Leatherhead 1 Hitchin Town 2 (AET)

Wednesday 24th October 2018 | 7:45 pm
Fetcham Grove

Recap

This was indeed a remarkable victory considering that at literally the last kick of the first half, Hitchin conceded a penalty and would have been 2-0 down and morale would have been seriously affected. However, a fine penalty save from Michael Johnson meant that, curiously, although a goal down, Hitchin’s spirit was uplifted and it became a much different game, ultimately favouring the buoyant visitors.

The team coach took a good three hours to get to Leather-Leatherland, and every spare seat was bagged by supporters, with a good deal more travelling independently to witness the Canaries reaching the First round Proper for the first time since 1995. Team news was brief, with Dan Webb returning from suspension, being placed initially on the substitutes’ bench. A not entirely match fit Charlie Smith was in the starting eleven and for the hosts Daniel Gallagher replaced Robert Cullen, the latter being used later as a substitute.

Fetcham Grove was soon buzzing with the commendably vociferous Tanners’ supporters, but a good deal of noise came from those favouring the Canaries, and although the attendance of 637 was just under half of the first match both clubs would be quite happy to achieve that figure for each home game. The pitch was in fine order, it was crisp and cold and away we knew that a definite result would be finalised.

As expected, leatherhead, in their traditional green shirts made a determined start and the ball was whizzed into the Hitchin area. They had an almost immediate free-kick and a pattern began to emerge similar to Saturday’s game inasmuch as for the opening Leatherhead looked the livelier, more creative team. After a partial clearance from Lewis Ferrell there was a home shot that was way over the bar. It was almost an appetiser.

A free-kick from Hitchin, taken by Chesmain went to the right for Green to head in but it was cleared cleanly. A fine forward ball for Ezra Forde raised a defensive eyebrow or two, but it was a tad ambitious and goalkeeper Zaki Oualah claimed the ball with ease. Alex Anderson was harried into conceding a corner, with Okojie as the likely target but Matt Spring ended the threat, with smart defending. Leatherhead had a sweeping move on the left which needed Johnson to bound out and put the ball into touch. Alfie Cue’s canny pace was a bit of a worry – and he was no slouch with long throw-in either.

Tanners had a free-lick from about thirty yards, which went across to be headed away. But the hosts immediately regained possession, yet losing it as quickly. Ferrell and Bickerstaff showed good understanding – but the forward ball was intercepted allowing Okojie to cross, but it was too heavy. A lob from Charlie Smith saw an attempted shot from Dowie, but to was held and sent back towards Michael Johnson’s goal. A fine chance for the hosts brought a super stop from Ferrell. Cue’s long throw was put out for a corner.

Theobalds took this and there was a headed attempt, but it led to a Hitchin free kick, but the home side had enjoyed the greater possession so far. Anderson sent a ball along the right flank to no avail, and we still waited for Hitchin to settle properly. An Alfie cue header from a cross went for a goal kick, but these were worrying moments. Chesmain pushed forward but it was intercepted and Cue sent in a cross that was defended – another cross came in, yet sent out of play.

Another cross from the hosts almost fell to Elliot Benyon, and play was held up whilst Ferrell was attended to after a knock. We had played twenty minutes and things were generally going the way in favour of the Tanners. Anderson essayed a longish throw that was partially cleared but the follow-up led just to a goal kick. Ferrell was outdone in a defensive attempt and we had another corner for Alfie Cue. There was the usual commotion but it led to the opening goal which was neatly poached by Jerry Nnamani, and my notes read that it was with the flow of play. So, as in the first game, the Tanners drew first blood. Josh Bickerstaff told me later that this was a really pivotal moment as it galvanised the Canaries into a more attacking mode and in this he was right.

The goal came after twenty-five minutes and the change in play saw Hitchin attacking with more purpose – Spring set up a chance for Galliford, with Chesmain becoming involved. Green sent a pass to Forde that was put out for a corner. Smith sent it along the floor, a shot went in but there was an infringement and the chance was gone. Benyon’s half chance was defended, but cue was able to get in another cross, cut out by Johnson.

Charlie Smith was able to run in possession along the left flank with Green in support, and this move brought a corner. This was hit high and long, defended for another corner. Smith sent this in and it brought yet another one – and this was a decent bit of pressure. This was headed out of danger but Hitchin were hunting with intent. A forward ball nearly fell opportunely for Okojie but Smith was able to instigate another forward move. Bickerstaff combined with Galliford and Chesmain whose cross was booted away almost indignantly and this proved a good pass to Benyon who appeared to be fouled but it was not given.

A free-kick for Hitchin saw Galliford cross, with spring spreading the ball but the ball went back to Johnson, who had to come off his line to complete the clearance. Green sent a pass to Smith who crossed well with Oualah claiming it and creating a nullified attack on the left. Bickerstaff and Ferrell combined to create a forward move, with Dowie firing wide.

It was seven minutes to half-time. Forde was fouled and Hitchin had a free-kick centrally just outside the area. It was too high and went out harmlessly for a goal-kick. Cue sent the ball to the left for a cross that also had too much pace. Chesmain put in a forward pass that asked too much of Galliford and once more Johnson had to come off his line to clear. The Tanners won a free-kick with three minutes to go to the interval. Bickerstaff defended this effort and Galliford sent the ball forward with Smith picking up. The pass was too short and there was immediate counter play.

Hitchin won a corner with a minute to go of the half – this was a near post effort ushered away. Two minutes additional time was announced and it might have proved fateful. Ferrell’s cross was headed away, wide to the right and Cue received a defence splitting ball but the referee had adjudged that Anderson had fouled within the area and the hosts were awarded a penalty in stoppage time.

This was greeted gleefully by home supporters behind the goal. Surely a two goal lead at the interval would be unassailable. Travis Gregory was elected to take the kick and it was he who had scored at Top Field. It was not a particularly well struck penalty and Michael Johnson later told me that he was confident which way Gregory would go and once gain the goalkeeper showed the extent of his value to the team. The whistle went immediately after the kick and, as I said earlier there was a curious effect. Leatherhead trooped off plainly disappointed, although a goal to the good.

In the first game Hitchin had played for seventy minutes with ten men and had been the better team in the second half. So it proved again here at Fetcham Grove. One home official made the remark that ‘we let you off the hook there’ and I agree with him. A two goal cushion would have been supremely difficult for Hitchin to recover successfully, but their play in the second half and indeed in extra time was nothing short of magnificent.

This is not to say that Leatherhead had shot their bolt since Johnson enhanced his heroic status with a couple of wonderful saves later, one of which he told me was much better than the penalty effort. Indeed he received an injury in one attack that caused considerable delay and had Josh Mollinson warming up. Johnson, interviewed later informed me that there was no way he was going off, and he recovered sufficiently to perform at the height of his powers.

No substitutes were made by either side at the interval, and Hitchin began with some aggression, mindful that the conceded goal needed to be avenged. A hopeful lob to Forde looked fine but the attack was pushed back, but another chance was seized with Galliford’s shot well saved. Ferrell could not connect from an inviting corner and at the other end Johnson saved magnificently from a fierce shot from Gregory. From the corner Nnamani headed over. Bickerstaff pumped one in and from the partial clearance Dowie headed over. Okojoe and cue still looked dangerous but from a free-kick from Smith Ferrell came close with another header. Cue’s next shot was saved, Galliford’s effort was blocked but Hitchin were now the main aggressor, winning successive corners that had some variety but were coped with.

A turning point, which we might say was a masterly tactical move (which sounds good) was the substitution of Webb for Spring. The veteran defender had done his job well, but the eagerness of Webb was soon apparent. Galliford had won a corner and shortly after Hitchin equalised with a neat header from Webb. An equaliser had looked probable given Hitchin’s flowing forward play and now we had gone to seventy-one minutes and at this stage the visitors looked the better side. Curiously in the first game leatherhead had faded, almost inexplicably, in the second period, but were boosted with the substitution of Cullen for Benyon.

Belgrove came on for Charlie Smith, which augmented the attacking options and too into consideration Smith’s lack of total fitness, following his previous injury. Hitchin preserved their momentum and were winning most fifty-fifties, snapping at the heels of their opponents. Dowie and Galliford had half chances and a wonderful shot form Belgove was a real blaster but it went painfully wide by inches. Cullen had added much needed zest to the hosts and he caused a few awkward moments in the counter play. Cue was still up for it and Johnson held a creditable effort from him and the Hitchin defence had some nervous moments dealing with his long throws – especially towards the end when the home side were desperate for an equaliser.

It was exciting stuff indeed and the home supporters kept up their din of encouragement, but matched by the Hitchin faithful. Galliford won a corner, cleared by Lema whose performance was not as impressive as it had been in the first game. A Cullen free kick took a deflection but Johnson was alert to this.

Johnson received an injury, which he recalled as a clash with a Tanners’ full-back and the body language of the players suggested it might be more serious than we thought. The side effect of the delay was that Hitchin seemed to lose their momentum and on resumption they had a number of chances, which were defended either awkwardly or well but any shot on goal was securely held by the recovered Johnson.

So, with normal time expired with the same score as at Top Field and an extra half hour of growing tension was coming our way. The best moments for the hosts in the first period of extra time were shots from Cue and Gregory, both going wide. They had a free-kick from about twenty yards that was held by Johnson. Trey Charles replaced Forde, who had performed well hitherto. It was Charles meaningful scamper along the right, with fresh legs that led to the goal. His cross was converted by Jack Green who chose an optimum moment to net his first goal of the season and, of course was mobbed by his team mates. The goal was times at 100 minutes and it proved to be the winner. It is ironic that the Greens should lose to a goal scored by Green, but there you are.

A home supporter near me declared that there was plenty of time and of course there was. As the tension was nearly tangible so there were a few bad tackles that resulted in cautions. I hasten to add that there were four for the Tanners and none for the visitors. One home caution was given much earlier for what was seen as (premature time-wasting). Both teams won corners, Cue’s long throws were a worry. As expected, leatherhead made desperate moves to equalise and sacrificed their defensive strength.

They could have done it, since in such a cup-tie a dramatic moment of success could not be entirely ruled out, but Hitchin kept possession well, exploited their chances of counter play and space afforded them by Leatherhead’s pushing forward as they had to. Even so that second period of extra time seemed to last an age but when the whistle did go, there were, of course, scenes of contrasting jubilation and despair.

The Hitchin lads ran to their supporters and they all joined together in a sing song with expansive gestures and a good deal of man-hugs. And why not? It had been as hard as the Didcot marathon and I think we are all glad that this one did not go to penalties.

The reward financially is £25,000 and on the pitch it brings senior opposition in the next round in the form of Solihull Moors. And what is there Saturday at Top field? Why, a home cup-tie in the FA Trophy with Hayes and Yeading the visitors. I am no party pooper but it seems a long time since we played a league match and whilst I enjoy the cup heroics a goodly number of league pints will make us all feel better. Fixtures are compressed and the demands on the team increase – but this is cheerfully accepted.

The home committee were very gracious and even humble in defeat. Each person I spoke to mentioned that victory for Hitchin was deserved and that they had their chances but had not maximised them. If that penalty had gone in, who knows? But there we are , that is cup football and it had been a marvellous occasion, even if I did not get home until ten to two in the morning and not finish this report until a quarter to five. Everything has a price and it was worth it for such a memorable occasion.
Josh Bickerstaff, the skipper told me that both the conceded goal and the penalty had hardened the resolve of the team, adding that until they conceded they had not really begun to play. Michael Johnson rated the experience as probably ‘the best ever’ in his Hitchin experience, matched only by the semi-final play-offs. Bickerstaff said it was up there among his best experiences as a player. My choice for man of the match is Johnson again as it was his saves that had ultimately frustrated Leatherhead who had surely felt that their home advantage might count tonight.

What a game; what a night.

LEATHERHEAD
Zaki Oualah, Crossley Lema, cautioned, Thomas Cooney, cautioned, D’Sean Theobalds, William Salmon, cautioned, Jerry Nnamani,GOAL 25 MINUTES, Daniel Gallagher, Travis Gregory, Elliot Benyon, captain, (Robert Cullen), Shaun Okojie, cautioned, Alfie Cue.
Substitutes not used – Kamil blonski, John Ufuah, Andrew Blake, alexander Cooper, Balai Dembele, William Seager.

HITCHIN TOWN
Micheal Johnson, this reporter’s man of the match, Alex Anderson, Noah Chesmain, Matt Spring , (Dan Webb, GOAL 71 MINUTES), Lewis Ferrell, Josh Bickerstaff, captain, Jack Green, GOAL, 100 MINUTES, Jay Dowie, Ezra Forde, (Trey Charles), Isaac Galliford, Charlie Smith, (Scott Belgrove). Substitutes not used – Josh Mollinjson GK, Patrick Tshikala, Elliot Bailey, Kieron McCaffery.

REFEREE: Mr Chris O’Donnell, who had a fine match, ably assisted by Mr Steven Scott and Mr Luke Donaldson. Fourth official – Mr Steven Rea.

ATTENDANCE: 637

REPORT BY PIPEMAN