Relegation threatened St Neots registered an impressive win against a strangely subdued Hitchin side at Top Field today. The Huntingdonshire side will, in all probability, suffer the drop but will be pleased at the manner of their opportunistic win, despite having relatively little possession. Ironically, Hitchin needed a point from the game mathematically to ensure safety, and will not look back on this performance as being among their best.
Team news revealed Alfie Cue’s expected absence and among the Canary substitutes was Nathan Mullings, a new signing and also one Charlie Thake. Both were to become second-half substitutions in an attempt to beef up the play from outright mediocre to acceptable. Michael Cain was presumably injured or unavailable.
The hosts began very positively, with Jack Green pumping in a first minute header, safe enough for keeper McCormack but, we hoped, a taster of greater moments to come. Indeed Green put in a shot soon after, from a Galliford cross that was comfortably held, and for the Saints, Steven Shaw made an important intervention in the six yard box.
It did seem that this youthful Saints side would defend gallantly but eventually succumb to the pressure. They did the former but spurned the latter and again went on to remind us all that it is the taking of opportunities, however fortuitous or adventitious is what matters. After seventeen minutes, a text book move saw Galliford produce a perfect cross for a firm headed effort from the lively Green and the ball went into the net – only to be adjudged off-side. Hitchin possession was impressive up to this point and, generously, we felt, we accepted the decision as erelong more of the same would be dished up and the win would be a formality.
A Galliford free-kick, wide from the left looked the business but Belgrove shot wide .It was about then that the visitors seemed to decide that enough was enough and they forced two corners, taken by Matty Miles. They sustained this bit of pressure, were hungry for any chance and looked good for a goal. Whilst Hitchin still maintained greater possession, their finishing began to look increasingly diffident. Joe Sutton and the regally named Prince Mutswunguma had a bit of freedom on the ball, but were successfully contained. The visitors won another corner or two and unexpectedly took the lead after thirty-seven minutes.
Sutton whipped in a cross towards Trendall, Michael Johnson managed to gather the ball but fumbled the complete save and Trendall was able to scramble the ball over the line. It seemed to underline how off the boil Hitchin were. Yes, there was an element of good fortune about this goal, and it was uncharacteristic of Johnson to let slip an error – but the Saints were, in general worth their lead. They had not been overawed and worked hard with precise defending and some fine distribution. They held their lead until the interval and I overheard a good deal of criticism from some rather fickle home supporters who have me withering looks when I suggested that any team can have an off day. The slice of misfortune at Alvechurch last week, where instead of a two goal lead, denied by the frame of the goal, the Canaries went two down.
Jack Green’s disallowed goal had been the highlight for the home side that, upon resumption did look for a few minutes that they would not only equalise but gain control. There was considerable irony that in the moment they had sacrificed possession they found themselves two goals down with the defence embarrassingly isolated.
Substitutions had been made and were indeed expected. Nathan Mullings and Charlie Thake replaced Ezra Forde and Edwin Mensah. Jay Bird was to replace Belgrove some twenty minutes later. Sadly it did not do much to improve Hitchin’s performance. there was every effort but the longer it went on the less likely they were to score, owing to imprecision in the final third, alert defending and safe goalkeeping.
An early free-kick, just outside the penalty area saw Thake get in a header but it lacked pace and direction. Galliford managed a cracking shot in the forty-eighth minute, but it was wide. Ryan Hughes gave away another free-kick two minutes later and it very nearly went in, taking a touch for a Hitchin corner. This was beaten away, but back came Hitchin, with Thake thwarted. Then, with the pressure very much still being applied we saw the ball cleared and the defence suddenly isolated and Trendall made easy work of doubling the lead – a punishing bit of poaching. Emotionally it left us feeling that somehow we had been cheated – but caught napping is the better description.
Away fans did not disguise their own credulity but were somewhat pleased at the stay of execution and they were quick to point out that they regarded relegation as a virtual certainty with some strong teams left to play in their remaining four games.
There was a fine shot that brought a corner – which Galliford sent across with a wing and a prayer but it, like others was precisely defended. Belgrove had a chance and capped it with a half-hearted appeal for a penalty that only he expected to be awarded. Anderson’s cross took a deflection and there was a really fine shot from Jay Dowie that McCormack saved well – one of the few occasions where his expertise was fully called upon.
It is curious that Hitchin always seem to struggle against teams placed lower than themselves – but who can explain this? Another corner fell to Bickerstaff to pump the ball in but it was, like so many others robustly defended. A home goal at this stage might well have altered matters dramatically, but, as I have said, it looked increasingly unlikely.
The defensive play of Joe Hood was assured but particularly notable was the stylish play of Jordan Norville-Williams who allowed himself no errors. Steven Shaw and Jay Dowie found themselves booked after a needless spat, but that was just an isolated moment in a fairly clean game. Stoppages amounted to a full five minutes and it seemed the referee had added a minute or two just to give Hitchin a chance of getting at least one goal back – but it never came and the final whistle was a bit of a relief – not least for putting an end to the cheeky Saints fans of ‘can we play you every week?’ Any team would fancy their chances against this curiously off-form Canary side.
Webb’s long throw was headed clear and there was not much more after this in terms of goal attempts and little was made of the free-kicks. Whilst I would not take anything away from the manner of the Saints win – which was richly deserved, we must ponder the ponderous state of Hitchin’s play. At Alvechurch they had looked good in the opening stages and tailed off and today it was much the same. Maybe we can just file it under a ‘bad day at the office’, but it was still hugely disappointing.
Next Saturday sees another home game and a chance to put on over on Lowestoft who had the temerity to beat Hitchin 3-2 at their place with two goals in stoppage time with the Canaries cruising to victory. Mid-table respectability at this stage of the season is, for me, acceptable given the odd runs of successive defeats followed by a spate of wins. It would be good to finish the season on some winning notes.
Michael Johnson, Edwin Mensah, (Charlie Thake, 46 minutes), Alexander Anderson, sponsors’ Hitchin star man, Jay Dowie, cautioned, Daniel Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Jack Green, Scott Belgrove, (Jay Bird,60 minutes), Ezra Forde, ( Nathan Mullings), Isaac Galliford, Josh Bickerstaff.
Substitute not used – Jack Thomas.
ST NEOTS TOWN
Michael McCormack, Joe Hood, Jordan Norville-Williams, this reporter’s man of the match, Matty miles, captain, Ryan hughes, cautioned, Steven Shaw, cautioned, Prince Mutswunguma, cautioned, (Joseph Rider, 94 minutes,) Mason Rhiney, cautioned, Dan Trendall, TWO GOALS , 37 AND 51 MINUTES, (Jacob Joseph, 73 minutes), Ben Bradley, Joe Sutton.
Substitutes not used – Owen Dunnett and Marc Abbott.
REFEREE: Mr Simon Bates, assisted by Mr K Kikulwe and Mr R Claussen.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN