Hitchin extended their unbeaten run in League games to four games, but they left it late to scramble a draw against a disciplined and compact Nuneaton side who had good reason to believe that they might have won what would have been only their second away match of the campaign.
On a heavy pitch doused by persistent rain, both teams engaged in what was an unremittingly tight game. Fifth placed Borough nearly began in spectacular fashion when Ryan Edmunds, I think tried an overhead kick, but hitchin were eager to go for the early strike as well, with a half chance for Jhai Dhillon, followed by a too gentle lob from Alex Marsh that was easy for Hitchin nemesis, goal keeper Tony Breeden.
His counterpart today was Josh Mollison, since Charlie Horlock was serving his one match ban for the offence committed at Redditch United. Edmunds was proving to be a bit of a handful on the right flank and he was soon testing Mollison with a decent shot. Matters were marked by some ineffective free-kicks from Hitchin and a growing containment by Borough who were subtly exerting control, with patience and authority.
Imprecise passing from Hitchin permitted counter moves, which involved switching play whilst retaining possession. With twenty minutes gone, exchanges could be said to be even, but the visitors got their noses in front following the seemingly underrated tactic of the long throw. Their was an element of good fortune here because a deflection caused Mollison to be wrong-footed and Jack Byrne was there to open his team’s account.
Whilst Hitchin’s response was suitably urgent, they found the Borough defence unyielding. A good move involving Barker, Marsh and Bell saw Green have a blocked shot and Dhillon fail to exploit a half chance. Cawley was reasonably eager, and after he won a corner, Walster sent this in with hope but, like others , this was keenly defended and as the game progressed it seemed that this defence was if not impregnable, it was efficient.
Byrne was there to provide Callum Powell with an effort, which won a corner, and Powell fired one in that was saved by Mollison. Isaiah Osbourne had a pop himself that brought a corner from Powell that Edmunds wastefully headed well over the bar. The more Hitchin tried the more they seemed frustrated by a team that simply knew how to defend a lead and counter well. This was indeed an absorbing half, with Hitchin pitched against yet another Midlands team that utilised its strengths and merits and few could deny them their interval lead.
It was very different from the Redditch game – since the Borough knew how to play it tight and frustrate the opposition by simple attention to duty. Without doubt Hitchin needed to be more adventurous and this they became as they performed much better in the second period, but did look vulnerable at times. A first half that was marked by some imprecision in passing and free-kicks that had been happily absent in the game before. But Borough are an experienced, strong side who know how to thwart the eager intention.
To be honest, despite Hitchin’s improved play, they did not look likely to score and this was compounded by some questioned refereeing decisions – in particular the award of a free-kick centrally just outside the area when it seemed to many – and I was level with the offence so to speak, a penalty seemed the only justifiable decision. This was not the only moment of controversy, of course, but even when this scoring chance was present, the free-kick was fired against the defensive wall.
The Canaries started well – presumably having been exhorted by the manager for more effort. There was good stuff from Walster, Bell and Dhillon and an early corner was forced. Rolfe was also in the mix and he combined with Dhillon on a fine move that was again cleverly undone by the Borough defence. Cawley and Marsh had another move which culminated in Dhillon heading wide.
Borough were far from idle in creating their own opportunities – even if they were now under a little bit of pressure. Osbourne , Powell and Edmunds combined but came up against Webb, Rolfe and Bickerstaff who tidied up nicely.
Webb had undergone a busy first half where Luke Benbow had rightfully complained of illegitimate shirt-pulling that the referee seemed not to notice or want to punish. Benbow and Kelly-Evans still persisted, and there were indeed a few nervous moments in the Hitchin defence.
There was a fine cross from Dhillon, very close to the goal line but again it was defended. Two successive free-kicks were wasted and a shot on the hour from Bickerstaff was held by Breeden. The more Hitchin probed the more they were contained and it did not seem that this would be relinquished. Perhaps a set piece might have unsettled them – and there came a moment when Rolfe appeared to be fouled just within the area. I was level with this and made an immediate note of ‘penalty to Hitchin.’ I do confess surprise when despite the voluminous appeals from players (and home supporters, of course), the referee awarded a free kick right forward of the ‘D’. somewhere amongst this Rolfe had also received a caution.
When the brouhaha had settled we anticipated the kick, but it was struck against the defensive wall and the moment was again lost. At the other end Byrne had a free kick saved and Powell’s shot was well saved. Bell was in fiery mode and he along with Dhillon got forward, with Marsh eager to support or create his own momentum.
The introduction of Max Ryan provided a vital spark for Hitchin as each attack looked more purposeful – yet they were still contained by that miserly Borough defence. Ryan had a couple of attempts, both going wide – but he was more effective as a playmaker. His exchange of passes with Marsh seemed to me the best chance of an equaliser so far. A cross from Ryan was claimed by Breeden, and Benbow, at the other end had a shot saved – but it reminded us of his well known scoring prowess.
It also served to illustrate that the visitors had not necessarily decided to defend that first half lead – but the initiative was now more or less with Hitchin, with Ryan an inspirational force. Play was broken with several awards of free-kicks and the odd injury – as testified by the full five minutes of additional time added by referee Mr S Smith, who had to work hard to keep the lid on this one at certain moments of heated controversy. But that is, of course, nothing new.
Whilst there was nothing remarkable about free-kicks from either side – at least Hitchin were giving every effort and reward came late – with three minutes of normal time. But once they had scored they had to endure moments of nervousness when the visitors sought to snatch the points by reprising the long throw tactic deep in stoppage time – and not just once but twice. They came close.
Green had won a corner, and as this sailed in there was a degree of uncertain play – the ball seemed held up between attempts to clear and score and yes, a Hitchin player got the final touch but it was so crowded we could not identify him and the announcer confirmed a couple of minutes later that it was Lewis Barker who had saved the day.
We still had that spell of injury time and either side could have snatched it in that time but in the end it was an equitable sharing of the points that was a reasonable outcome to this hard fought and uncompromising match. The equaliser was deserved on the flow of play and it is a testament to the character of the Hitchin team that pursued a goal that looked unlikely even if attempts did not dwindle.
The club has two games at home next week – Welwyn Garden City on Monday in the Hertfordshire Senior Cup and then the League match against Barwell next Saturday.
The point today was very welcome since other results went more or less our way and climbing just one place must be seen as progress.
Josh Mollison, Jack Green, Ben Walster, Lewis Rolfe, cautioned, Daniel Webb, captain, Josh Bickerstaff, Lewis Barker, GOAL, 87 MINUTES, man of the match, Jhai Dhillon, Stephen Cawley, Alex Marsh, Bradley Bell, (Max Ryan, 64).
Substitutes not used – Joe Gauge, Shaquille Ishmael, Devonte Simms and Marcus Crowther.
Tony Breeden, Declan Towers, cautioned, James Clifton, Joel Kettle, captain, Jamie Hood, Jack Byrne, GOAL, 21 MINUTES, (Nigel Julien), Callum Powell, Isaiah Osbourne, Luke Benbow, cautioned, (Mitchel Candlin), Devon Kelly-Evans, Ryan Edmunds, (Jamie Towers).
Substitutes not used – Tyrell Belford, GK, Miles Addison.
REFEREE: Mr S Smith, assisted by Mr M Steakovic and – initially Mr T Ratherham who was replaced but I was not given the name.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN