Hitchin Town’s preseason momentum has continued to grow, as The Canaries have sought to iron out any creases in the team’s play with a multitude of friendlies before the big kick-off against Kettering on August 11th. As is commonplace, various trialists have featured for Hitchin making the composition of the line up something of a brain teaser with often 5-6 unfamiliar names featuring on the team sheet.

The preseason has seen a welcome return to the club for Michael King, who led the line up front on a sun drenched evening against Eynesbury Rovers. King seems equally adept at playing the role of a burly midfielder with a probing range of passing and an eye for goal. King has been a positive presence for Hitchin over the last few games and it is to be hoped that he does indeed re-sign for the club. Could he be the physical presence up top that the team so clearly require, after the departure of the bulldog Brett Donnelly?

On the flanks, by contrast, Hitchin seem very well stocked. Trey Charles continues to display a deft touch as the ball tends to stick to his left foot like glue. Against Baldock Town, both Charles and the enigmatic Jack Green gave the team real balance on the wings. Green’s wily wing-play was much missed last season when he was struck by injury. Charles showed lightning thrusts from the right wing against Letchworth, cutting on to his predatory left foot to bag himself a brace. The way in which he controls the ball with his heel/ankle mid-air is becoming something of a trademark. Surely Mark Burke will try to accommodate the pace and dexterity of these two fleet-footed flankers into Hitchin’s starting eleven this coming season.

Behind Charles and Green in the pecking order of wide midfielders appears to be young Patrick Tshikala. “Paddy” has an abundance of raw pace and potential. Undoubtedly he needs to work on elements of his game but he should be seen as a development project for Burke and coach Adam Parker. Tshikala can be the joker card that really offers something different to this Hitchin team, particularly as a substitute against tiring defences.

A great consistency in all the friendlies I have witnessed so far has been the dependable presence of Charlie Smith in the Hitchin midfield engine-room. He is the metronome that ties the side’s passing moves together. Smith spread the ball with a remarkable delicacy against Eynesbury, as he painted pictures on the grass with his wand of a left foot.

It has been a joy to see the energetic Lucas Kirkpatrick return to the team in recent weeks. Kirkpatrick it was that suffered such an unfortunate, lengthy injury on a bog of a pitch at Kings Langley in April. He crowned his return with a goal against Eynesbury, reminding supporters of his remarkable scoring record for nominally a central midfielder. A lot of Kirkpatrick’s goals come from the penalty spot, but he is also adept at arriving late into the box. Kirkpatrick’s attitude was a breath of fresh air, as he demanded possession from the centre backs against Baldock in an attempt to drive the team forward.

Conor Clarke has offered Hitchin a potential solution at right back – arguably the weakest area of the squad. He looked reliable and neat and tidy in possession in the Stotfold and Eynesbury friendlies.  Against Baldock, it was the turn of trialist Jack Thomas to occupy the role in the roulette game of who plays right back for Hitchin. Thomas looked promising but, with Alex Anderson also featuring against Letchworth, it is anyone’s guess quite who will occupy this position come the start of the season!

On to a more secure area of the backline, and in Dan Webb and Lewis Ferrell Hitchin seem to have unearthed a rock solid centre back partnership. These two teak-tough centre halves from another era can help the side maintain last season’s already honourable defensive record. Woe betide any centre forward who tries to cross these two man mountains! Ferrell could be heard rollicking the defence during breaks in play in every game he appeared in. He is a warrior who leads his side into battle. Canary fans already knew that Webb is a leader of men. If Webb is the General of this team then Ferrell certainly is now his second in command.

The two totem-like centre halves appear to have influenced full back Toby Syme into maturing into a really solid asset at the club. Syme patently had pedigree, having arrived form Norwich City’s highly successful academy last year, but at times he looked a little vulnerable at the start of his Hitchin career. 12 months on and he is a vocal organiser, completely comfortable at left or right back. This versatility is crucial to the squad with so many league and cup fixtures to fulfil.

At the opposite end of the pitch, trialist Charlie Thake has emerged in preseason as a target man that Hitchin have been lacking in their squad. Thake notched in successive friendlies against Arlesey and Eynesbury and showed a real striker’s instinct against the latter with a sharp turn and finish. He received the ball with his back to goal then swivelled on a six pence before dispatching past the helpless Rovers keeper. Thake played for Letchworth last season, and on this evidence he looks more than capable of making the step up to The Southern Premier Central.

These summer matches have seen a welcome return to action for the lesser-spotted Kieran McCaffrey, another player whose last campaign was prematurely curtailed by injury. McCaffrey made only 6 appearances last season, as he was dogged by an ankle problem, but he certainly has a presence in the middle of the park. McCaffrey was very impressive against Letchworth as he regularly sprayed passes wide to the electric Trey Charles. The size and stature of the man are exactly what you want from a central midfielder at this level – he has the physicality for the battle as well as the guile needed to dictate play.

After the Letchworth friendly, from my observations so far Mark Burke seems to be settling on a 4-2-3-1 formation with the team perhaps lining up as:

  1. Johnson
  2. Clarke
  3. Webb
  4. Ferrell
  5. Syme
  6. Kirkpatrick
  7. Smith
  8. Charles
  9. Bailey
  10. Green
  11. Forde

With strong options off the bench such as Josh Bickerstaff, Matt Spring, Tshikala and the returning Jay Dowie, this looks to be a rejuvenated Hitchin squad who should be able to push for one of the four coveted play-off promotion slots. Time will tell at this nascent stage of the season, but things are looking bright.

NICK KELSALL