To say this was not Hitchin’s best performance of the season is something of an understatement and left many wondering if this was the same team they saw win so handsomely last week against a Stratford Town team that was third in the League table. The approach was different, the style was different, and the outcome was increasingly predictable.
It became something of a bruising encounter, with eight cautions and one straight dismissal, with the match referee having a difficult time. Alfie cue was unavailable through injury received midweek at Letchworth and it must be said that the hosts were more or less at full strength.
The game was a pay what you want fixture and there were cakes available at the entrances, which was a nice touch. The corresponding fixture had been a gruelling affair in December last year in inclement weather, with Hitchin winning 2-1. Olympic were thus avenged and deserved the points, but not in the most memorable manner.
Playing in a changed strip of teal shirts, with black sleeves, Olympic kicked off on what was a cloudy, cool afternoon and it was some time before we saw some meaningful goal mouth action. Tyler Little, an attacking full-back, was soon causing some consternation with his forward moves and fine passes for the visitors.
He was involved in the move that led to the first chance when Simeon Maye’s shot was dragged just wide. A cross from Michael Cain brought a corner, which was beaten away, and soon after a foul on Harry Draper meant a free-kick for the Canaries on the edge of the area. This was pumped in by Michael Cain, bringing a save from Matthew Sargeant and this keeper had little trouble in stopping a weak following shot from Draper.
Following a half-chance from Ashley Sammons , held by Michael Johnson, Olympic had a free- kick wide on the right which Joseph hull put over the cross bar. But the play was somewhat uninspired with Hitchin lacking in penetration. Midway through the half they did have a short period of sustained pressure which forced three successive corners, but these and other efforts were adequately defended in every case. There was an attempted volley from Josh Bickerstaff which was blocked. Little, son of a former Nottingham Forest professional of some stature, continued to be inventive in his incursions into the Hitchin half – mainly being a competent provider but when he did get a shot in on target there was a flag for off-side, one of many such decisions during the game.
Galliford won a free-kick when playing the advantage might have been the better refereeing decision – but it was cleared well enough. Dylan Parker was equally inventive and eager but attacks continued to be broken down with inaccurate passing as much as intervention. Morgan Penfold was closely monitored and was thus restricted in opportunity.
Chesmain, Dowie and Ferrell were all fully involved but there was a definite lack of punch up front – perhaps an unwise choice of metaphor as the game almost descended to this in a distasteful second half notable only for a lack of player discipline and a bevy of cautions. There were six in total for the visitors and two for Hitchin, plus the straight dismissal of Ferrell for foul and abusive language aimed at the referee following an unsuccessful penalty appeal.
This was a difficult game to enjoy since there were so many stoppages following petulant manoeuvres. There was never any real rhythm until that move which led to the only goal of the game after thirty-five minutes. Some neat forward passing saw Parker pick out the unmarked Maye who converted smartly. Before then there was an isolated shot from Olympic skipper Ashely Sammons, which lacked power and was easily saved.
Hitchin’s response was a little muted and the insistence on aerial combat and the long ball lacked penetration, and such attempts were routinely headed away. The closest Hitchin got was from a Galliford corner that was stopped right on the goal line by Sargeant. Maye’s goal did mean that the visitors dug in to defend their lead, especially in a second half where they rarely threatened.
At the end of the first half I noticed a good deal of dissatisfaction from Hitchin supporters who wondered what had happened to the fluid play they had employed against Stratford Town. Olympic deserved their lead for the moment of inspiration but any thought s we had of the game improving in standard and entertainment were quickly dispelled. There were some significant moments where an equaliser was seemingly imminent, but the cross bar imposed itself innocently but unkindly from a home point of view.
Supporters refreshed themselves with cakes and ale, but on the field we witnessed a poor half that saw many stoppages, confrontations and a snarling of aggrieved players. It is all too easy to apportion blame to the referee for being too free with his cards. Let us just say he had something of a difficult game. Little almost blotted his copy book with a poor back pass, but the goalie recovered, despite the advancing of the Hitchin front two. My daughter, who had already touched me for a drink and a tray of chips thought she made amends by shouting ‘Come on Hitchin, you can do it’ and then added, as an afterthought, ‘if you B and Q it’, which shows the power of advertising rather than spontaneous humour. She also added that the assistant referee our side had an imaginative haircut.
Lee Smith, already on the yellow received sound advice that one more transgression and he would be enduring the walk of shame. He behaved better after that, which is more than can be said for players of both teams as this dreadful half wore on. Both captains were called for by the referee and it was clear what he was saying, but his words were largely unheeded hence the many later cautions and dismissal.
A promising moment came after fifty-eight minutes when Galliford’s shot was a whisker wide and Jack Green’s fine effort from the resultant corner ricocheted off the top of the cross bar. It could have brougham equaliser which was perhaps deserved for the effort and the sudden rise in excitement.
Hitchin made a double substitution, bringing off Jay dowie and Morgan Penfold and employing Jay Bird (a new name to me) and Ezra Forde. This tactic did not improve matters, despite their individual efforts. Olympic defended well and held on grimly to that first half lead.
Skipper Ashley Sammons was replaced by Daniel O’Callaghan and the latter was himself substituted late on by Brian Smikle. The aerial attacks continued unimpressively from Hitchin and perhaps the best chance of a goal might have come from a set piece which is partially why there was such a vociferous penalty appeal, loftily dismissed by the pertinacious referee. The appeal brought some afters, since Ferrell was heard clearly to call the referee a cheat but prefacing this with a swearword and that comes under foul and abusive. He received the red card for his pains. The crowd may bait and call the referee what they will. He cannot book or dismiss them but if it is a player then it means an early shower for the offender. ‘Come on the ten men’ said my daughter, thinking she was being charitable. At this stage I thought we were being charitable to watch the painful last part of the match. I was wondering if eight cautions was the most I had seen, but I am no keeper of statistics.
Benjamin Lund came on for Massiah McDonald, perhaps because the latter had already received a yellow card. One caution was of more than passing interest as Orrin Pendley, derided by Hitchin supporters mimed the score with his fingers and the assistant referee drew the referee’s attention to this and the yellow card came out to the best ‘Who me, ref?’ face of the season so far. Lund lunged and was booked, but the free-kick was wasted.
Jack Green was booked for a bad challenge to add to Draper’s caution late in the match. I think our place in the Fair play League might take a huge jolt after today. The last ten minutes were endured rather than enjoyed and thus Hitchin’s recent good spell came abruptly to a close, but without any downward movement on the League position owing to other results. Today’s result was grumpily written off and all were expressing a hope for a much improved performance for the next home game, on Wednesday 6 March against Tamworth. Draper, spearheading one attack appeared to lead with his elbow, and this caused another scene and a gathering of aggrieved players to hold a snarling debriefing with the referee’s shrill whistle being inadvertently used as punctuation.
I was a little glad when the match ended and I think this is one occasion today’s referee will remember as being his busiest for some time. Far from being a classic, this was dour stuff indeed, but as our optimistic secretary told me, it can only get better. I hope so.
Michael Johnson, Jack Green, cautioned – sponsors’ man of the match, Noah Chesmain, Jay Dowie (Ezra Forde, 61), Daniel Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, dismissed, straight red card, Michael Cain, Harry Draper, cautioned, Morgan Penfold, (Jay Bird, 61), Isaac Galliford, Josh Bickerstaff.
Substitutes not used – Max Ryan, Edwin Mensah and Scott Belgrove.
Matthew Sargeant, Tyler Little, this reporter’s Man of The Match, Asa Charlton, Lee smith, cautioned, Joseph Hull, Orrin Pendley, cautioned, Dylan Parker, cautioned, Simeon Maye, GOAL, 35, cautioned, Massiah McDonald, cautioned (Benjamin Lund, 73), Ashley Sammons, captain, cautioned, (Daniel O’Callaghan – replaced by Brian Smikle, 90), Daniel Waldron.
Substitutes not used – AJ Adelkan and Aram Soleman.
REFEREE: Mr K Sear, assisted by Mr T Whay and Mr G Swanton.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN