This latest pre-season friendly proved invaluable; it was against the best side the Canaries have met so far and put the forthcoming season into proper perspective. This is the kind of footballing side they will be up against – a battling organised outfit who begrudge an inch of space and snap constantly at the heels.
So, in a hard and very competitive game, Hitchin won by a penalty goal that came after the hour mark, confidently converted by Layne Eadie. The hosts had successfully come through an FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round and face Huntingdonshire neighbours Soham Town Rangers in the next hurdle. The Saints play in the Southern League Division One Central and may be pleased that they stretched their nominally senior opponents at a pleasantly sunny Rowley Park.
A 1pm kick-off had been agreed and once underway we saw a typical Jhai Dhillon persistence on the ball to enable the first attack. This came immediately after an unpredictable bounce had given the hosts an early chance, which was nearly capitalised on by the Saints’ bustling number ten, who in the first half looked a thorough danger. Charlie Horlock did well to save from a decent header, at the expense of a corner.
At the other end the eager Rio Dasilva won a corner and a cross from Dhillon saw Ryan Smith shoot wide. Jack Green, who gave a comprehensive performance, put in a very important defensive tackle , denying the home side’s ebullient and bulky number nine who later vented his wrath on one of the referee’s assistants. This caused some amusement as it was the hosts’ secretary Gary who was called in for ‘lino’ duties, as the original had pulled out. Gary was scrupulously fair, as he was at Dunstable against Slough, when called upon as an emergency replacement. Home supporters playfully barracked him when he signalled an off-side, thus disallowing a ‘goal’ for the hosts.
Having said that, it is incumbent upon me to report that Hitchin also had a goal disallowed owing to a foul on the very secure home goal keeper. I will mention too an attacking move where skipper Dan Webb accidentally cleared off the line, and then, with another chance to score he blasted the ball over the bar, his blushes prevented by the offside flag.
At this stage, the home club were adept at counter attack – there was, for instance a fine run and cross from their number two, and a similar threat came from the number ten, aided by the ponderous number nine. No need to tell you that I did not have access to the opposition team sheet. Jack Green performed in similar vein and his effort was intercepted for a corner which resulted in a blocked shot from Luke Brown.
Dhillon tried one on the turn which resulted in another corner, that was cleared. There was a fine shot from the persistent Saint number ten, and it needed a precise save from Horlock. Saints then had a free-kick in a promising position, centrally outside the area, but this was wasted.
St Neots did what Bedford Town could not – that is to deny Hitchin a proper shot on target for over half an hour. Saints denied space and time on the ball most effectively, but they wasted their set pieces. Josh Caldicott-Stevens had the honour of the first on target shot for Hitchin, albeit from range and enabled a routine save. There was a fine run from the on form Eadie and his decent cross was cut out by the alert home keeper.
A probing header from a cross from Webb almost crept in at the far post and a second chance, more difficult saw the skipper loft the ball way over the bar from close range. A Green cross gave Dhillon a chance but this too cleared the bar. As we approached the interval Hitchin seemed to be edging it, but the home centre forward made alarming inroads and might have scored if he had not expressed the desire to walk the ball into the net.
When the interval came we were in agreement that not only had it been a fine half of decent football, but it afforded a stringent challenge to Hitchin as they prepare for the more serious stuff. The goals that appeared to come so easily in the former games were denied and this was largely due to the excellent organisation from St Neots who were defensively sound and showed a degree of verve in attack.
The usual crop of substitutions did not occur as yet and the first bit of meaningful action in an intriguing second half came from a flicked on free kick that went just wide. The home side’s number seven had a gilt-edged opportunity being unmarked and in an optimum position but he blasted high and wide for his sins.
Marcus Goldbourne showed good pace with a run and a cross, but the goal keeper intervened smartly. The goalie punched away a corner and a following header from Luke Brown was too high. Numerous substitutes began to appear and all seemed eager to make a difference. We had played for just an hour when Hitchin were awarded an undisputed penalty, which Layne Eadie tucked away, evincing just fleeting memories of last season when so many Hitchin penalties were unaccountably fluffed.
This was the only goal in the match and the fact that another did not come from open play shows just how tight and even this match was. This seemed to be mocked unintentionally by the inactive score board which gave the score as eight-eight with eighty-eight minutes gone.
One of the Hitchin substitutes, Henry Snee might not want reminding that he missed a bit of a sitter and Laurie Marsh, playing effectively in this game as a central defender, saw his header, from a corner just clear the cross bar. Hitchin began to exert more pressure and Snee had a shot on the turn and Max Ryan was keen to exploit his snatches of possession.
Dhillon was still pestering on the left flank and he made incursions onto the opponents’ penalty area as well as providing good crosses, one of which gave Callum Stead a fine chance that was held by the home keeper. Hitchin looked the more likely to score but the hosts had one or two efforts that were commendable if unsuccessful. Jack Wood’s defensive header from one chance was particularly noteworthy.
As the match drew towards full-time there was a late flurry from the hosts and these attempts needed careful defending. So, Hitchin continue their run of winning every pre-season so far – but I will reiterate that this match was the hardest and indeed the best of the crop. The Canaries were tested fully and came through with considerable credit.
Next week sees the visit to Top Field of Harpenden Town on the Thursday and Barnet on the Saturday. We must thank St Neots for their fine hospitality today and we wish them well in the forthcoming campaign.
Charlie Horlock, Jack Green, Layne Eadie, Ryan Smith, (Nikolai Rusev), Dan Webb, captain, Laurie Marsh, Rio Dasilva, (Max Ryan), Josh Caldicott-Stevens, (Cade Abbey), Marcus Goldbourne, (Callum Stead), Luke Brown, (Henry Snee), Jhai Dhillon, (Luke Cardines). Other substitutes- Dan Weaver, GK, Patrick Zidane.
Apologies for the lack of the home team details as well as the officials and the attendance.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN