Hitchin gained maximum points for the fourth successive league match, which , pleasing in itself, makes me commit the heresy that tonight’s win was a nervous one, and if the visitors had fulfilled their real threat of snatching a draw, we could not have complained with any seriousness.
A solid, positive first half by the Canaries gave way to an indifferent second-half performance that seemed to live on a wish and a promise. This match was on a knife edge throughout owing to two unsuccessful penalties, one for either side. The strong suggestion that the one goal lead, scored very early, was very nearly not enough.
But, putting that into perspective, it was clear that St Ives are a canny outfit. They had caused a stir with their handsome away win at leaders Kettering Town, and they are where they are on merit. Hitchin’s recent improvement has been due largely to the team discovering its latent strengths in both attack and defence.
In facing a vibrant St Ives Town there was a challenge – could the team perform decently and the answer is yes, they did – in the first half and sporadically in the second period. From the get- go there was an immediate attack with Matt Lench the instigator. This was a declaration of intent and it was sustained despite some interesting forays along the left flank by the Huntingdonshire side.
Michael Cain, fresh from his notable performance against Halesowen, was at it again and it was he who scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game. It might not have been the most vital moment had Hitchin converted the penalty they were awarded that would have supplied a rather more comfortable score-line. Lench was the instigator, and finding himself in nice possession, thought he may as well have a crack on goal. It was a decent shot on target which the goalkeeper, Martin Conway, a very forthright fellow, parried, but right into the path of Cain who had a fairly easy job of converting.
Six minutes had passed and thus a lead against a team that grew into this game and came within a whisker of a point. St Ives reacted with a chance that went wide, and they were not to have any real attempts on target until the second half. They did well on the left flank owing to the efforts of Charlie De’ath and the nimble Ben Seymour-Shove (suggestive name of a footballer, eh)? But the better, more consistent play came from Hitchin. Galliford was destined to score, for example but there was a simply brilliant piece of defending from Ben Jackson that prevented him.
Suffice it to say that the first half was characterised by penetrative play from Hitchin that may well have resulted in more than a one goal lead, prevented by sure-footed defending and able counter-play. It was not until the second period that we saw the more able aspect of St Ives ability, but it was there and manifested to a nervous degree. They had been, and they knew it, playing second fiddle but they were aware that a solitary goal could be cancelled by one moment of inspiration. They very nearly pulled it off.
The drama of the second half was highlighted by the two awards of penalties. I cannot recall a game where I have seen two penalties, given at crucial moments and squandered. This is to take nothing away from both goal keepers, who deserve praise for their actions.
What is significant is the way the game altered in its emphasis. Hitchin had imposed themselves early but, in a sense, began to pay for it. A Bickerstaff header flashed wide from a free-kick. Josh had reverted to full-back with the replacement of Chesmain by Alfie Cue who found himself given a fair number of opportunities that met with varying success. Towards the end he found he was a free spirit and was presented with more than one opportunity to put the game beyond reasonable doubt.
Robert Parker, the St Ives’ skipper indeed played a captain’s role with some determined and inspirational play. One of their headers hit the bar – De’ath I think it was on that occasion. Ben Baker had a fabulous effort that was very nearly the equaliser and Johnson was again tempted into heroic status, notwithstanding his penalty save later.
St Ives began to apply pressure that was insistent rather than insidious. They were now playing the better football. It was not becoming an auspicious second half for the Canaries – and the defence was tested. Lench unwittingly set up a shot for Parker following a slight error in possession. Dowie had a moment on the edge of the area that brought fine defending from Jackson. Galliford put in a cross that saw both Forde and Galliford try conclusions.
Play was still fluid, but fraught with tension. When the team that has had its moments in the first period and now found itself under growing pressure, there is the nagging doubt that they would hold out for the duration. Galliford and cue combined with Lench and the last named was brought down for a penalty, which was indicated immediately was give to Galliford to increase the lead. This was about sixty-five minutes in, and had it been converted it might have saved some later nervousness.
There might not be too much in what we call body language but there was something about the lethargic attempt that was almost predictable and we must praise Martin Conway who saved after the negligent caution of his colleague Jarvis Wilson who showed too much dissent for the authoritative referee, Mr Mannix, who kept a proper control over every aspect of this match. The effect of that of course was to raise a head of steam for the Huntingdonshire side and convey to the home team that their work was going to be just that bit more difficult as they held precariously to their slender lead.
My notes read – this could have serious repercussions and by Jingo it very nearly did. Alfie cue did his best ‘who me, ref?’ impression but he found his name in the black book, and it was followed by one for De’ath. This player was a little bit fortunate when, after a foul on the edge of the area he did not receive a second caution and a dismissal as a result.
St Ives were awarded a penalty at about the hour mark and it was a significant moment. They had been attacking well against a miserly defence but here was an opportunity. Ben Baker was the taker and small prayers found their way heavenwards and the peerless Michael Johnson showed yet again why he is such a treasured member of the squad. Once again he saved, but mention must be made of his coolness and skill in his efforts in a crowded area saving more than one attempt.
St Ives had been given this chance for parity and it had been thwarted but with oodles of time to go, it was still redolent with uncomfortable possibilities as far as the home side went. I heard one home supporter make his way to the exits bemoaning the lack of penetration by the hosts in a nerve strewn second half, but this must be put into perspective. St Ives are a team of resilient propensities and they correctly surmised that this game was not yet beyond them, given the timorous play from the hosts at this stage.
Yet opportunities arose and caused frustration by the prodigality of the finish. Cue had a shot saved but that fellow De’ath had a good line in the long throw that made us wish he had opted for something else. I like that long throw tactic and have always thought that the anticipation of it causes a little bit of dread.
It was not short of excitement but it still leaned towards a St Ives equaliser. Dowie had a crack which was saved. Bickerstaff was on the qui vive for a lob that might be seized upon, but there was no getting through. One of my pet dislikes is the farting about by the corner flag to waste time and I am afraid that Hitchin employed this almost like an act of submission – when there was still a goodly time to go.
As the visitors pressed they left a few inviting holes at the back and Hitchin had more than one opportunity to exploit this. They did – to a point. Forde, Galliford and cue got beyond the last man, had space to advance but just could not elude the excellent covering play.
A St Ives corner brought another – defence was untidy but adequate. Free kicks seemed to be awarded liberally and executed with varying precision. Time was used by Hitchin rather than wasted. Dea’th’s offence was excused somehow after a consultation by the referee with one of his assistants and I am convinced that had he not been on a yellow he would have got one there. The free kick was painfully wasted.
So, still just 1-0. Still ten minutes to go. It was not the time to make mistakes, but some were made and recovery from them seemed laboured at times. Hitchin prevailed but when you feel considerable relief at the final whistle you do question the whole business.
Cue had one chance to add a late emphasis, but it was not even on target. Cue on the edge of the area put in another that found the side-netting and a deflection for a corner. Cue the messing around by the corner flag. God how I hate it in any team. Play up, p[lay the game, you chaps. Cain and Forde and then Bickerstaff had further opportunities – that was better than limp submission. Galliford did win another corner with three minutes to go, but this saw Forde blow a chance – but before I seemed aware the whistle had gone and what a prize are those three points over a team that may well have been tipped to win here at Top Field.
So, four wins in a row, and the team deserves credit for this run that has raised them a country mile above the dreaded bottom three, but it serves to show again that they have resilience and spirit. This will be tested at Kettering on Saturday, but I feel that in that ‘claustrophobic ‘atmosphere of home bias, they may well respond with their proven ability to play resilient, attacking football.
Some said it was a ground out win, with the penalties playing as huge part. But it was a win, however untidy and the quiet rejuvenation continues.
Michael Johnson, sponsors’ man of the match, Jack Green, Noah Chesmain, (Alfie Cue), Jay Dowie, cautioned, Daniel Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Michael Cain, GOAL, 6 MINUTES, Josh Bickerstaff, Ezra Forde, Isaac Galliford, Matt Lench.
Substitutes not used – Alex Anderson, Craig Packham and Vladislav Bursa.
ST IVES TOWN
Martin Conway, Ben Jackson, Charlie De’ath, cautioned, Taona Sundire, Sam Cartwright, Jarvis Wilson, cautioned, Ben Baker, (George Bailey), Robert Parker, captain, Jake Newman, Danny Kelly, Ben Seymour-Shove, (Ty Ward).
Substitutes not used – Joe Hood, Mark Coulson and Owen Wallis.
REFEREE: Mr J Mannix, a fine game, ably assisted by Mr M Briggs and Mr S Conway.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN