Primarily this was a fine game of attacking football with plenty of goal-mouth action and we may argue that a point is a precious point even if the home equaliser came three minutes into the five minutes added on for stoppages and substitutions. League football returned to a very chilly Top Field since mid-September, but this was a game worth waiting for against a Suffolk side who are the second highest scorers in the division – and the only team to beat Leaders Kettering Town so far, and away from home as well.
Team news was a mixed bundle since the welcome re-signing of Matt Lench was tempered by the departure of Charlie Smith. Lench came from Wealdstone FC and was indeed a class act tonight, being both ubiquitous and purposeful. He added a bit of flair and swagger to boost the hard-working Hitchin side that, despite their labours, came away empty-pointed against both AFC Rushden and Diamonds and Stourbridge in their most recent games.
I think I might add at this point that Edwin Mensah not only kept a ‘clean sheet ‘ in terms of cautions and dismissals, went on to have his best game in Canary colours. The game tonight contained no cautions, had the minimum of controversy and was a pleasure to watch, even if Hitchin failed in their bid to secure their second league win of the season.
Hitchin began, kicking towards the uncovered terraced end, with Jack Green starting in place of Michael Cain and Matt Spring was among the substitutes. Leiston won a corner within two minutes, which was partially beaten away, leading to a shot from Joe Jefford that sailed over the bar. Galliford tried a shot that went wide of the post for a goal-kick.
Lench, on the edge of the penalty areas shaped for a shot and it went just wide of the far post. It was early doors but this chap, with his flowing locks contained by a hair band, was already imposing himself. Belgrove won a free-kick, from some thirty yards – Lench launched it, but Eagle defended it , slipping it to finch who tried a shot on the turn, which was held by Michael Johnson.
Dowie, Bickerstaff and Lench combined in a move that was contained, but Lench played it out to Green who slipped it back to Galliford who, in the eleventh minute fired in a shot that brought a goal that entered the net in the top right corner. It was a clean strike and I began to wonder how long it had been since Hitchin had actually take the lead in a game.
It was well –taken and entirely encouraging. Would this be the reviving tonic? Leiston have proved that they are made of sterner stuff and they responded with a cross across the face of the goal that yearned for connection that did not occur, but signalled the fact that the Suffolk side were adept at redressing the balance.
Harry Knights was influential and his cross led to a shot that from his skipper, Thomas Bullard that went only just wide. This showed the predatory aspect of the visitors that I thought would need careful containing. A Leiston free-kick was defended but they were not dissuaded and created several meaningful opportunities, suggesting strongly that Hitchin’s lead may be a temporary issue.
Lench’s creative play was gratifying to see, and so was Chesmain’s attacking instinct, yet the next shot came from Leiston’s Christy Finch – but this was way over the cross bar. A eat back heel from Lench saw Chesmain’s cross put out for a corner, taken neatly and we saw a superb volley from Bickerstaff, which drew and equally fine save from Marcus Garnham. Dunbar’s searching cross was held by the reliable Johnson.
Belgrove combined with Lech and the latter fired one in that was just wide of the far post (or the back stick in modern parlance). Leiston went on the hunt again, but conceded a free-kick which Lench aimed at Bickerstaff doe the relative reward of a throw-in by the corner flag. Lench won a corner, which was taken by Galliford, held by Garnham despite Webb’s aggressive effort. Byron Lawrence had a chance for Leiston following a sloppy back pass, suggesting that any casual mistake would be expensive.
Galliford was unfairly pushed of the ball by Rutterford and the latter conceded a free-kick. Chesmain disappointed by putting the ball into that uninviting foliage behind the goal, always a challenge for the retrieving steward. Right up to the whistle for the interval we saw chances for both sides. Galliford’s notable goal was the difference, but I had my reservations as this Suffolk side had shown both class and composure.
We had reached the interval and the novelty of Hitchin taking the lead was tempered by the quiet determination of the visitors, whose play had been purposeful for the most part and majestic in other moments. In the board room I was amused at our programme editor’s jovial plea to a Leiston official for his team to do the gentlemanly thing and not score as we were in greater needs of points than they.
When you have only won one league game, it is safe to assume that this plea had a more significant request to it. Lench had drawn great praise for his role as a playmaker and his inclusion had been markedly vital. That first half had been eminently enjoyable as a game of football. Earnest attacks from preparatory play had been happily witnessed and in terms of entertainment it ticked al the boxes. Galliford’s goal was encased in splendour but it was a lead that would be hard to maintain, since Leiston were impressive in attack and dogged in the task.
A victory and the three points would not advance Hitchin from the dizzying depths of second from bottom, but it would have been prestigious against a quietly formidable team such as Leiston who soon displayed that they had not come to Hitchin to forsake points, despite the home side’s eleventh minute lead. There remained at least forty-five minutes which was indeed tantalisingly unpredictable.
It had been a super first half and the second period did not disappoint in terms of entertainment. Leiston soon forced a corner, grasped by Johnson. A free-kick for Hitchin, forward of the half-way line was taken by Lench; Ferrell headed it on but Leiston claimed possession. Lench’s involvement was pivotal but it was a delicate balance. Matthew Blake and Robert Eagle were persistent in the away attack. The Suffolk side won another corner, taken by Lawrence, claimed by Johnson. Belgrove had not ceased in effort and Lench, already assured of a man of the match slot was adding to his repertoire of skilful moves. A cross from Dunbar was a notable moment that flashed just wide and Hitchin found themselves under a bit of pressure.
The eager Eagle did not relent in probing for openings – ably assisted by Dunbar and Lawrence – with Aitkens and Knight looking strong. There was a substitution for Hitchin that I initially found perplexing. Scorer Galliford, whose pace had not diminished, was replaced by Matt Spring – whose inclusion in the squad was a little surprising. Was this, I wondered a tactical move to bolster the defence and hang on to this slender but vital lead? If so, I deemed it a little premature – but that was answered later when Spring’s free-kick was to be of great importance in the lively closing stages of this pulsating match.
Eagle’s cross from the left was pushed away but there was a feeling that the visitors were encroaching to some effect. The referee briefly held up play to wag an admonishing figure at someone on the away ‘bench’ and Leiston won a free-kick by the half-way line. The ball was headed on and the imposing figure of Joe Jefford managed to squeeze his header in by the far post for the equaliser that no-one could say, objectively that they did not deserve. They had increased their pressure with subtlety and precision, moving the ball well and taking advantage of Hitchin’s conscious retreat and unspoken declaration of holding onto rather than increasing their lead.
The equaliser changed the tenor of the game and the initiative was now firmly with the visitors who imposed themselves with greater authority. We had played sixty-six minutes. But the game took an alarming shift five minutes later when a cross from the right from Eagle enabled Byron Lawrence to put the visitors ahead. Hitchin had gone off the boil a bit and were now up against it, as they have been in so many games – yet have shown great character in response to adversity.
This response did not really manifest itself until very late in the match – but at least it did and persistence enabled them to snatch a draw in stoppage time. Dowie got in a fair shot – one of a few goal attempts in this second half. A Hitchin free-kick brought an appeal from Dan Webb that he had been shoved, elbowed, tripped – you name it, brought a firm denial of a penalty by the referee and a corner was the scant compensation. Lench sent it in for Webb to try to reach it and it was cleared to Spring whose inward ball brought a clearance that had people in my vicinity ducking as if we had been buzzed by an aeroplane.
Lench had a cheeky incursion into the area that had succeeded despite the challenges and the ball needed to be cleared close to the line. Another corner was one, taken by Green and the wanted pressure was on. Dowie shot wide of the post. Seventy-six minutes and counting.
More substitutions followed – a double one for Hitchin, with Forde and Burns replacing Green and Galliford. It was a worthwhile gamble, as it turned out, although I made the cynical note of ‘desperate measures’ – but substitutes are there for tactical reasons as well as injuries. Blake put a shot over the bar from a well-constructed Leiston move and they did not cease their creative play. That one might easily have made it three-one.
Erelong they replaced Lawrence and Finch with Moore and Davies and indeed they looked very much like holding on to the lead – but this time it was Hitchin who would benefit from what seemed to be a generous allotment of added time for stoppages and substitutions. We had a little bit of scrappy and inconclusive play that was notable since the game had breezily flowed with fine pace on this rather cold night. With ten minutes of normal time to go it seemed unlikely that Hitchin would salvage a point. Yet they did so in a heart-warming manner well into time added on, and in a suitably dramatic manner.
In one thwarted move I noticed a home fan kick the base of the stand in frustration and I hoped he would not make a habit of it since that grand old structure is held together by a wish and a promise and some painted over sellotape. It would not take much to bring the house down, so to speak.
The signal was made for five added minutes and Robbie Burns was so close with an effort that went just beyond the far post. Free-kicks were conceded, taken in predictably leisurely fashion. But at the point of ninety minutes plus three the point was salvaged and full credit to the team for their persistence.
Lench had been fouled and Hitchin had a free-kick wide on the right. From this Ezra Forde poached the equaliser and in the high moments that followed it even seemed possible that a dramatic winner might just be on the cards. No – that is the stuff dreams are made of and the hosts were realistically rewarded with a point, when it did seem that they would lose this match after taking that smart first half lead. Leiston had played well and looked good for the points – coming as they did from behind.
We went to ninety plus six before the referee ended proceedings. I walked back to the clubhouse with our chairman and apropos of the game mentioned the man who fell from the thirtieth floor of a skyscraper remarked to himself as he passed the fourteenth floor, so far, so good. This had been a scrambled draw, but the team had shown sufficient character to get to level terms however late in the game. However, we stil search for the emphatic win, a controlling factor, a demonstration of superior play overall – and this might lead to the much desired second league win of the season, which for many is painfully overdue.
The scheduled away match with Stratford Town this coming Saturday has given way to a home match against Coalville, from Leicestershire, owing to the Warwickshire side’s progress in the FA Trophy. This is a home match and it is hoped that the team can maximise what advantage that may bring. It is difficult not to look at the league table and consider Hitchin’s uncomfortable presence in the bottom three. Needless to say, gaining three points rather than salvaging one would aid in climbing away from that unenviable zone – and it is desirable sooner than later.
But I would like to finish on a general point that this was a delightful match to watch- as both teams had an attacking propensity and the pace was good. The result was equitable and the goals were good ones. Even so, it was a bit disappointing as it is Hitchin who need the boost in morale with a win, which with the same kind of spirit may manifest itself on Saturday.
Michael Johnson, Edwin Mensah, Noah Chesmain, Jay Dowie, Daniel Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Jack Green,(Robbie Burns), Matt Lench, Man of the Match, Scott Belgrove, (Ezra Forde, GOAL, 90+3 MINUTES) , Isaac Galliford, GOAL, 11 MINUTES, (Matt Spring), Josh Bickerstaff.
Substitutes not used – Michael Cain, Treymayne Charles.
Marcus Garnham, Harry Knights, Sebastian Dunbar, Noel Aitkins, Joe Jefford, GOAL, 66 MINUTES, Thomas Bullard, captain, Byron Lawrence, GOAL, 71 MINUTES, (Joshua Moore), Matthew Rutterford, Matthew Blake, Christy Finch, (William Davies), Robert Eagle.
Substitutes not used – Harrison Bacon, James Gaffer and Charlie Beckwith.
REFEREE: Mr M Chard, had a fine authoritative game, well assisted by Mr J Kerten and Mr D McKenzie-George.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN