This was not the rout that is suggested by the score-line, and this is not a home reporter bias, as at the interval – to a man the Peterborough Sports club officials expressed the unsolicited opinion that they could scarcely believe that Hitchin were two goals down having played so well so far. The hosts had dominated with attacking football and had been hit by two fine breakaway counter moves of embarrassing simplicity.
Before the match there was a respectful minute’s silence for our former President Tony Huckle, a man much loved at Hitchin Town and an undoubted character in non-league football. He would have purred over our performance against Mickleover but growled into his pint at the club’s exit from the FA Trophy today. He would not have been alone.
Expectations may have been high and possibly optimistic as Sports were known as a strong team – and after our surprise 4-0 win at their ground last season, they made amends at Top Field with a comfortable 2-0 win in what was actually the last League game to be played in that aborted season.
Many of us agreed beforehand that this was a difficult one to call – both teams were in form, played at the same level and had played well against each other. The bonus of winning went beyond the cash prize as it meant the certainty of another meaningful and competitive game in this competition on the following Saturday, with the current League programme very uncertain.
A brash and confident start by Hitchin quickly suggested that they would test their opponents’ defence, and this they did, with some outstanding work from Layne Eadie and Callum Stead. There were some swift attacking moves along the left flank and the ball was placed into the Sports penalty area almost longing for the perfect finish. Eadie shot just wide and Stead had a shot saved. There was a suggestion that this was just a preliminary foray, with the best yet to come. Luke Brown, the hat-trick hero of the last game was giving good support and Ben ‘The Brick’ Walster showed some attacking flair to add to his defensive prowess.
Sports weathered this early storm with accurate defending and they quickly showed just how adept they were at the breakaway move and they gave a good lesson in how to make the most of opportunities offered. Almost incomprehensibly they were a goal to the good after just eight minutes. We might say that Charlie Horlock’s clearance was the indirect cause, but defender Brad McGowan’s defensive header was just as vital. The ball had been snapped up by the unmarked Lewis Hilliard who capitalised on the lack of challenge on the right flank. He advanced boldly and unleashed a venomous shot that found the top left corner. It was a superb strike and characteristic of the opportunities taken in this game. As it was only eight minutes I was mentally preparing a report along the lines of ‘Hitchin came from behind to put this tie beyond challenge’, being a bit of an optimist. I should cocoa. Sports went on to see the man bathing and then walk off with his clothes, if you can stand a little metaphoric excursion.
Rarely have I seen a team so dominant to slink off at the interval two goals to the bad. It was more inexplicable rather than unexpected. Well-constructed Hitchin moves had been defended well but it seemed inevitable that the Sports’ defence would buckle under the pressure. They did not; they would not. It was a classic away performance – wait for your chance, take it – and as I said, run off with the clothes. It takes a good team to do this and Sports are a fine team, and already there were lively showings from Deon Sembie -Ferris, Mark Jones and Abduramane Sano Sani – with Lewis Hilliard always on the lurk.
I cannot emphasise enough here just how good was Hitchin’s preparatory play, in fact it was so good I confidently expected this audacious away lead to be eliminated erelong. Lewis Moat did his bit in goal and his defence squared up to matters in a lantern-jawed stubbornness – and before we could take breath those in all blue were launching yet another attack on the break. Hilliard was allowed a fine run and a shot on the break which went wide, but might have nabbed a second goal.
A free-kick from Ben Walster saw skipper Dan Webb have a trademark header that was a whisker wide, but for Sports Saro Sani did the same. Warnings were almost illuminated. Hilliard put one over the bar, a Stead chance was effectively blocked and a shot from Brown brought a corner. Saro Sani fired wide in another effort and Eadie’s invited cross was well defended. Saro Sani again threatened, and having beaten the off-side trap her was clear on goal only to be thwarted by Ahaneku’s marvellous tackle that prevented a certain goal.
Luke Brown had a shot blocked , then he followed up with Moat doing well to save at the expense of a corner. That pestilential Saro Sani was soon at it again when he broke through the middle, passing well to Ferris on the right flank and he replicated the first goal with a sublime finish. This was a vital goal, coming as it did right at the end of the half. Had Hitchin gone to the interval trailing by just the one goal, it would have been a lot easier. But two goals was a huge plus for Peterborough, who, to my mind, were playing the perfect game away from home.
Nonplussed was the word in my mind. How could Hitchin play so well and yet be losing so significantly? I will say that it is all about opportunity. You can batter all you like but if you do not make the net bulge in your favour it counts for nothing. Sports had done just that -maximise opportunity and let the devil take the hindmost. We had been undone by our own naivety, unravelled by our own intricacy. I had definite misgivings that we could come back from this two goal deficit, given the imperious way that Peterborough had defended, utilising their experience.
The second half was something of an anticlimax, even if Hitchin tried manfully to redress the balance. Stead had a header saved, and Mark Jones saw his header go over the bar for Sports. Brown’s effort was saved by Moat and a Stead run evinced a bold penalty appeal that might have been awarded – but was waved away by the referee who had endured the ironic applause when he had awarded the away team a free-kick. I confess to being a little angry at the Hitchin supporter who vented his anger at this official’s performance, which to my mind was blameless and completely impartial.
There was a decent chance when Dan Akubuine sent an inviting cross to the far post, and a smart header from Luke Brown brought an equally smart save from Moat. There was an inevitable substitution from Hitchin and I expected to see the pace of Marcus Gouldbourne utilised – but it was given to Steve Cawley, whose Alan Gilzean type touches could possibly make a huge difference. Despite the efforts though, things were not going well. There is no denying that it was as frustrating for the supporters as it was for the players. The team had played well – there was no doubt about that, but they were matched throughout in what I say again, was a classic away performance.
Salt was well and truly rubbed into the wounds when Sports went further ahead after sixty-eight minutes. Sembie-Ferris, lithe and lissom scored his second of the game with a smart individual finish – and I must say with the minimum of challenge. It is a team game but there are these notable occasions when a player can sparkle in individual mode – and no doubt this was a fine goal.
Play became a bit niggly , but Sports had not concluded yet. Their fourth and final goal came from one of those penalty area incidents where a ball might fall opportunely for defender or attacker and for Sports’ substitute, the opportunity came not from a colleague but from a Horlock parry from an initial shot. Dan Jarvis snaffled up the opportunity and wheeled away after conversion no doubt thinking the journey had been worthwhile as he might well not have been brought into action. This was about ten minutes from normal time and of course there was no doubt about the result. But it was undeniably painful as, I repeat, Hitchin had played well. No, that is not home reporter bias, that is not my style. To sum up, Hitchin had been eager and positive and the away team had been canny and opportunistic – and the fact that they scored four goals does ask a few questions.
Of course, it was hugely disappointing. The Canaries had come from a richly deserved win in the last round and I would emphasise that this score of 0-4 seems rather cruel- but it is realistic – it happened and a certain naivety contributed to it all. Sports are a strong team within our own division and it does put things into perspective – we have some way to go to set up a realistic challenge for wins in the League, which, by the way, we can now concentrate on without let or hindrance. And what about the League? Do we go or do we stay, do we lock-down or do we play? Who knows…….
So, instead of facing Basford United, who beat Felixstowe and Walton 3-0 we look to having a League game that, at present seems unlikely under current circumstances. I conclude with reporting a brief conversation with Layne Eadie after the game. He was munching chips by the Hitchin Kitchen and he agreed that they took their chances and we did not. But importantly, he said, ‘We will come again.’ The trouble is we do not know when, but – yes, we will.
We wish Peterborough sports all the very best in the next round, as representatives of our League against Northern Premier Basford United. They would have wished us the same had opportunity not knocked for them in such a clinical fashion.
This report is dedicated to the memory of Mr President, as I called him, our own Tony Huckle.
Charlie Horlock, Dan Akubuine, Ben Walster, cautioned, Lawrie Marsh, Dan Webb, captain, Sam Okoye-Ahaneku, Alex Marsh, Lewis Barker, Callum Stead, Luke Brown, Layne Eadie, cautioned. Substitution- Steve Cawley for Alex Marsh -67 minutes. Unused substitutes- Marcus Gouldbourne, Josh Caldicott-Stevens, Rio Dasilva, Kye Tearle.
Lewis Moat, Matt Miles, Johnny Herd, Brad McGowan, Richard Jones, captain, Daniel Lawlor, Deon Sembie-Ferris, TWO GOALS, 45 AND 68 MINUTES – MAN OF THE MATCH, Lewis Hilliard, GOAL, 8 MINUTES, Mark Jones, Abduramane Sano Sani, Joshua Moreman. Substitutions – Joshua McCammon for Mark Jones, Jordan Nicholson for Josh Moreman, Dan Jarvis for Lewis Hilliard – GOAL 82 MINUTES. Unused substitutes – Paul Malone and Mitchell Griffiths.
REFEREE: Mr M Norton, assisted by Mr D Mansour and Mr F Mansour.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN