After an impressive and dominant first half, where they had taken a deserved lead, hit the woodwork and, really ought to have seen the game out for their second win of the season, Hitchin failed to maintain their superiority, conceded a daft equaliser and ended up hanging on for a point, despite facing ten men for the last part of this eventful match that led me to question as to whether a team can draw as well as win ugly.
The hosts had little to crow about in a first half where they were curiously poor and may well have had a weather eye on their forthcoming FA Cup game against Maldon and Tiptree – having progressed the furthest in this competition in their history.
Hitchin, of course, have other fish to fry in terms not just ‘concentrating on the League’, but the needful task of rising above the three relegation places and, I repeat, seeking just their second victory in the campaign. After the imperious display in the first half, it suggested that the three points would be safely on the board – and the team must take some sort of collective blame for surrendering the initiative in what was something of a crazy second half for them.
After the salvation of a point against Bromsgrove Sporting (which takes on another dimension when we learned that Sporting walloped leaders Hednesford 4-0 tonight), Hitchin’s play was as good as in that game – well for the first half at least. Early attacks were suggestive, with Leon Okuboyejo doing well on one flank and Jack Green, with Jay Dowie doing well on the other.
I was intrigued that Adam Watkins, who lives at the top of my road, had returned for another spell at Garden Walk – and also that playmaker Josh Castiglione was omitted owing to injury – as was Josh Bickerstaff for the Canaries.
As the minutes went by it was becoming quite notable that if Hitchin were looking good, the Crows were in disarray – losing possession and unable to connect any series of passes. They lost out on most ‘fifty-fifties’ and it was no surprise that the first shot on target came from the Canaries with Ben Walster having a decent go. Bradley Bell was popping up everywhere. Dowie’s cross was defended, but there was a seeming fragility about Royston that was just waiting to be exploited – which it was but not in irrevocable depth.
There was an off-target shot from Matthew Bateman, then some precise defending from Royston, who were still not demonstrating their usual fluency.
When they did build, the crosses managed were defended with ease. Then the exciting Alex Marsh had a free shot which he stuck firmly and well but Joe Welch made a commendable one-handed save, conceding the corner. This came after seventeen minutes, and it was the closest we had got to a goal so far. Stephen Cawley saw little useful service to his feet and had to endure an unequal struggle with high balls. Okuboyejo had more than a half chance following an error and goalie Joe Welch needed to remonstrate with Adam Crowther as he had to come from his line to deal with a bit of slipshod play from his colleague.
But for all their initiative, Hitchin had managed just two shots on target, even if they sensed the vulnerability of the off-colour hosts. When they did take the lead it did owe much to the keeper’s decision to punch the ball rather than try to claim it – his punch ought to have been more demonstrative but it fell invitingly to Lewis Ferrell who got the ball via an Okuboyejo short header and he finished well. We were one minute short of the half hour.
The lead was deserved on the balance of play but, whilst the Greens were on top they should have exploited further. They won a corner, Marsh had a low shot that Welch gathered safely. Ferrell had been of tigerish aspect and he really ought to have added to his and his team’s tally when he smashed a shot that struck the underside of the cross bar. Marsh and Green conspired to enable this creditable effort. It would have been a goal that probably have sealed a win. It was not the last time that the frame of the goal denied Hitchin. Joe Welch was another factor and, as it turned out, both Keepers had a good night’s work, with Horlock later making a double save from Bateman, and Welch making a distinguished save from Marsh.
At about this time a gremlin entered the game;the niggling aspect that makes a referee very busy. There were seven cautions in this game – four for Hitchin and a dismissal late in the game for Royston’s Scott Bridges. Most of these disciplinary actions came in the second half. One remarkable piece of unwanted volatility was the home assistant manager who received a yellow card for (presumably) dissent. He was apparently warned against further comment and resisting it he then received a red and trudged angrily to the dressing rooms.
One suspects the assistant manager’s wrath was aimed more at his players than the referee’s necessary pedanticism. If he was out of the equation, the manager was not as his peroration during half-time had a most positive effect on his hitherto wayward team. This was the harbinger of the notorious ‘game of two halves’ where the initiative changes hands and the team that had dominated now finds itself defending in increasing depth.
To be honest, we expected a Royston improvement since they could hardly have been less impressive in the first period. The second half was notable for cautions for rash challenges, the inordinate number of free-kicks, the petty disputes, and for me the forthright lady Royston fan who remonstrated with her team, the referee and the exquisite rising moon in fluent but blasphemous Spanish, no less. To be fair this was intermingled with the odd phrase in English, that dispensed with the need for sub-titles.
Royston had pushed their effective centre-half Adam Murray up front and this turned out to be profitable as it was he who snatched the equaliser with seven minutes of normal time to go. I am not saying it was a fluke – but it was one of those goals that have a simple directness that seems to mock the multi-passing ‘keep it on the floor’ philosophy.
There was a cheeky lob from Jack Green that we all thought was going to clear the cross bar but instead it struck the top. Good Lord, we nearly had another Maidstone, another Verney. It was a pity as it would have been an audacious goal. Then there was a fine shot from, I think Callum Taylor, that required a good save – and then a corner.
Royston had clawed their way back – Horlock punched clear but the hosts were now having the better of possession and were producing the more imaginative and threatening play. There was an alarming moment when, after a Hitchin aberration, the busy referee went to consult his assistant and he dealt out a card and I expected a penalty for the hosts. No – it was a free kick, centrally just outside the area. Sixty-one minutes. Bridges fired well and Horlock made a fine one-handed save, conceding the corner, which was defended.
But now the three, much needed points were in jeopardy. Marsh and Bell combined – Marsh appeared to be fouled and there was a penalty appeal but good refereeing saw a gesture that indicated the player went for and got the ball -so on we went. I did notice that the home supporters mostly stayed behind the goal attacked by Hitchin – that is to say the clubhouse end and they had not bothered to go to the other end, so we had a fine contrast of comments, mostly in English. But the Spanish lady compensated by bursting into unmelodic but seemingly sincere song – so we may be flattered that our team had been put down with such style and variety. A rough translation of her song could be ‘You are like manure and you know you are.’
Hitchin were under pressure, their fluidity had gone – clearances had a hint of desperation, possession was difficult. Marsh took an inexplicably poor free-kick, and such moments could not be wasted given the altered state of the game.
Royston continued to exert pressure – finding extra space and time to move, seemingly unhindered. Former Royston Town player Jhai Dhillon was fouled by Scott Bridges and this resulted in the latter’s dismissal. We had about eleven minutes of normal time to go.
Bridges went off and when we resumed it was one of those occasions where his absence was not felt – indeed it seemed to inspire the Crows to Better Things. And the best of these is a goal. This came following a long clearance, two players seemed to collide and Adam Murray on duty up front did the captain’s job of saving the game. ‘We only need ten men’ sang the Crows’ relieved supporters.
I say that as as we progressed to the anguished end of the game we could well have seen a winner for the hosts which would have been rather hard to bear. Marsh had the chance to snatch it for the visitors– he had just the keeper to beat, which he did but the post did not and Marsh – who richly deserves a goal, was thus denied again.
So what was left – free-kicks for both sides with calls for dismissals a routine appeal. Given the way that the hosts had come back after a miserable first-half they cannot be denied their pluck and determination. Hitchin should have made much more of their first half superiority – but overall I suppose a draw is a fair result.
We wish the Crows all the best for their FA Cup game where history for them can be made. Hitchin, by way of contrast, will face Leiston Saturday in the oft termed ‘six pointer’ as it is the bottom team versus the second bottom and both will feel that it is winnable. It should make for a good game.
So, whilst times are not yet desperate they are indeed anxious and we look forward to seeing Hitchin rediscover the consistency that was a highlight of the game against Bromsgrove Sporting.
Joe Welch, Gus Scott-Morris, cautioned, 68, Callum Taylor, cautioned, 70, Scott Bridges, dismissed, straight red card, 75, Adam Murray, captain, GOAL, 83, Adam Crowther, (Luke Knight, 63), Ed Asafu-Adjaye, Adam Watkins, Brandon Adams, Matthew Bateman, Caludio Ofuso, cautioned,( Ben Martin,45).
Substitutes not used – Danny Green, Danny Brathwaite and Harry Smart.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, cautioned, 47, Ben Walster, Jay Dowie, Dan Webb, captain, cautioned, 62, Lewis Ferrell, cautioned,89, GOAL 29, Leon Okuboyejo (James Verney, 76), Jhai Dhillon, Stephen Cawley, Alex Marsh, cautioned, 71, Bradley Bell.
Substitutes not used – Joe Gauge, Max Ryan and Alex Anderson.
REFEREE: Mr Alistair Wilson, assisted by Mr Paul McVey and Mr Tom Beeton.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN