This was indeed a curious game, with underdogs Hitchin snatching a surprise lead in the sixth minute and Maidstone having a purple patch where they scored two goals in two minutes, and the Canaries seemed to have earned a replay when they were awarded a late second-half penalty, which was saved and all the late away pressure exerted was just not enough to bring the Stones back to Top Field.
This was my second visit to the Gallagher Stadium – having been there previously in the FA Cup with Dunstable Town who were themselves very close to forcing a replay against the senior team. Since that visit there has been a new, imposing terraced stand behind the goal and further development is planned with the intended new stand on the Medway side of the stadium. I will add here that I remember Luke Pennell, on the Stones subs bench, for his short spell at Dunstable Town and it always good to see a player progress to a senior team.
With players cup-tied or just unavailable the Hitchin line-up named just five substitutes from the permitted seven in FA Cup ties and two of those were goalkeepers. But we may indeed be very proud of the team today who after a relatively indifferent first-half gave the Stones a real fright in a frenetic second period.
Maidstone occupy ninth position in the National League South and in the last round of the FA Cup they disposed of Cheshunt 4-1 and in their last league game they also scored four goals, without reply, against St Albans City. Segregation of supporters at this level is normal and it was good to see about seventy Canary fans bedecked in the colours and making a lot more noise than their numbers would suggest.
One point of interest was the inclusion of our former player Noah Chesmain in the Stones’ line-up, and, as will be revealed, he retained no sympathetic sentiment for his former club. The hosts began with an immediate attack and it was robustly defended by Josh Bickerstaff whose clearance was fairly launched into the nearby River Medway. Josh had an outstanding game, and a fair old tussle with Matt McLure.
Verney poached a ball from an opponent, his cross being defended as was the next effort. Noticeable in defence was the Stones’ skipper George Elokobi, a player who has muscles in places where I do not even have places. He seemed to command the freedom of the pitch as he orchestrated the defence and his distribution was impressive. However, Steve Cawley did manage to get away the first shot of the game. Stones had a move on the right that saw McLure win a corner – taken by Chesmain and what happened next was remarkable. Dowie assisted Okuboyejo who broke away and there was a possibility. Verney had the ball and put in what seemed to be a cross that would clear the bar but, heavens to Murgatroyd the ball hit the stanchion of the far post and nestled obligingly in the net – and although all saw this as a fluke (except Verney, of course), Hitchin had taken a surprising lead.
A small potion of the terracing exploded in green and yellow, not caring about the fluke element. A Stones’ fan next to me said that this was good as it would liven his team up and in this he was not mistaken. ‘You have only got to hang on for eighty-two minutes’ he joked. Maidstone were a little stunned and unsettled – but not for long.
Just over five minutes after Verney’s goal the Stones levelled when Chesmain, receiving a pass from Saidou Khan sent in a scorcher from about twenty five yards that gave Horlock little chance. Home fans were still celebrating that wonderful goal when barely two minutes later, Nana Kyei slipped an enticing pass to Ibby akanbi who, in turn, slipped the ball past the still ruffled Horlock. It was like a return to the script after a bit of improvisation and at that stage it seemed that the host would rack up a goal or two more before the interval and Hitchin would be in damage limitation mode.
But there were no more goals but a fair portion of near misses for both teams. But for the remainder of this half Hitchin only aspired to mediocrity, struggling for possession and not until the final minutes of this first period did they construct a meaningful assault on the Maidstone goal. Wishart forced a good save from Horlock and Kyei had one effort go wide. Elokobi lorded it in midfield and there was a lot of possession stuff that seemed to lack urgency to increase the lead. Both McLure and Elokobi had good chances that were on target but wayward by a few inches.
The casual play of the hosts suggested complacency to their more critical supporters and I agree with their view that they should have been a good deal more clinical as Hitchin were still a bit dazed from conceding two goals in as many minutes. Max Ryan was having, like Bickerstaff a fine, committed game, but Cawley was finding it hard to get much change out of his marker.
The two late moves from Hitchin, where passes connected and crosses were put in suggested that there might be a resurgence in the second half and, going to the interval just one goal down was not entirely a disaster. Improvements were necessary and if this were a wish it was indeed granted since, in a memorable fight-back, the Canaries took this game to within a whisker of a replay and indeed, if that penalty had gone in they might well have caused a real upset.
I do not believe for a moment that the Stones regarded a win as merely routine as we all know that the FA Cup is entirely unpredictable and the underdog has shown on countless occasions that it has bite. If we may have privately admitted to ourselves before the game that ‘this was our Cup Final’, it changed to a real witnessing of the senior team hanging on for a win and, I suspect a bit of a rollicking from their manager.
It must have been heartening to the Hitchin players to hear the magnificent encouragement from their travelling faithful and I think Charlie Horlock might have even enjoyed the frantic drumbeats from the terracing every time he took a goal kick, designed to put him off, of course.
Serious intent was well suggested when Cawley’s header just cleared the bar and Ryan’s shot from range struck the side netting. As if surprised by this Stones went forward and Akanbi’s headed wide from a Chesmain cross. Hitchin’s improvement was palpable and the more the game went on the more it seemed probable that an equaliser might be snatched – and we would not have minded if it was another fluke.
The comfortable stance of the home side was dissipating – they were no longer lording it in possession and were harried into errors. Clearly Hitchin were having a real go and a free-kick from Ryan was tantalisingly close to conversion. Another free-kick fell invitingly to Okuboyejo and from where we were sitting it looked as if it would secure the equaliser – but the chance was somehow spurned.
Further meaningful drama was to come, with Hitchin as the aggressor. With the ball within the home penalty area Jack Green went down and the referee made the instant decision of a penalty. This enabled a non-league VAR. The Stones supporter next to me, who had exchanged pleasant and neutral comments with me, rose to his feet and declared it was a blatant dive and that it was obvious that we had brought our own referee, who at least had the goodness to take off his Hitchin scarf. Such remarks are commonplace if you are on the receiving end, of course.
So, for the second successive game, Hitchin had a penalty and, I add under my breath that it also brought a second miss from Steve Cawley. It was struck firmly enough and we must commend Jake Cole in his match-winning save. The VAR man next to me – for VAR read Voice Against Reason once more rose from his seat and yelled ‘Justice’ twice for good measure and in capital letters. For us it was disastrous – as with about twelve minutes to go that goal might well have brought a replay and who knows – even a victory. This is not reporter bias as many home supporters I spoke to after the game as I smoked my pipe by the coach were all of the same opinion – that their team had got out of jail and were damned lucky to do so. That is nice but somehow scant consolation – I was in an emotional state that could have found voice in a huge shot of ‘We wuz robbed’, but I am a good deal more restrained as I approach the autumn of my years.
That was not the last chance – and with the Stones doing the old stand-by of taking the ball to the corner flag – there were some good moves on goal. Yes, Wishart had a couple of near misses, with Bickerstaff denying the first and the second going wide. Our hearts were in our mouths when Joe Gauge had the goal in his sights in stoppage time but his very near miss consigned us to the old consolation of ‘concentrating on the league’.
It was close to heroic the way the lads went down and I repeat my earlier view that they had made supreme efforts in that second half and Cawley’s penalty miss was heartbreaking – at least against Stratford he put in the rebound but although Cole parried in like manner he recovered well. I will also reiterate the tremendous support from the seventy odd away supporters. As a cup tie it fulfilled expectations in drama and entertainment and we shall see if the team can replicate such efforts in the forthcoming League match against Bromsgrove Sporting, who by all accounts had a thumping away win today. You can purchase tickets for this match here, and gain 25% off adult and concession tickets, as well as free entry for under 20s, using promo code CANARY25.
One last point is that this is the penultimate round where the losers in the tie receive a fair proportion of the prize money, which should perhaps be extended further in the competition.
Who could say for certain how a replay would have gone – but we still would have liked to have found out.
Jake Cole, Gavin Hoyte, Clovis Kamdjo, George Elokobi, captain, Nana Kyei, (Justin Amaluza, 71), Ibby Akanbi, GOAL, 14 MINUTES, (Jonny Edwards, 84), Noah Chesmain, GOAL, 12 MINUTES, Dan Wishart, Saidou Khan, Ryan Johnson, Matt McClure.
Substitutes not used- Luke Pennell, Jacob Gilbert, Jake Embery, Chris Lewington and Iffy Allen.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, Alex Anderson, ( Marcus Crowther, 86), Jay Dowie, Joe Gauge, Lewis Ferrell, Max Ryan, Leon Okuboyejo,(Dev Simms, 81), James Verney, GOAL, 6 MINUTES, ( Theo Reed, 76), Steve Cawley, Josh Bickerstaff, captain.
Substitutes not used – Josh Mollison GK, Ciaran Gordon-Stern GK.
REFEREE: Mr Tom Bishop, assisted by Mr Andy Loe and Mr Jide Ogunba. All had sound games.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN