The Canaries took to the field for their opening game of pre-season in a fixture against Luton Town that clashed with the “Canarinho” national team of Brazil’s World Cup quarter final show down with Belgium. The fact that 788 fans turned up to Top Field on a weeknight is a solid indicator of the passion felt for football in the lower leagues in England.
Whilst the standard of play was somewhat lower than the World Cup fixture, a sense of enthusiasm engulfed Top Field as Mark Burke’s side looked to build on last season’s Southern League Cup win and 11th place league finish.
The balmy summer evenings of late gave the impression we could actually be watching football on the Copacabana beach of Rio de Janeiro, although I think it is fair to say the physical condition of some of the Hitchin players could be said to be a little behind that of a Neymar or a Couthinho!
Indeed, what a delight it is to be watching football in warm weather. The arctic conditions of January – March when countless games were postponed felt a million miles away.
Burke set his team up for the Luton game in a 3-4-3 formation initially, with Elliot Bailey and Robbie Burns floating being the new number 9 Ezra Forde. It is a great pleasure to see Bailey return to action for Hitchin. He looked such a precocious talent last season, finding the net 13 times by December, before a knee injury struck and curtailed his campaign. Bailey has the potential to be the maverick spark that can ignite the team’s attacking play.
Alongside Bailey, Robbie Burns wore the number 10 shirt, and never has there been a more just allocation of a squad number than Burns at number 10. He is a lively, buzzing presence always looking to create with a deft touch that belies that of a 9th tier semi-professional player.
Behind the front three sat Matthew Spring and Charlie Smith, two players at the opposite ends of their careers. Spring can surely be the difference for Hitchin this year, both on and off the field. His credentials are superb with over 100 Premier League and Championship appearances for the likes of Watford, Luton and Leeds. Spring will provide invaluable experience and guidance for this young Hitchin squad.
Alongside the elder statesman, it is to be hoped that Charlie Smith is given the keys to the Hitchin midfield and permitted the licence to use his guile and range of passing to dictate the pace of the game. With the prospect of the returning Jay Dowie, Hitchin’s midfield options look exceptionally strong and Mark Burke can call upon a rock-solid base with captain Dan Webb and Josh Bickerstaff behind Spring, Dowie and Smith.
This enthusiasm and positivity is a stark contrast to early May when excellent club servant Brett Donnelly left to take up the Biggleswade Town assistant manager’s job. Whilst this was a loss both on the pitch and off it, with Brett clearly being a fundamental part of the superb dressing room morale, it was more of a concern that he was going to take half our squad with him up the A1! Jonny McNamara, and Conor Vincent departed and Bickerstaff was linked to the Waders, but hopefully now that tide has stemmed and Canary fans can look forward to the new campaign with great optimism. Indeed, it can be said that the losses of the three above players, along with centre half Lewis Rolfe, represent a less dramatic deficit to the playing squad than the 2017 exodus of Kane Smith, Will Wright, Matt Lench and Robbie Burns (temporarily).
The potential acquisition of central defender Lewis Ferrell looks to be a solid signing. Ferrell barked out orders against Luton and looked admirably composed on the ball. I have hope that Ferrell can perhaps be the Anchorman of this side from central defence and replace Rolfe as chief orchestrator in the back line.
In the second friendly against Borehamwood, Ferrell showed great leadership qualities, cajoling those around him. He could potentially form a double vocal presence at centre back, alongside the equally vociferous Webb. Ferrell made some smart interceptions of the ball, displaying a wise reading of the game. He is as strong as a bull and will take no prisoners.
Another unconfirmed prospective signing who made a great impression in the Luton game was Isaac Galliford. With his pace and dexterity on the left flank he looked to be a real asset to the team. Galliford buccaneered forward from both left back and left wing and gave the team excellent balance, also showing a goal threat with a neat free kick that was tipped over and an excellent finish for one of the Hitchin consolation goals.
In both friendlies so far, the goalkeeping duties have been shared by Michael Johnson and Josh Mollison. “MJ” has been a Hitchin stalwart between the posts for years and is undoubtedly a real talent with his exceptional athleticism and natural command of his area. In Mollison, Burke seems to have unearthed genuine competition for the number 1 jersey, and this can only serve as motivation for Johnson to continue his strong form.
Overall, it has not been quite like watching Brazil so far but the one similarity between both Hitchin Town and the Seleção is that they have both gone down to defeat. For Hitchin, of course the 6-2 loss to Luton was far from a disgrace as the Hatters now sit 4 tiers above them, and the 1-0 defeat to Borehamwood was a performance that showed great promise. Unquestionably, the season is in its infancy for Hitchin and far more realistic tests await.