I think it is fitting to offer commiserations to a very impressive Godmanchester Rovers who came within seven minutes of a prestigious victory over their nominally senior opponents. They were defending their single goal lead with calm assurance and were indeed worthy of their lead. But of course a game lasts a full ninety minutes and Hitchin Town made the most of a hectic conclusion to score three times which gave the score line a somewhat flattering message. On the face of it a 3-1 win might well have been a form result given the disparity of the opponents, but the FA Cup has the endearing habit of throwing up surprises and, thanks to an inspired substitution, Hitchin avoided the blushes of despair that would have followed defeat.
Matches against teams from lower leagues are often viewed as ‘potential banana skins’ and is widely accepted that the ‘junior’ team often raises its game – which was indeed the case and home supporters waited vainly for almost the whole match for their side to raise theirs – which they did in a glorious late finish; but of course questions will indeed be posed at why the preceding eighty-three minutes had been marked by timorous play.
This can be partly or perhaps wholly answered by the view that Rovers refused to read the script and for significant periods they were the better team. More than once I heard the view that a neutral would have difficulty in distinguishing just who was at Step 5 or Step 3. I have to concur with this.
The game began with visiting goal-keeper getting a settling first touch and he was perhaps expected to be the busier of the two custodians. A swift Hitchin free-kick from just inside the defensive half saw Galliford consider the opportunity but it was cleared. More significantly at the other end Charlie Bowen put in a searching cross that brought a fair shot from the lively Matty Allan that was held by Michael Johnson. Matt Spring combined with Galliford and Ezra Forde, which was a bit anaemic which may explain the optimistic appeal for a penalty that rightfully disappeared into the ether a nano second later.
A flick to Chris Hyem for Goddy was defended, but Hyem proved to be a thorough nuisance to Hitchin with his menacing long throw-ins, a tactic I always champion because of its unpredictable and unsettling nature. Indeed it was from one of these imperious throws that the visitors from Huntingdonshire took the lead. Hyem launched his missile from the right and Jack Chandler headed his team ahead. We had played but eight minutes and I espoused the charitable thought that we could let them have that since the floodgates of Hitchin reprisals were imminent. I should cocoa. Hyem and Spring had a minor spat which referee Mark Steven dealt with in an admirable manner. Play continued with a Rovers shot that went for a corner, which Joe Furness sent in for Charlie Bowen to head over the cross bar. Already I had the uncomfortable feeling that this was not how things should be going, but let it be known that the visitors belied their status and harried Hitchin with alacrity. No doubt it was part of the game plan not to let the hosts settle on the ball and it was working well.
Forde had a blocked effort and Dan Webb was there to steady the ship, yet his forward ball in one move found no recipient. It was now apparent that there was no real rhythm about Hitchin and the opening spell was poor – and this was significant for a team trailing by that vital goal. Lofted balls through the middle were met almost nonchalantly by the sizeable Goddy centre- backs. A set piece might do it… and when there was one, centrally from twenty-five yards; Noah Chesmain struck firmly but far too high.
Hyem relished the opportunities for long throws and the discomfort this caused was grist to the Rovers’ mill – they did not all work, of course but they were redolent with possibilities and of course if you rattle your opponents it may bring eventual dividends. Josh Bickerstaff with a facial expression of enough is enough blasted his strike which cleared the bar, and too many passes were going out of play and the majority of those found no recipient in the chosen area, Charlie Thake did come close with one of his efforts and he had to wait for his eventual reward.
I had a minor epiphany when I glanced at my scrawled notes. ‘Free-kick, God.’ ‘Good chance for God’. This was an unfortunate abbreviation. What the devil was going on? We could have done with some divine intervention. ‘ Hitch free kick wasted’. Hitch….. there was a hitch in the home side’s play – and they were in danger of being out-manoeuvred by the ebullient visitors. There was some good stuff from Jack Green and Isaac Galliford but the Rovers defence was unyielding. Hyem had a shot that went wide and then Forde won a corner from a deflected shot. Thake could not connect to this and the following move from Green and Forde saw the chance clear the crossbar.
Joe Furness was cautioned for a foul on Green during a preparatory move, and at least Hitchin were beginning to show some urgency even if moves broke down owing to solid defending. Perhaps the best chance was a header from Thake which drew a good save from Niall Conroy. A Hitchin corner saw a Bickerstaff effort deflected for another but the half ended limply with Bickerstaff poised for the shot but he lobbed well over the crossbar. It was the Hitchin story of the half- uncertain play and finishing and an almost inexcusable profligacy. Added to this there was the indisputable fact that Godmanchester had indeed been the better side of the half – and they held the lead. It bore the rusted scissors of the thought that Hitchin were just forty-five minutes or so from what would be an ignominious exit from the FA Cup in the first game in that campaign and against junior opposition. That was not a cheerful thought. I am not saying that heads would roll but someone would be nursing a cauliflower ear and a possible fat lip if that were the case. I speak metaphorically, of course.
The very cheerful Goddy officials came to the board room for their cup that cheers but doth not inebriate ( they had patronised the bar before the game, rather than exchange the usual polite chit –chat , and that is all very understandable). They were optimistic if not unduly surprised as their team had been on song lately. Reasons to be cheerful, one two, three. Godmanchester were underdogs who had belied their status, they had played with confidence and skill, and vitally, they had scored and prevented their opponents from doing the same. The fictional Melchester Rovers could not top that.
You might, just might have noticed that I referred to our visitors as a team from Huntingdonshire, not Cambridgeshire. This was deliberate. I have no affiliation with the Huntingdonshire Society, but I have a full empathy for their declared aim to Get Their County Back. I cast aspersions on those men in grey who decided to lump this county in with Cambs. This was Cromwell’s county. Leave it alone. Only two counties are smaller – Rutland ( motto – Multum in Parvo) and the decimated Middlesex. I support the notion of regaining their county status and I do know that Cumberland and Westmoreland are on the same mission. Rutland freed itself from the yoke of Leicestershire, so there is hope. Here endeth the tub thumping, with the growl that Godmanchester is in Huntingdonshire and I apologise that I will probably repeat this when we play St Neots.
Whilst I tentatively filled my second-half pipe with Erinmore Flake, I assumed my position and noticed that the Goddy chaps were nearby, which is unusual since away supporters normally congregate at the end their team is attacking. They were a little cock-a hoop and that is understandable given the way things had turned out so far. Pride cometh before the fall but oh Lordy it was a long time coming and at one stage I declared inwardly that I would take a replay even if it were an own goal, a penalty or even divine intervention. It is not a case of oh ye of little faith as I have seen all this before and feared the fulfilment.
Forsaking pseudo-poetical ramblings I can report that no substitutions were made at this stage. Suffice it to say that the visitors began as they had left off with some meaningful probing of the Hitchin defence. An early free-kick raised the disciplined eyebrows a tad and yet another Hyem long throw-in caused some unintentional bum-clenching. This was untidily cleared and a Chandler crossed gave the throw-in man a chance of a shot which mercifully cleared the cross-bar. Austin Diaper nearly caught Hitchin napping ( almost typed nappying) with a shot that MJ saved. Matty Allan was proving a nuisance on the flank but Green set up Belgrove – a Canary substitute who shot wide.
Hitchin were still too ponderous for my liking – farting about with square passes – but maybe I was too hasty in wanting the ball pumped into the penalty area where Bowen , Munro and Mackay were accustomed to clearing with nonchalant ease. Green was very active and one effort brought a routine call for an imaginary hand ball from a Goddy defender. Allan presented Goddy sub Simon Unwin with a chance which Johnson held well. MJ was now pumping the ball up field with the unspoken words of ‘get on to that and do something.’ Hitchin had brought on Charlie Smith and Treymayne Charles and this, ultimately made a significant difference.
Hitchin were now in the ascendancy, with more determined forward play but still that vital goal behind. Talking of vital – Goddy full back Spark made vital interventions. Visiting supporters were reminding themselves that time’s winged chariot was working in their favour. Credit must be given for their disciplined defence of their precious lead. They were no slouches in counter play either, and I do not think I have mentioned that scorer of the only goal so far, Chandler did find the net a second time – and the Hitchin defence moved up enough for the effort to be ruled off-side.
Macsen Fraser found himself cautioned and the lively Allan provided Unwin with a chance that was saved by Johnson. The last ten minutes or so could not have been safely predicted but it did leave us thinking why the hosts had not played that way hitherto. Whether it was a final imposition of superiority or the result of the visitors’ fatigue I would not state firmly, but from a Hitchin point of view it was manna from Heaven. I say this because not only was there a dramatically snatched equaliser but two further goals to secure the tie, late but in earnest.
A Charlie Smith corner, always a feisty affair, in swinging and begging proper connection saw a melee in the visitors’ penalty area with Scott Belgrove snatching the vital equaliser. The celebrations were tinged with relief, which in a way is a compliment to the resolute Godmanchester. They were holding out for a definitely prestigious victory. The like buses, you wait for one and three come along at once. In what seemed just a very short time Belgrove delightfully obliged with a second goal that I think saw an initial effort come off the post before being tucked away and then right at the end the indefatigable Thake had his reward with a third goal and Hitchin were all but through. Well, there was no time left and with a neutral hat on if I dare, I did feel for the opponents who had surprised and taken the game to their senior colleagues. I did hear that the second goal was an own goal but no-one as yet seems to conform it and it looked to me and others that Belgrove did get the final touch.
Mark Burke did say something like, go to jail, go directly to jail, do not pass go and, kiss your six grand prize money goodbye. He, like other used the jail metaphor and it was fitting. I say again – Hitchin were seven short minutes away from ‘concentrating on the League’. They showed immense character in persistence and a win is a win – but do not take anything away from the Huntingdonshire side’s effort. Their youthful manager was visibly distressed and I was sitting in the stand composing my bit for The Non-league Paper but felt it incumbent on myself to offer sincere commiserations. He thanked me but I could see that this result hurt him after such a herculean effort from his team.
It may seem routine but this was very typical of the FA Cup and I echo the words of a Godmanchester official who said that what happened was typical of this illustrious competition which is why we love this aspect of the game. More down to earth was Mr Chairman who informed me that the prize money would go towards mending the leaking roof. I am not sure if he was being literal or metaphorical. I am just glad that Hitchin go into the hat and not as ‘Hitchin or Godmanchester’ since a replay might have strained the nerves a bit too much, or to quote from a Steve Harley song I was playing on the way home –
‘It’s all too much for me to handle with ease,
I’m sinking fast; I’ll soon be down on my knees’.
I will conclude that the best tonic after this epic is a really emphatic win and a goal or two in our favour, without reply before the last few minutes. Let us be Hitchin Town and not the mythical Melchester Rovers, just for the sake of our nerves.
Michael Johnson, Macsen Fraser, cautioned, Noah Chesmain, sponsors’ Hitchin town man of the match, Josh Bickerstaff, Dan Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Jack Green, Matt Spring,(Charlie Smith,70), Charlie Thake, GOAL, 90), Ezra Forde, (Scott Belgrove, TWO GOALS, 86 AND 88), Isaac Galliford, (Treymayne Charles, 70), other substitutes – Josh Mollinson, GK, Elliot Bailey, Alex Anderson,Jay Dowie.
Niall Conroy, Tom Spark, Joe Furness, cautioned, Ross Munro, (Simon Unwin, 60), Charlie Bowen, Arran Mackay, Matty Allan, Chris Hyem, star man of Goddy, Austin Diaper, cautioned, Jack Chandler- GOAL,8), – other substitutes- Luke Seaber –Shinn, Tom Lloyd and Sam Palmer.
REFEREE: Mr Mark Stevens, assisted by Mr A Fricker & Mr D Todd. All had very good games.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN