Hitchin made a somewhat muted farewell to the FA Cup for another season in front of the mandatory empty stadium. The hosts, who play in The National League, South, religiously applied the rules on a day that the pandemic seems to be spreading in our area as well as others. It is the first time I have seen a game played behind closed doors and had been required to wear a face covering throughout. Ironically, if the tie had been drawn at Top Field, we would have been allowed spectators – but a maximum 600 in a tie that may have drawn three times that number in ordinary times.
Perhaps the funereal atmosphere was appropriate for the Canaries who have now shipped twelve goals in two games – but I must say that the last three conceded today were in stoppage time when our ten men were visibly fatigued. Ten men, I hear you say – yes, and for seventy-eight minutes as well after Max Ryan, making his first start for a while , received a straight red card as he, as last man, brought down an opponent and the law was enforced. As at Stourbridge, this dismissal proved crucial – and here, as underdogs, it was almost mission impossible.
Team news was that Jack Green was still injured and there was a return for Lewis Barker and Max Ryan. I heard that St Albans were at full strength with new faces both in the starting eleven and on the bench. Of interest to the permitted few of us present from Hitchin was the appearance in the Saints goal of our former keeper, Michael Johnson – our own ‘MJ’. He kept a clean sheet today – but was beaten when Callum Stead’s shot struck the foot of the post in the second half.
Hitchin had a loanee keeper in Tiernan Parker, who is covering for Charlie Horlock’s suspension, which began today. Parker has played on loan for the Canaries before and he assumed Horlock’s attitude of coaching volubly from his goal line and beyond.
It was the hosts who began well on a lush pitch that had been rained on for hours beforehand, and their first attack was deemed off-side. They looked sharp and they proved to have extra pace on their opponents. Zane Banton’s snap shot went wide. The Saints were more intent on close passing moves as has been a pleasant trend for Hitchin, but the latter sent many a long hopeful pass that was easily intercepted more often than not. Hitchin were also playing a somewhat high line that scuppered them more than once.
A clever multi-pass move from St Albans looked the business but the side netting was where the effort finished. A long ball forward from hitchin saw Callum stead have a blocked shot and following this there was a powerful effort from Lewis Barker that cleared the bar by just a few inches. The Saints had more of the ball though and after twelve minutes they were ahead from a penalty conceded by Max Ryan ( who could have done with a full ninety minutes), and his foul as last man meant he saw red. He was barely in the tunnel before Shaun Jeffers converted the spot kick.
Saints went on to expose the soft underbelly of the Hitchin defence – neatly exploiting the high line, but there was a pleasing move when Jhai Dhillon combined with Eadie and Stead and Rio Dasilva, another back in the team, had a blocked shot that was deflected for a corner. Luke Brown attempted tpo capitalise on a loose ball but this was robustly defended. For City, Munashe Sindire ran in possession with confidence and his miss was just as majestic.
In another exposure of frail defending, Jeffers added to his penalty goal after nineteen minutes. It is odd, that after some fine defensive displays against Stourbridge and Needham Market that the Canaries’ defence should look so patently vulnerable. The ten men huffed and puffed and another long ball to Callum Stead was easily intercepted. Saints were comfortable on the ball and a fine cross from Devante Stanley crept obligingly out of play at the far post.
Hitchin appealed optimistically for a free-kick, claiming that MJ was just outside his area but the referee smiled the negative decision. Stead and Dhillon tried another move and the cross, aimed at Luke Brown was him fail to connect for the header. Stead, a tireless worker today, with little service, ran in possession and his decent shot was just wide of the far post. There was another fair move involving Eadie and Dhillon but Brown could only manage a sliding shot of no power. Dasilva was cautioned for a bad tackle as we neared the interval. This was a promising spell for Hitchin but the Saints’ defence coped with ease.
It being a cup tie we did expect Hitchin to throw caution to the wind a bit more in the second half. I recalled my last visit to Clarence Park which was not for a St Albans game but an FA Cup Replay (ah the far off days of replays), and the nominal hosts were the once mighty Enfield who played Preston North End, and the League club played a sure-footed game that they won comfortably. What I particularly remember was the magnificent support in the 3000 plus attendance, of the Enfield supporters, who gave their team a standing ovation and were sincerely applauded by their defeated heroes. It was quite a contrast to the empty terraces today, where stewards in hi-viz outnumbered the few of us permitted to watch.
There were no surprises in that game and there were none today – but I will say that until the rather startling period of stoppages, Hitchin did play reasonably well – but were no real match for the Saints. No substititions were made by either side during the interval. But with ten minutes gone , Rio Dasilva gave way to Alex Marsh. City continued to dominate the aerial challenges, and Parker held a fine , leaping header from Mitchell Weiss. Barker was cautioned for what would have passed as an expertly executed rugby tackle, and I think he may have still been sitting on his opponent when he saw the yellow card brandished in his disfavour.
Hitchin had kept in down to just the two goals, and I quietly admired the optimism of our secretary who took the view that an early goal and the ten man heroics might just do the job. This might, just might have been the case because in a highly controversial moment both Stead and Brown both appeared to be infringed and I wrote ‘penalty, HTFC’ in my little notebook. But the horror, the horror – the referee awarded a free kick to the Saints, indicating they had not sinned but it was a decision that might have made a parson swear. Talking of that, one of our coaching staff did commit himself to language both painful and free, expressing an understandable dissatisfaction with the decision.
We of Hitchin were indeed speculating that if we had been awarded a successful penalty then matters might be different. At least neither of the two aggrieved Canaries were booked for simulation. St Albans appeared to rub the salt into the wounds with a third goal but this was adjudged to be off-side. I was sipping coffee from my little flask, lowering my mask furtively and wondering if I would be ejected from the stadium for such a heinous crime – and I will say that Hitchin were indeed giving it a bit of a go – even if passes still fell short of the intended recipient in all green.
If the dismissed claim of a penalty was a grievous wound we gasped through our face coverings when Stead’s shot had indeed beaten MJ but the ball struck the foot of the post. Yes, I thought, if we had been given that penalty and Stead was an inch or two to the left we might even be on level terms. If you think I am clutching at straws, fair enough but it just might have been the case.
Substitutions were made – with Gouldbourne coming on for Stead and Tearle for Barker – and the Saints also put on a couple – but it was all up for Hitchin as we approached the last few minutes – when a veritable gift in the penalty area saw Zane Banton make it three-nil to the hosts. Fatigue among the Canaries was almost tangible and in an horrific period of stoppage time a Hitchin own goal made it four. I do not know who the ‘culprit’ was and I know better than to seek such information after the game when the mood might have been hostile to such an inquiry.
Then, with seconds to go it was five and the scorer was substitute Joseph Chidyausiku. It seemed a cruel finale and was a further blow to confidence. This means of course that in time honoured tradition we can ‘concentrate on the League’ and that will occur in just a couple of days where we meet Needham Market for the second time – they went down in the last FA Cup game 3-0 and since then have struck decent form. Maybe we can thrive on such a challenge, I hope so and we also hope that we can shore up our beleaguered defence. Of course we wish our Hertfordshire compatriots all the best in the next round and hope they do the county proud.
ST ALBANS CITY
Michael Johnson, Devante Stanley, Tom Bender, Solomon Mwabuokei, SHAUN JEFFERS, TWO GOALS, PENALTY, 12 MINUTES AND 19 MINUTES, (Dara Dada, 85 mins), ZANE BANTON, GOAL, 86 MINUTES, David Noble, (Kyran Wiltshire, 68 mins), Mitchell Weiss, (JOSEPH CHIDYAUSIKU, 80 – GOAL 90 +4 ) Munashe Sundire, Joy Mukena, Luke Warner-Eley.
Unused substitutes- Dave Diedhiou, Declan Jackson, James Kaloczi, Michael Clark.
Tiernan Parker, Max Ryan, dismissed, straight red card, 12 minutes, Layne Eadie, Ryan Smith, Lawrie Marsh, Ben Walster, captain, Rio Dasilva, (Alex Marsh, 55,) Jhai Dhillon, Callum Stead, (Marcus Gouldbourne, 85 mins,) Luke Brown, Lewis Barker, cautioned, 59,(Kai Tearle, 80 mins). Unused substitutes – Josh Coldicott-Stevens, Steve Cawley, Dan Webb, Patrick Ziddane.
REFEREE: Mr Jason richardson, assisted by Mr Ryan Head and Mr Dean Carney-
REPORT BY PIPEMAN