A year ago, these two teams met at Bloomfields and the score resonated around the League, because of the somewhat emphatic result. On the coach we were warned that a fine would be incurred should anyone mention that 8-1 drubbing. The memory was still sharp but no-one expected a repeat of that embarrassing statistic.
Indeed there was not, but what we did see was a fighting 1-1 draw, with both teams going for the win until the final whistle. An impressive number of Hitchin supporters among the 313 attendance saw a solid performance from their team and a style of play that augurs well for future games.
Bloomfields is looking even better now that the new hospitality suite and adjacent cafeteria is open. There is also a veranda that acts as a kind of a grandstand, and was lined with supporters. It reminded me of the cricket pavilion where players waiting to bat lounge, rising occasionally to applaud a six or a four. The pitch is simply superb and still looks as if the dowager ladies of the Needham Market Women’s Institute had popped along in the afternoon to give it a quick ironing. The training pitch, with its artificial surface is in operation and it even has its own grandstand – all in all this is a stadium complex to be proud of – and I must also mention the top notch hospitality of our hosts – it was so good that I let loose the generous thought that if we were to win, let it not be by too many goals.
In the last match, against Stourbridge, Hitchin finished with a flourish and had to bear the disappointment of a disallowed goal – but as one supporter opined, we began this match as we left off that last one – on the attack with aggressive and productive forward play. Within three or possibly four minutes, Hitchin went ahead with Harry Draper volleying home a Jay Bird cross. This was no fluke as the Canaries were indeed on song, attacking fluently in these opening stages. Draper was able to make the most of his height and continued to be a presence – and a very enthusiastic one at that.
It was wonderful to watch the co-ordinated play from Hitchin, with the midfield and defence working well to assist creative attacking moves. The Marketmen seemed to be still setting up their stalls and it took them a while to meet this exuberance with resistance and cohesion. Draper was simply outstanding, holding up the ball he had won, laying off an intelligent pass or three. He was rivalled by the fancy footwork and fluid skills of Jordan Norville-Williams.
After that early goal, there was a period of attacking dominance that, had it been fully exploited we may have seen a handsome away win. The Marketmen showed commendable patience as if they sensed such a pace could not be maintained – but although they countered when they could, their early forays lacked the necessary accuracy. James Baker’s cross from the right saw a Jake Dye effort go wide and Josh Mollison’s performance in goal was anticipatory.
Draper seemed to sense that this would be a good game for him and he won a loose ball and thundered towards goal, only to be dispossessed rather smartly. He won a free-kick erelong and Hayford’s effort was straight at Marcus Garnham, who was looking just a little nervous at that time – something he made up for with two later saves from Leo Donnellan who evinced a pleasing shoot on sight policy. Garnham was broad in the beam and Mollison is as tall as a tree but both did good things for their respective teams tonight.
A lovely long throw from Norville-Williams was aimed at Draper and was amply defended at the expense of a corner. A Gareth Heath cross for the Reds brought a corner, which Mollison dealt with well by punching clear but Needham kept possession and forced another corner kick, which was painfully over hit. Craig Parker combined with Joseph Marsden, but Mollison intervened again. A Hayford free-kick sought Draper – but this was defended and the next cross was headed just wide by Draper. Had that one gone in by the far post it would have had a strong bearing on the game. Needless to say, Hitchin supporters behind the goal loved it.
Another cross from the skilfully scampering Norville-Williams saw a further Draper effort and this time it was well wide – but every Hitchin attack seemed to have a sting in it. There was another peach of an attack where Mo Ahmed tried a reverse pass to Draper which was just intercepted. On supporter I spoke to said to me ‘What’s not to like?’ He then qualified this with the view that a second goal would be a real settler – but it stubbornly refused to manifest itself and the hosts were beginning to cope and, it must be said, they did this well and went on to have the better of the second half – but not by much.
It seemed that Hitchin might have enjoyed the luxury of reaching the interval with a clean sheet, and they were indeed about a minute from achieving this when the Reds finally strained the Greens. There was an attack on the right and a low cross brought a low shot from Callum Sturgess and it was a worthy equaliser. This was not, of course, a good time to concede as it gave the psychological advantage to the hosts who demonstrated that amply with a far better second half showing.
There were no further goals, but not for a lack of effort from either side. It was a vibrant performance from both teams who exuded the belief that a draw simply would not do. It was a relatively quit start with some midfield jousting but the home side were soon looking for holes in the hitherto stern Hitchin defence. But the first shot of note came from Leo Donnellan, which brought a good save from Garnham.
The Marketmen had plenty of effort in stock and they produced a blocked shot and a couples of corners to signal their intent to turn the game in their favour. This was one of those halves where f either team snatched the lead it would not cause surprise, as they went at it hammer and tongs. Hitchin utilised all three permitted substitutes – Verney for the injured Bird, Ryan for Anderson and Barker for Hayford. Needham used Luke Ingram for Marsden and Parker for Nicholas Ingram.
Hayford’s free-kicks were a little disappointing as they offered little scope on this occasion. Joe Gauge tried a back header that did not deceive Garnham and Draper’s best efforts went wide. The best Hitchin shot came from Donnellan and Garnham’s save was notable. I must say that I like the cut of Donnellan’s jib – it is always good to see a player narrow his eyes to shoot on sight, even if one effort sailed over the bar and nearly unseated me from my position in that little stand behind the goal.
Of unsavoury moments, there were few. In one petty dispute about a throw-in Daniel Morphew found his name recorded by the referee for industrial language which brought a quip from a Hitchin fan of ’Hey, number four, temper your blanking language.’ This amply demonstrates the sense of irony is still flourishing in our part of Hertfordshire. The only other caution was for Market’s Gawith Heath for an overzealous challenge that sent a green clad player into an involuntary somersault.
A useful looking Market attack was defended well by Joe Gauge, who is settling nicely into the team. Donnellan powered another on in and Garnham put that out for a corner when it looked like it might sneak in. Mollison saved well from a home attack and Donnellan shot wide at the other end. I daresay that many from both clubs thought, as I did, that either side could well have bagged a late winner from a piece of superlative skill or an error through fatigue. We have all seen this happen, and, in fairness this might have been an injustice as a draw was indeed an equitable outcome to what had been a pulsating game. Hitchin had been super in the first half and the hosts were impressive in the second – but what was so good was the willingness to try for the win right to the end. The ghost of that 8-1 was put behind the Hitchin lads and, as I say, this kind of play looks good for future encounters in forthcoming fixtures.
We might have looked forward to a smooth, trouble-free journey in our brand new coach, but that homeward journey was difficult owing to the closure of the section of the A14 that we required and we were forced into a detour through some sleepy villages and minor roads that necessitated a judicious halt and reverse when the sat nav forgot we were a big coach too big for the route recalculation. It meant a late arrival at Hitchin and I did not get back to Dunstable until 1.20am.
Never mind, we bagged our first point of the season and through good play from a team that has a good deal of promise within its ranks. Alvechurch is next and let us hope that this spark is not easily extinguished.
Marcus Garnham, Jake Dye, Callum Sturgess, GOAL, 44 MINUTES, Sponsors’ Star man, Daniel Morphew, cautioned, Keiran Morphew, James Baker, Joseph Marsden, Gareth Heath, captain, cautioned, Joe Neal, Craig Parker, Samuel Squire.
Substitutions: Luke Ingram for Joseph Marsden, 67, and Nicholas ingram for Craig Parker, 89.
Not used – George Exworth, Callum Page and Finlay Shorten.
Josh Mollison, Alex Anderson, Jordan Norville- Williams, Hitchin man of the match, Charlie Hayford, Dan Webb, captain, Joseph Gauge, Mo Ahmed, Harry Draper, GOAL, 3 MINUTES, Jay Bird, Leo Donnellan, Joshua Bickerstaff.
Substitutions: James Verney for Jay Bird, 54, Max Ryan for Alex Anderson, 63 , Lewis Barker for Charlie Hayford, 77.
Not used – Lewis Ferrell and Brett Donnelly.
REFEREE: M. Morrison assisted by D. Lander and I. Pascu – all had sound games.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN