I won’t be the first to say it, but we went from Goddy in the last round to Diddy in this and we are not, so far, giddy with success. The Railwaymen from Oxfordshire kept on track to earn a draw, despite some heart-warming attacking play from the Canaries in a second half that begged for a winner but the bowl was empty. It was ironic that the hosts went ahead – and from an imperious set –piece but they had not impressed in open play.
The teams were no strangers to each other despite playing in different divisions, and we all remember the League Cup Final of last season when Hitchin won the Trophy with a slender 1-0 win. Diddy had made the second half a lively affair and they perhaps deserved an equaliser. So, today, in a sense, was a bit of unfinished business and they were, once again able to shrug off the alleged superiority of the home side and it is perhaps a fair point to say that they were better pleased with today’s result as it gives them a chance to cause an upset on their own turf.
We had a persistent drizzle all afternoon and it made the pitch greasy and less predictable which may account for the rather underwhelming start by both teams where a serious goal attempt was entirely lacking. Both could not maintain possession for a stylish multi-passing attack.
The home side lacked Noah Chesmain, who was injured and he watched the game from the stand, with Alex Anderson taking his position at left back. Charlie Smith was also injured and there were starts for Treymayne Charles and Robbie Burns, the latter being substitutes before the half hour by Scott Belgrove. Didcot’s starting eleven was much changed from the League Cup final team.
The first suggestive piece of aggression came from a Didcot free-kick, which was taken by Sam Barder and was easy for Michael Johnson. Set-pieces could have been more vital and indeed Hitchin’s opener was the result of a perfect free-kick from Matt Spring that picked out Charlie Thake for a free and easy header that found the top right corner – but other such kicks were wasted. An example of this came before the first goal when Luke Carnell had two bites at the cherry but was lacking in accuracy with both.
A cross from Thake was missed by all but a following cross was gathered well by Leigh Bedwell who needed to be precise. A decent passing move from the visitors had some anticipation to it but the final pass went almost apologetically into touch. A rare piece of excitement was caused when an imprecise back pass caused momentary consternation before being scrambled away for a Hitchin throw-in and the cross that came from this was claimed by Bedwell.
It is always quite pleasant when a bit of spoiling play is suitably punished and this occurred when Lewis Hayden brought down the onrushing Trey Charles and the ‘punishment’ for his team was the concession of a goal as well as a caution for Hayden. Hope springs eternal and it was Spring’s delight to pick out Thake whose finish was clean. Seventeen minutes had elapsed and now it was time for Hitchin to consolidate.
Didcot had other ideas and forced a corner from an immediate attack on resumption- this went along the floor and Seth Humphries has a blocked shot on the run. The Railwaymen won another free-kick and this looked good until Johnson was impeded and following this Aaron Woodley blasted one in which unintentionally hit a colleague who cleared, also, of course unintentionally. It ought to have served as a severe warning.
The visitors’ equaliser was a reward for sheer persistence, with Callum McNish and the very positive Morgan Williams kept the bal in play in the penalty area and the ball fell opportunely for the young but impressive Brett Gardner who coolly picked his spot and this thirty-fourth minute goal served to make Hitchin’s task that bit more onerous. Garner was hungry for the ball – he started on the right, drifted to the left and ensured he was in the optimum position for the telling pass when it came. A further free-kick from Didcot was hit directly at Johnson – but if anything it was the visitors who were looking slightly stronger.
A combination between Jack Green and Matt Spring` saw the former get in a shot that was in a sense enhanced by a tricky bobble but it did not deceive Bedwell. As we neared the interval I had the gloomy thought that this game could well go to a replay – unless there was a rush of blood as there was in the last few minutes of the Godmanchester tie. I was unduly pessimistic as the second half performance from Hitchin was rated by many home spectators as possibly their best half of the season in terms of creative football. It lacked a winning goal, of course, but was good to see a renewal of confidence.
The rain continued and the second half had Hitchin kicking towards the covered end that was quite well packed by those sheltering and since it was peopled by mostly Hitchin supporters it could feasibly have acted as a ‘twelfth man’ – and there was a fair amount of action in the Didcot penalty area owing to the home club’s vast improvement on the indifferent first half performance. Would it be good enough to bag the handsome £9000 prize money? Not quite. Dogged defence and the odd breakaway attack from Diddy made this half a nervous affair but Hitchin shrugged off their apparent complacency. I am going to stick my neck out here and predict that Hitchin or Didcot will win the FA cup this season. Yes, a little joke, but the point I really want to make is that for both clubs the onus is to get as far as you can in this, the greatest competition in football. I always add that for a player it is something of a privilege to be part of this great journey.
Diddy once fought their way to the First Round proper against Exeter City and it was televised by BT Sport and not yielding as much revenue as they would have liked and their expenses were debilitating. The prize for winning through in that round is about twenty-five grand which would be a dizzying figure (and possible income) for any so-called minnows within the competition. Some armchair football fans of my acquaintance expressed surprise that I was reporting an FA Cup game as for them it seems to start with the Third Round (Proper) aeons away to them, when the big boys deign to appear. I told them that they did not know what they were missing and that the prestige of playing in such an illustrious competition was very real to these early participants. Some have come from the Extra-Preliminary Rounds to glory and national recognition, thus the incentive is a very real one.
A canny Frenchman once said ‘Show me what you eat and I will tell you what you are-‘ and for us it is show me how you can play – and this Hitchin did with repeated attacks and agonising possibilities. For me it was a Hitchin in transition from a team that has perplexed itself with indifferent League form, with players of undoubted personal skills. The trick is to get all this to gel. We can forget the difference in status as for my money Diddy would do well in our division.
From the start of this feisty second half, Hitchin were positive – with substitute Belgrove firing in an early shot that was deflected for a corner – one of many, as it turned out. Trey Charles put in one of his threatening corners and a Josh Bickerstaff downward header was held by Bedwell.
In another move Dan Webb was penalised for a foul on Seth Humphries and a free-kick from the latter was resolutely punched clear. Thake had a blocked shot and then Bickerstaff cleverly picked out Thake and the resultant shot was but inches wide of the target. My notes read ‘more of this please ‘ and this little prayer was answered. McNeill conceded a foul and Spring’s free-kick wide on the right was cleared by the Diddy scorer Gardner. Thake set up Green for a pop and this brought a decent shot and an equally decent save. At the other end Williams tried a snap shot and brought a good save at the expense of a corner. Macsen Fraser was adept at switching play, and this enabled Bickerstaff to seize possession and set up Thake for a shot that was deflected for yet another corner. These corners were predominantly reaching the far post and it was here that I thought that we could have done with Charlie ‘in-swinger’ Smith, if just for variety. I also had to concede that there were more chances in the opening of this half for Hitchin than in the first period – but at least we had now grasped the nettle.
This corner came out to Lewis Ferrell, solid as ever and he pumped it in for another go. More corners were defended. There was also a free-kick in an inviting area which Spring dinked in – with the ball coming back to him an a partial clearance and Spring over hit it to such a degree that some expected the ball to come down with snow on it.
Didcot’s Cameron McNeill defended stoutly but conceded corners as if they did not matter – and from one of these, skipper Webb headed wide. As time ticked this favoured the visitors, who, as nominal underdogs they would no doubt enjoy the psychological boost of holding the senior club. But they were a bit under the cosh now. Even so they had realistic chances in counter play. They had a free-kick wide on the right which was clutched by the reliable Johnson. Williams and Barder tried conclusions but the effort struck a Hitchin defender. Bickerstaff had an opportunity but he had no time to give his shot the proper venom, and Belgrove, ever willing had his intended shot blocked. A Hitchin error is defence almost let in McNish who will probably agree that he could have done better as it only brought a corner, held by Johnson. It was a little bit of a let-off, nonetheless.
Thake had a free shot that he ballooned and Belgrove saw another effort deflected. Green showed some good pace but his shot was straight at Bedwell. Green pumped in another cross and Thake unwittingly played a defensive ball.
Spring struck a free-kick with some deliberation but it was too close to the keeper and after Galliford came on there was a real possibility following another Hitchin corner that Carnell cleared, close to his goal-line. A good counter move from Diddy showed them to be able to retain possession with each measured pass using up more time. Belgrove was fairly dispossessed in the penalty area despite routinely hopeful shouts from home spectators for a penalty. Hitchin’s play did suggest the reward of a late winner – but, be still my fluttering heart – there was a late free-kick for Diddy after a bit of theatricality from McNish. This was centrally just outside the area and Williams struck well with Johnson pulling off the most important save of the match. I tend to avoid that term since I once, quite innocently, in a report for another club wrote that the ‘manager decided to pull off a couple of players.’ I tend to proof read these days to avoid embarrassment through ambiguity.
There was a late free –kick from Spring that was headed away and a fine through ball from Ferrell was a good idea but it was well interpreted. Didcot prevailed for the replay on Tuesday and they were again good value for money and they had held out well. Hitchin had played well enough on the second half and in that sense deserved a victory but in the same breath I might add that Didcot deserved the replay. There was no discernible divisional difference between the sides and that makes the next encounter all the more intriguing.
I have not yet visited the quaintly named GWR Loop stadium and I look forward to it as the chance to visit another ground – but I would have sacrificed that for a Hitchin victory today. But the yellow and green road to Wembley is not a No Through Road as yet and I look forward to the prospect of another cup tie. The great positive was Hitchin’s positive play in the second half and I hope that this may be replicated in Oxfordshire – in both halves.
Michael Johnson, Macsen Fraser, Alex Anderson, Matt Spring, Dan Webb, captain, cautioned, Lewis Ferrell, sponsors’ Hitchin Town man of the match, Treymayne Charles, Josh Bickerstaff, Charlie Thake, GOAL, 17 MINUTES, Robbie Burns, (Scott Belgrove, 29), Jack Green, (Isaac Galliford, 84).
Unused substitutes: Ezra Forde, Josh Mollinson, GK, Michael King, Patrick Tshikala and Jay Dowie.
Leigh Bedwell, Sam Barder, Cameron McNeill, Lewis Hayden, cautioned, Luke Carnell, Adam Learoyd, captain, Brett Gardner, GOAL, 34 MINUTES, (George Reid, 71), Callum McNish, Aaron Woodley, Seth Humphries, (Ollie Thomas, 84), Morgan Williams, (Matthew Woodley, 89).
Unused substitutes: Stuart Cattell, Matthew Crowther, GK, Caelan Isaac and David Murphy.
REFEREE: Mr George Warren – a very exacting official, well supported by Mr J Amadori and Mr A Webster.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN