastating blow, almost mocking the inconclusive moments of Hitchin attacks. Moses put in a fine cross and Kieran Morphew defended with his usual precision.
Bickerstaff cleared the bar with another go, Belgrove came on for Cain, Ferrell shot wide. Too many lofted ball sought out the lone, struggling figure of Ezra Forde. In a post-match interview with manager Mark Burke, he told me that Forde had been ‘our best player’. That I find interesting as I cordially disagree. Too many long balls sought out the beleaguered striker whose first touch was often not of the best. When Matt Nolan came on it was marginally more effective,. The distinct feeling I had was that Needham had anticipated each forward move and simply nullified it by placing an extra man on Forde.
There were good Hitchin moments in this half, the best, of course when Ferrell snatched one back in 90+4 minutes. All too little too late but still something to cherish. Mills shad a long range shot again, Marsden had a belter that was saved for a corner and substitute Jamie Griffiths had a one on one that he looked certain to score but Johnson denied him commendably. There was, at this stage a bit of scrappiness about Hitchin – poor back passes – unforced errors.
Nolan and Belgrove made a difference but not one of great significance – the Needham defence was far too astute for that. Nevertheless Hitchin tried -without varying the tactics to any significant degree. It did not seem that the home side was score – but they did, and it was deep into stoppage time and too late to matter – but at least it showed they tried until the last.
To lose again and for the second match at home is a little debilitating and I tried to get some meaningful sentences after the game from Dan Webb who simply said that ‘lads were gutted after such a good start’. He added that they ‘only tried to get on the ball when one-nil down.’ Of the coming Royston game he was a little tight-lipped. ‘We have to do better’. He is right, and I will add that the trip to Royston is the third to Garden Walk this term.
Mark Burke was as positive as ever – he emphasised the good start and how the team had approached the game. He tactfully dismissed my suggestion that tactically, we had been a little naive. He spoke of the chances we had had before they scored. He, like others emphasised that the Ezra Forde incident was definitely a penalty. I joked with him that at least it was not eight-one. Significantly he said that it shows how much we have improved. There is compensatory confidence for you!
Like Biggleswade Town, Needham Market have done the double over Hitchin and we must look ahead to future fixtures. We may still be above the relegation zone but we must avoid the scenario that may see us not waving but drowning. There are many changes to the team, and in my view we have yet to settle on the best starting eleven. Mark Burke said we must try for a happy new year with results and it does start on that very day at Royston, followed by a home fixture against Rushden and Diamonds where, for those of us who were there, we deserved at least a a draw and a win at home 0n 5 January would be more than welcome.
Michael Johnson, Edwin Mensah, Noah Chesmain, Jay Dowie, cautioned, Daniel Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, GOAL, 90+4 MINUTES, Michael Cain, cautioned, (Scott Belgrove), Josh Bickerstaff, Ezra Forde, Moses Olanrewaju, (Matt Nolan), Alfie Cue.
Substitutes not used – Alex Anderson, Craig Packham, Desejado DaSilva.
Jake Jessup, Jake Dye, Callum Sturgess, Samuel Squire, Keiran Morphew, this reporter’s man of the match, Daniel Morphew, Joseph Marsden, GOAL, 62 MINUTES (Luke Ingram), Gareth Heath, captain, GOAL, 31 MINUTES, James Baker, (Jamie Griffiths), Jeramiah Kamanz, Adam Mills, (Reece Dobson).
Substitutes not used – Finlay Shorten.
REFEREE: Mr T Donnellan, assisted by Mr R Trinder and Mr N Fuller.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN