Whilst statistics do not lie they sometimes cloud the issue to a small degree. Yes, this was another defeat in our dark day sequence, but it was a truly gutsy performance, painfully undone by a simply magnificent opening goal and a well-taken second goal that exploited poor marking. Both these goals came inside the first half hour. Leaving these goals aside there was no significant difference between the teams. I can say with all sincerity that there were positives to be gained from this game.
Stratford Town are brimming with confidence, enjoying their highest league position and this latest success puts them into the play-off positions, and they are there on merit. But the way the game began suggested that Hitchin were keen to end their losing sequence by establishing a comfortable lead within the opening minutes. That is not entirely an exaggeration as there were immediate goal attempts, redolent with possibilities.
A blocked shot from Galliford was followed by another – it happened so quickly I did not see from whom, but this was good stuff indeed. Ezra Forde managed a cross to Michael Cain – Alfie Cue got in another that Forde headed wide. Hitchin redux? Well, temporarily so. Stratford harrumphed a bit and cleared their lines, anxious to return to the script of a routine home win. Josh Bickerstaff had a pop, which went wide but we had reasons to believe.
This insistent Hitchin pressure, if rewarded by a goal would have made the match a lot more interesting, if that is the right word. James Fry the Stratford skipper had a weakfish shot on goal and then the ball came up the other end for another Hitchin chance that caused a nice bit of banter with the Hitchin supporters and the home goalie, which was nice to see. Stratford had a free-kick, taken by Will Grocott, wide on the right – this was beaten away to such an extent that the said home goalie had to come off his line to expel the potential danger from a robust clearance.
Hitchin had a free-kick, taken by the earnest Galliford and it took a deflection from Lewis Ferrell, which went towards goal, but almost apologetically. Stratford began to counter effectively along the flanks, but Hitchin were defending generally well. Nabil Sharif put in a cunning shot along the floor for the hosts, wide but with a warning. Galliford, with a flick- on occasioned an air shot from Forde – and contact might have been productive.
Then the home side struck with a goal of positive beauty and from range. It was a strike from the left and it was from the talented Wilson Carvalho, whose gymnastic front somersault and back-flip neatly matched the prowess of the goal and would have scored well for artistic interpretation. Who can blame the fellow after scoring such a scorcher? It was not exactly out of nothing, but such strikes are really game-changing and we were left with that sinking feeling of deja-vu. It came after eighteen minutes and it had a devastating effect on the Canaries.
One or two of the Hitchin supporters were mentioning something about a king in hell, but I did not get the entire gist of the matter. Then Hitchin won a corner, taken by Galliford. Webb was there but Ross Etheridge did his job well, as he did all game, clad in what looked a lot like the Hitchin green kit. Worse was to come, and after twenty-four minutes a second goal came for the hosts, attributable to slack marking but Lewis Wilson had a relatively simple job of doubling the lead.
To be 2-0 to the bad was not inexplicable but there seemed a touch of misfortune about it, but Dowie’s shot took a deflection for a corner and still we hoped. The corner came to nothing and we wondered if a goal would ever come from the noble attempts. Kyman Isaac defended one chance well and in another sortie, the frustration of Josh Bickerstaff caused the referee to dispense some fatherly advice to our sometimes hot-headed fellow, who does not even bother with the ‘who, me ref ?’ face.
A Hitchin free kick from Chesmain was overly ambitious, but Cue had a shot that took a deflection, but the hosts cleared well. Galliford picked up a poor clearance by the keeper but the goalie atoned with a fine one-handed save. Another Hitchin corner was forced. Forde was on the line, Webb got in a header, which brought another corner. Forde was shoved around but the goalie took the cross well.
A goal back at this stage would have been a fine fillip but it did not happen, but not for lack of pleasing effort. I gloss over the hopeful long balls into space with a small tut-tut. At the interval it seemed some consolation that apart from those two goals, things had been equal, and I am conscious of the slight absurdity of that statement. Nothing could detract from the sheer beauty of that first goal and the opportunism of the second but it left a high mountain to climb.
I am tempted to say we drew the second half, but that, of course does not bring any points. Suffice it to say that Hitchin played well in the second period and Cain put the ball twice over the bar in as many minutes when he really ought to have at least tested the keeper, who did make a couple of vital saves a little later.
Stratford played a canny game – absorbing any pressure and breaking free, sometimes with more in the attack than facing defenders. Carvalho and Grocott were outstanding. Kynan Isaac was persistent in support and skipper James Fry was exact in his play. Forde enabled Cue to have a hooked shot that went wide, and a goal from that young man is overdue, given his creative play.
Cain turned, put in a cross that won a corner and Green put in a cross that was defended, well enough to allow a counter attack. Fry’s next piece of defending allowed a forward move that brought a home corner. Carvalho’s cross brought another corner, and Johnson’s antics conceded yet another. Grocott sent this in inconclusively.
Hitchin rallied to some extent – Galliford in possession sent in a low cross defended by Lewis Wilson and it became typical, with each promising move met with neat football and good passing out of danger. Cue skipped past a defender, and the move brought a corner. We had played an hour. Bickerstaff sent his effort wide but at least Hitchin were playing with some real passion that they have been criticised by some for a lack in this ingredient.
Cue’s cross was again well –defended but the feeling was that a successful breach of the Stratford defence would make matters better. A free-kick for the visitors saw Galliford send in the ball from the edge of the area and a shot was only just wide. Dowie shot wide and we had to wait for another, more productive chance.
Stratford knew they were relatively comfortable and played with confidence and skill, even if they did concede more free-kicks than they might have desired. Galliford had a blocked shot. Both teams made substitutes and Kian Williams was energetic for the hosts, whilst Scott Belgrove made the most of his time on the pitch. Hitchin’s new signing Max Ryan had a cameo appearance but he did enough to suggest he may make his mark soon.
It was rather curious that the hosts, comfortably ahead with minutes remaining saw fit to dispute one or two decisions and cautions, but the game headed towards its conclusion with Hitchin trying hard but unable even to achieve a consolatory goal. They were not undeserving but just lacked that especial touch from close in or from range. Webb went forward for free-kicks but he was unable to get in the telling header. Grocott sent one over the bar and another effort was dragged wide.
Carvalho was insistent as was Shariff, with Summerfield and Isaac able to clear their lines effectively. Time told, of course and once again Hitchin left a game empty handed, despite an encouraging performance.
So, Stratford move into the play-off position and Hitchin remain third from bottom, in the relegation spot with games in hand producing nothing in terms of points. This game will be remembered for the two goals – one being unstoppable and one being perhaps preventable with more attention to marking.
Saturday brings league leaders Stourbridge to Top field and as the Hitchin committee sat down to their post-match meal in the board room, there were more positive remarks than negative observation. The team had played well but the absence of even one goal was a matter of some concern. One moment of inspiration might have made the difference and it may well come soon as there was enough tonight to suggest that this might just be the case – and they do have a tendency to raise their game against notably stronger opposition.
Keeping the faith is important since there was, as I say, may positives to be drawn – and I repeat that that first goal, out of nothing was a real game changer. Galliford’s late shot was a real beauty but the keeper was equal to that and a later header from Webb. Another good run seems overdue but as each game passes it becomes all the more important and the forthcoming games seem to be against in-form teams – so I will finish with the consoling thought that the bigger they come…. And conclude that cliché for me……for me to add that I do think that this new endeavour will gain points erelong – and not before time.
Ross Etheridge, Dan Summerfield, (Kian Williams), Kynan Isaac, cautioned,(Felipe Barcelos), James Fry, captain, cautioned, Janie McAteer, Jordan Williams, cautioned, Lewis Wilson, GOAL, 24 MINUTES, Albi Skendi, Nabil Shariff, cautioned, Will Grocott,(Dan Preston), Wilson Carvalho, GOAL 18 MINUTES, Substitutes not used – Cody Fisher, Ross Oulton.
Michael Johnson, Jack Green, Noah Chesmain, cautioned, Jay Dowie, (Max Ryan, 85 minutes), Dan Webb, captain, Lewis Ferrell, Michael Cain, (Scott Belgrove, 77 minutes), Josh Bickerstaff, Ezra Forde, Isaac Galliford, Alfie Cue.
Substitutes not used – Kieran Barnes, Edwin Mensah and Craig Packham.
REFEREE: Mr Wayne Barnett, assisted by Mr Georgios Markou Nikandrou and Mr Daniel Stokes.
REPORT BY PIPEMAN