After what seemed a very long wait, the Canaries finally achieved their first League win of the season, and had the bonus of keeping a clean sheet as well. There were four changes to the starting eleven after the dismal capitulation at Kings Langley on Tuesday.
Today saw a much improved performance, with new signings Ben Walster, Bradley Bell and Jhai Dhillon being drafted straight in and there was a welcome return from injury from skipper Dan Webb. But first the bad news – we still stay second from bottom and next placed Lowestoft have a game in hand; but this win may augur well for forthcoming games.
The vital away FA Cup match next week at Maidstone United was put to the back of the mind as the crucial task of winning league points was commenced. It was a dramatic start indeed. We had not completed three minutes of play when , following a Hitchin corner, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty, as Stratford captain Ross Oulton fouled his counterpart, Dan Webb – and despite the usual protests, the ball was placed on the spot and Stephen Cawley was elected to do the deed.
When Hitchin are awarded penalties we never assume it is going to be successfully converted – think of Banbury. So, when Cawley’s thump was initially saved by the keeper we emitted the groan of disappointment tinged with anger but the Hemel loanee seemed to anticipate this and he smartly put away the gallant parry from Elliott Taylor. The word ‘phew’ seemed to form itself on the terraces.
Given the fact that those here from Shakespeare’s county have yet to win away from home, there was a small feeling of confidence – almost disregarding that there were eighty-seven minutes at least to go. This was a long time to go with a nervous lead and we earnestly hoped that it would be added to without reply.
It might have been the case a little later when Charlie Thake was almost granted a free shot following a defensive error – but he fired directly at the keeper who gathered safely. Charlie told me later that he did not realise he had a little more time to set up his shot. Had he scored it would have made the rest of the half a little less nervous.
Stratford, for their part, saw the urgency of making amends for the concession of an early goal. They went forward, sometimes with the long ball out wide, other times from an interchange of passes. One good example of this latter tactic was the lively Kurtis Revan combining with Joe Curtis and Lewis Wilson, but a corner was the only reward. The pace of Kaire Edwards-John was impressive and he produced a shot – but it went wide.
It was as well that the visitors just seemed to lack the vital spark in front of goal, but Charlie Horlock was called upon to make two saves ere-long from a bustling Christopher Wreh and he cut out Edwards-John who seemed to be through for an equalising chance.
Hitchin defending was much improved with Jack Green and Ben Walster having good games – and Josh Bickerstaff was able to concentrate on his game and avoid controversy and that was very welcome – as was his successful evasion of a caution. This did not apply to Lewis Barker, dismissed a little harshly in his last game, again found himself in the referee’s notebook and was brandished a yellow card for sundry offences.
A free-kick from the already impressive Bradley Bell was intercepted by George Heaven and skipper dealt similarly with another challenge. Taylor punched away one shot and Edwards-John’s good shot saw Horlock save carefully. A Stratford corner saw a header clear the bar and a late Dhillon cross after careful work in possession saw a cross beaten away and a blast from range from Green was far too optimistic.
It had been a competitive first half with little to choose between the teams but there was a feeling that the visitors did have an equalising goal within them – should they expose Hitchin vulnerabilities. There is no doubt that the new signings had strengthened the team and I wondered if they would all be cup-tied for the Maidstone clash.
I wondered as well if this slender lead would be adequately protected in the second half – and of course there was no question of ‘negatively’ defending this, as it seems distant from Hitchin’s style of play. This seemed to be answered on resumption when an immediate attack saw Barker combine with Bell who shot wide – I want to say ‘narrowly wide’ but this always seems a contradiction. A further attack involving Cawley, Dhillon and Bell produced a corner. This sailed across and seemed to be claimed by the keeper who first fumbled and recovered instantly – good goal keeping.
Dhillon again combined with bell and this time the shot was too high. The game did settle to the former pattern of evenly distributed chances with Hitchin looking marginally the likelier of the two sides to add to the scoring. Daniel Vann distinguished himself in cool defending. Thake continued to exert himself but could make little inroads into the stern defence and Wreh had his moments but hos finishing let him down. Walster’s play became authoritative, but Luke Rowe’s fine pass to substitute Dylan Parker saw an excellent effort creep just wide.
Young Ross Hannah came on for the experienced Cawley and I liked the cut of his jib in this and other games with which he has been involved.
The vital second Hitchin goal had a touch of irony about it – and we had to wait until the seventy-fifth minute for this. A move involving Barker and Bell along the right produced a penalty appeal that was quietly dismissed but a corner was awarded. Webb headed this robustly into the net, and to quote the bard – for this relief much thanks. It made the last period a lot more comfortable for the hosts who were able to cope adequately with sporadic Stratford attacks – and a compensatory goal looked less likely as the minutes ticked by.
Hitchin had proved to be good value for their lead even if they were up against a fellow club needing a bit of a boost in confidence. The task now is to field a settled first choice eleven that is able to add handsomely to the points tally. The win was overdue and only lowly Leiston still seek a debut win and given their 1-8 reverse today, that seems a bit of a task.
So, in many respects it is still a work in progress but we must acknowledge that the management team has done much to seek early improvements and recruitment has been steady – even if the injury list is still worrying.
Promoted Bromsgrove Sporting are the next guests at Top Field (12th October), but of course we go as underdogs next week to National League South Maidstone United, where our theory that the team raises its game when the opposition is strongest. We shall see. In the meantime we will celebrate the three points earned today.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, Ben Walster, man of the match, Jay Dowie, Daniel Webb, captain – GOAL, 75 MINUTES, Josh Bickerstaff, Bradley Bell, Lewis Barker, cautioned, Charlie Thake, cautioned, Steve Cawley, GOAL, 3 MINUTES, (Ross Hannah, 72), Jhai Dhillon.
Substitutes not used – Lewis Ferrell, Max Ryan, Leon Okuboyejo and Joe Gauge.
Elliott Taylor, Lewis Wilson, James Hancocks, Daniel Vann, George Heaven, cautioned, Ross Oulton, captain, ( Mitchell Glover), Kurtis Revan, (Dylan Parker) , Luke Rowe, Christopher Wreh, Joe Curtis, (Abraham Eze), Kaire Edwards-John.
Substitutes not used – Charley O’Keefe, Thomas Fishwicke.
REFEREE: Mr J Bloxham, assisted by Mr M Ball and MrA Tregoning – who had reasonable games.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN