The Real Thing follows the ‘phoney war’ of the pre-season’s hotchpotch and the new, young Hitchin side, with seven debutants, faced a strong Stourbridge side and were deemed unfortunate not to grasp a point when a last minute strike was over-ruled for offside. This opening game provided a real test since the visitors are certainly among the favourites to win the title, and they certainly began in earnest, adapting well to the blustery conditions.
It was one of those occasions where all the players had a shower before the match as just before the big kick-off the heavens opened and gave a good dousing to one and all. The Glassboys had reputedly signed a half dozen players from Alvechurch causing them to be humorously called Stourchurch – but we all know that players tend to be migratory, looking for the best deal or a new challenge.
From the kick-off the visitors looked dangerous and the experienced Greg Mills began to cause problems with his cunning play along the left flank. There was an early shot from Harry Draper, saved by the player I considered to be the eventual man of the match – goalkeeper James Wren.
The Glassboys stormed forward and soon forced what seemed an inordinate number of corners – and from one of these they snatched an early lead – courtesy of Jordaan Brown whose header was free and clinical and it was timed at seven minutes. The announcer’s delay in confirming the goal was perhaps in deference to the disappointment felt by home supporters.
The troublesome Mills had a blocked shot soon after and Josh Mollison held a further effort from the striker. There was an awkward moment soon after when, during a defensive move, Jordan Norville-Williams appeared to handle the ball. There were appeals but they were dismissed just as quickly, which I thought was a bit of a let-off. More corners from Stourbridge followed and there was no doubt that they had settled better. One corner from Thomas Turton saw Brown have a good go at bagging his second, but Mollison denied him. We needed something from Hitchin rather quickly and what we got was a set-piece form Charlie Hayford from some distance but this was monitored by Wren.
Draper and Ahmed had half-chances and a Hayford cross gave Draper and opportunity but wren pushed this away for a corner. After twenty-five minutes of nervous play, Hitchin were beginning to look more purposefully aggressive on the ball. A cross from Alex Anderson was deflected for a corner and Hayford obliged with skipper Dan Webb heading over the cross bar. After Draper had won a free kick in a good position Hayford launched this and Norville-Williams tried vainly to connect – but Wren was covering. A deft flick from Mills seemed to create a decent chance, but Max Ryan intervened with a foul and was cautioned. I know that many people book with Thomas Cook, but our referee, Thomas Cooke, booked two Hitchin players – the second being Josh Bickerstaff, for dissent. Mills blasted the free-kick against the defensive wall and yet another Stourbridge corner was claimed mid-air by Josh Mollison, who had done well, deputising for the injured Charlie Horlock.
We had reached the interval of this generally good half that had seen the Glassboys threaten to dominate until Hitchin improved their play and the game had become more even. That early goal was indeed a worry but at least the hosts had finished on a positive, attacking note. Seven was an unlucky number for Hitchin today; they had fallen behind after seven minutes and then, seven minutes into the second half they conceded again – not from intricate build-up play but from one of those direct and telling through balls that finds its man – in this case Kyle Finn, who finished efficiently and the hosts were now two down.
To that point they had suggested that they might have bagged an equaliser. Bickerstaff had one chance and Draper sent in a powerful shot that Wren saved well, but conceded a corner. There was a good spirit about Hitchin who tested the Stourbridge defence (and found it to be made of stern stuff). Two more corners were forced giving Bickerstaff and Ahmed half-chances, but David Bellis defended precisely and Wren had everything covered. Another go involving Bickerstaff and Ahmed saw the latter fire on target but again it was saved. Bird, resurgent this half almost got a feather in his cap until wren intervened yet again.
Hitchin brought on Leo Donnellan and he made a useful debut, becoming fully and impressively involved in preparatory play. Hitchin forced more corners and again the Glassboys defended resolutely and were quite adept on the break. Mills reminded all of his danger and he had a shot blocked and then a good run on goal that brought a corner. Finn was instrumental in a break and his pass to mills saw the later shoot just wide. Anderson combined with Bird and the shot that came from this move suggested that a goal for the home side might be forthcoming sooner than later,
It did come – in the seventy-seventh minute ( so seven proved lucky after all…), and following a fierce shot from bird, Wren did well to parry this but it fell into the path of Draper who scored emphatically, and there was time enough for an equaliser. Barker had come on for Max Ryan and he was involved in a good move with Bird and Hayford – but once again it was successfully defended. Wren’s finest save was from a real gem of a header from draper that was just squeezed away for a corner – and this Hitchin resurgence was impressive. Hayford’s next corner saw Draper head once again on target and Wren once more denied the goal. A long throw from Norville-Williams caused havoc and brought a shot that Wren again cut out – he was safeguarding those away points it seemed.
Stourbridge substitute Andre Landell put his effort over the bar and his team, who had seemed so comfortable for so long in the first half were now defending stoutly to steal the points. This they did but not without some very late drama that brome all Hitchin hearts. There is nothing quite like the feeling one has when what seems a noble late goal is notched to save the game and gain a point – only to find officialdom applies the law as she is writ. This happened in the game’s final minute.
As the game’s final minutes ticked nervously away. Webb’s throw-in caused a little panic in the penalty box and a Glassboys’ free-kick eased that tension. Bird and Draper combined and the cross was again cut out
The controversial moment arrived and as a throw came in heads were a bobbing and Webb’s touch appeared to come from a deflection and Draper headed the ball into the net. What a moment – a point, as I say, nobly won at the death. But the off-side flag was imperiously raised and the referee consulted his assistant, Mr Wilkinson. Then instead of the arm pointing to the centre circle the referee raised it for the free-kick. Hitchin were thus denied. The referee patiently explained it all to me later and if Draper had resisted the natural urge to finish the goal, from the head of Webb would have stood. The crucial point was that the goalkeeper had come off his line and that meant that there was just one not two defenders in place. Hitchin plyers pointed out that his defender was on the line but the decision stood to our chagrin and to the Glassboys’ relief.
Yes, it was disappointing not to secure what would have been a deserved point, but what we can take from this is that we witnessed, after a nervous start, a decent Hitchin performance against a ‘fancied’ team that was indeed just a bit relieved at the final whistle. As such we may travel to Needham Market (look at my last season’s eye twitchin’), with a degree of confidence on Tuesday, before the Saturday trip to Alvechurch.
Josh Mollison, Alex Anderson, Jordan Norville-Williams, SPONSORS’ STAR PLAYER, Charlie Hayford, Dan Webb, captain, Joseph Gauge, Max Ryan, cautioned, Harry Draper, GOAL, 77 MINUTES, Jay Bird, Mo Ahmed, Josh Bickerstaff.
Substitutions: Leo Donnellan for Mohammed Ahmed (57 minutes), Lewis Barker for Max Ryan (70 minutes), Leon Okuboyejo for Charlie Hayford (87 minutes).
Unused subs: Lewis Ferrell and Charlie Thake.
James Wren, this reporter’s man of the match, Jordaan Brown, GOAL, 7 MINUTES, Ashley Carter, captain, Thomas Turton, David Bellis, Zac foster, Jordan Williams, Ryan Winwood, Aaron Lloyd, Kyle Finn, GOAL 52 MINUTES, Greg Mills.
Substitutions: Andre Landell for Kyle Finn (76 minutes) and Kristian green for Greg Mills (84 minutes).
REFEREE: Mr Thomas Cooke, assisted by Mr Philip Wilkinson and Mr Oliver Potter, and they had generally good games.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN