Suffolk has not been the happiest of hunting grounds for the Canaries with losses at Lowestoft and Needham Market, but today, at Victory Road that trend was reversed, but it was perhaps the most difficult of the three most recent games. But it must be said that once again Hitchin have defeated a team placed a good way above them in the table. The one slightly distressing factor is that we remain in the same eighteenth position – but those nine points from nine have meant everything to us.
A three hour coach journey was interspersed with an awkward stop at Stowmarket and then our coach driver needed more parking directions at the ground than the mooring of an ocean liner. He had to thread his way to the ground only to reverse to the top of the road, turn around and then reverse to the ground entrance, being careful not to uproot lamp posts of take a carelessly parked car with him. There was simply no room to turn into the club car park.
Right. Now we must remember that Leiston is phonetically pronounced Lay-ston, just as Frome is Froom. I like to know that sort of thing. I was a trifle surprised that the board room area looked out onto a full size snooker/billiard table, with hustler types clacking their balls, if you pardon the expression; but the pool table had been nobly requisitioned to bear the half-time sandwiches. We were a mile and a half from the sea and the wind made us feel colder.
All in green Hitchin faced the blues of Leiston who have accrued a number of significant results in the current campaign and proved to be a good footballing side. It was a good start for the Canaries, with an immediate attack, with the blues themselves getting in a cross cut out by Michael Johnson. Harry Draper was soon sniffing for opportunities, and he became closely monitored. It was a battling start on a pitch that was cutting up quite noticeably.
The typically battling Bickerstaff presented Belgrove with a realistic opportunity, but the latter belted it well wide. Mind you he did look a bit off-side. The bald Matt Blake fired in a shot for Leiston and that brought their first corner. Max Ryan dealt with that, with a kind of indignation that suggested he might have known he appeared on the team sheet as Ryam Max. Leiston had another go with a shot that only just cleared the bar and that was from Patrick Brothers, a persistent and talented player who, with full-back Seb Dunbar caused a host of problems to the Hitchin defence.
But it was Hitchin who struck first with a well-constructed goal. Webb’s neat header from the cross fell nicely to Belgrove who finished well, after eleven minutes and the announcer wrongly attributed the goal to Bickerstaff. That bit of poaching was significant. Chesmain and Galliford combined but Kyle Hammond defended neatly, but Galliford passed to draper whose cross was cut out by the keeper, Marcus Garnham clad in fluorescent yellow.
Bacon and Blake did their best to be a nuisance to the Hitchin defence who were very much on song today and it is ironic that Hitchin’s second goal, much later came from a defensive error. A Hitchin free-kick, taken by Galliford was cleared from the penalty area, and there was a good deal of neat defending from Leiston who were able to get counter play, usually on the left. Johnson gathered safely again from a corner. Finch had a shot from range that was well over the bar, but again, Brothers was behind that move.
Hammond’s pass to brothers, neatly switching play saw Dunbar get in a cross that was again defended, but Leiston came again from the right, which broke down. Belgrove won a free-kick for Hitchin, disputed by many a home player but the punctilious referee was unmoved, and his work was becoming increasingly burdensome as this bruising encounter progressed. Alfie Cue was in a bullish mood that translated into the concession of free-kicks. He put in one good long throw, that Dowie put in and Galliford’s shot brought a corner for the visitors. This went along the floor for a Bickerstaff attempt that the goalie punched clear.
A cross for the left by Leiston was cleared by Chesmain, but Brothers followed up with another, which brought a corner. This was on the half hour mark, and the home probing was suggestive of an equaliser. Another cross from Brothers saw Finch fail to connect, which was just as well – since this slender lead was being increasingly challenged.
There was an indelicate balance. Hitchin were ahead but just a little nervous rather than comfortable. Blake had a shot that took a deflection for a corner but there was an infringement and Hitchin had the free-kick to relive that bit of pressure. Belgrove, puched to the ground was cautioned, but it was occasioned by his reluctance to surrender the ball for a throw-in. It was a cheap, needless booking. Hammond put the ball forward and Blake did his best to no avail on that occasion. The pressure was such that I would say Hitchin were not retreating but merely attacking from another direction. Galliford went on his own only to lose possession. But, vitally, Hitchin took that lead to the interval and to a man or a woman we were all glad to hear the whistle so we could get out of the cold and help relieve the pool table of it sumptuous cargo of comestibles.
We talked as we munched. Secretary Roy Izzard was rightly concerned with the real threat of Leiston’s duo of Dunbar and Brothers. Fixtures’ secretary Chris Newbold was upbeat and optimistic, but we know why he is as he is a supporter of Fulham. Leiston had impressed – but so had Hitchin, in their niggardly defence of that early lead and we anticipated a difficult second period.
It was not the most flowing of halves, indeed it was punctuated with some ill-feeling and petulant disputes, with some players rolling around in real or simulated pain that would have gained the admiration of some Italian players in days of yore. Dowie had an early chance that was not too far away from success, but it was enough to set the cat among the pigeons.
Both sides had decent chances when the game was allowed to flow. Blake had a blocked shot, a cross was headed away. Draper had a real chance and it was dragged just wide – nearly a second goal in the fifty-first minute. Garnham sliced the ball alarmingly, but recovered with unconvincing nonchalance.
Hitchin were unfazed, with Webb and Ferrell being noticeably strong. Leiston looked increasingly frustrated and there was a scrappy few minutes. Finch had a shot held by Johnson. Galliford’s cross found Draper whose shot was just wide – good stuff indeed.
Someone reminded me that in my last report I had written that Belgrove had poased to Belgrove and I meekly suggested that it was a moment of style but then conceded the error. I can be quite humble like that. Then Galliford found the net – not the important one but the huge net behind the goal to garner wayward efforts.
But then Galliford did find the legitimate net, owing to a defensive howler form the hitherto safe Jefford, who, in possession, had his pockets picked and Galliford, with only the keeper to beat, kept his cool and put the visitors further ahead. That gift of a goal proved to be pivotal. We had played sixty-one minutes and had entered a little bit of a comfort zone – quickly dissipated.
Galliford had a similar chance in the last game but he had shot straight at the keeper. He made no mistake this time. The announcer got this one right but in a predictably lugubrious manner. The aggrieved Leiston set about their onerous task with some success. Draper brought a good save from Garnham. Bacon was replaced by Eagle and Cue gave way to Green, anxious to enter the fray.
Leiston substitute William Davies made matters more frenetic by netting for the hosts after sixty-seven minutes. Given the pressure it was coming. But Draper just failed to get a touch from a cross that might have brought a killing third goal. Here I will digress for a moment when, in the sky there was a murmuration of countless starlings in the darkening sky that formed a huge comma or semi-colon. It was startling and uplifted the soul, which shows that the day’s experience is not all about football. I was transfixed and missed some of the action, which was indeed becoming a lot more fractious.
The starlings moved in poetry, the players were snarling at one another. Substitute Toby Bryon, with a poetic name took an intended clearance on his back and the ricochet nearly found the net. This chap is from Luton Town, on loan, so I believe, playing in an un-numbered shirt because the bench could not find the correct shirt. We had come towards the last ten minutes of normal time and all was still in the balance and I recalled that the last draw Hitchin had was indeed with our hosts from Suffolk.
The murmuration continued and there were a good deal of murmurings or more from players of both sides disputing all and everything. There was nine minutes to go – with stoppage time, which proved over generous, to be added. Dowie had the unmarked Draper to his left but he put it to the right, which was the wrong choice, but no matter.
Leiston pushed manfully for the equaliser and it was a close run thing. Free-kicks were conceded in dangerous positions by Hitchin. Seconds were consumed by optimistic forward balls. Max Ryan was booked for time-wasting and the referee had a torrid time in this last period and it seemed he would play on until the hosts bagged an equaliser. This was not to be and the visitors held out, with a good deal of credit. Byron was being a pleasing nuisance, but it was so niggly as we went to the end of the game.
Hitchin saw it through and it was indeed a pleasing result for them – only the second away win since the fine performance at Rushall Olympic. I like to feel they deserve it for their tenacity and discipline in defence. A ground out win? Yes and no. But a win is a win and I agree with out fixtures’ secretary who let slip that it was a fine day not spoiled by ninety minutes of football. What he meant was that the team had obtained some reward after some performances where they had not deserved to be on the wrong end of a result.
Of course, this is a work in progress, a fact highlighted by manager Mark Burke, but we agreed that the real Hitchin is coming through, late but in earnest. We enter new territory on Wednesday when we entertain Leicestershire’s Coalville Town, who, I believe, had a good result today. But who can argue with nine points from three games? We are stil at a crucial stage of the season and each game is of vital importance in the search for safety points, but we are on track, and let us hope that it stays that way.
Marcus Garnham, Kyle Hammond, Seb Dunbar, cautioned, Noel Aitkins, Joe Jefford, Tom Bullard, captain, Byron Lawrence, Harrison Bacon, (William Davies, 65, GOAL 67 MINUTES), Matt Blake, Christy Finch, (Robert Eagle, 73 minutes), Patrick Brothers, this reporter’s man of the match, cautioned.
Substitutes not used: Josh Cheetham, George Keys and Harry Lay-Fulcher.
Michael Johnson, Max Ryan, cautioned, Noah Chesmain, Jay Dowie, Dan Webb, captain, Louis Ferrell, Josh Bickerstaff, Harry Draper, Scott Belgrove, GOAL 11 MINUTES, cautioned, (Toby Byron, 71 minutes), Isaac Galliford, GOAL, 61 MINUTES, Alfie Cue, (Jack Green, 65 minutes).
Substitutes not used: Edwin Mensah and Craig Packham.
REFEREE: Mr Paul Burnham, (Wymondham), assisted by Mr Murray Grant (Norwich) and Mr Richard Pace (Norwich).
REPORT BY PIPEMAN