With Christmas fast approaching it seemed a good time to have a chat with club captain Dan Webb about the season so far.
Dan recently played his 300th game for Hitchin and is on course to become one of our most celebrated players. Dan reminds me of Mark Burke in so many ways. Both centre backs made the very most of their ability and week in week out put in performances that are at least 7 out of 10. Dan like Mark is well respected by his fellow players and supporters. He has a good disciplinary record and is rarely involved in controversy and leads by example. He is also very loyal. He told me he was happy to remain a Hitchin player for the rest of his career and has really enjoyed his time at Top Field.
He seemlessly made the step up from Shefford and Campton to Hitchin and I am proud to have played a very small part in his move. My cricket colleague Michael Frankland told me Shefford had a player that he felt was good enough to play for Hitchin and I put him in touch with Mark Burke. The rest is history as Dan is now one of the best central defenders in the Southern League.
So to Dan’s views on this season which has certainly contained some very high highs and some very low lows. Starting with one of the lows Dan reflected on the painful 8-1 defeat at Needham Market. He felt it was a freak one–off result with Needham Market scoring such a high percentage of chances created. He did not feel the result did any long term psychological damage to our players and had other explanations for our poor early form in the league.
From last season a number of players had moved on and there was a turnaround of playing staff and Dan felt it took longer than expected for the new players to settle in plus there were injury problems. He feels that Mark Burke and Adam Parker have a particular way of playing and some of the new players struggled to adapt. The team did not seem to be working as hard as in recent seasons when we had had settled squads. However Dan is now convinced that levels of performance are now much improved as players are now familiar with what is expected of them.
I then asked Dan how could he explain the difference between our FA Cup performances compared to our league performances. He said it was not easy to come up with an explanation. Starting with Godmanchester we did not play well and were within 4 minutes of going out to lower league opposition but we kept going and came good at the end.
The Hastings game was the breakthrough according to Dan. They were a good side but he felt we had the right tactics and dominated the game. The players were confident and had begun to realise what the FA Cup could offer.
Next up it was Leatherhead and Dan was gutted to be suspended for the game. When we were reduced to 10 men he really feared the worst but he felt we really dug in and fully deserved the replay. Dan said the players felt confident about the replay although Dan only started as a substitute as he was not fully fit.
On the Monday there was more excitement with the draw for the first round of the FA Cup live from Top Field. Like most of us Dan was disappointed it was Solihull and not a more glamorous tie but at least we were at home if we beat Leatherhead and he really enjoyed the evening.
So to Leatherhead and a very slow start saw us go 1-0 down and Dan thought this was a pattern in a lot of games where we started slowly and needed a wake up call to get going. We improved after Leatherhead scored but then conceded a penalty. Dan was totally confident Michael Johnson would make the save as he had so often been a spot kick hero and the confidence in MJ was justified. At half time Dan really believed we could win though not expecting to be a goal scoring hero himself. He eventually came off the bench and many supporters were surprised that at 1-0 down we introduced a defender. Was this tactical genius? Dan said he was told to play centre back so Josh Bickerstaff could be released in to midfield but he was expected to go up for corners and free kicks. His equaliser he considered to be one of his two most important goals for Hitchin, the other being the late winner against Poole in our protest march game to save Top Field.
After the equaliser Dan expected us to go on and win and he could not have been more praiseworthy of the impact the 200 Hitchin supporters had on the game. He could not believe so many made the awkward journey on a Tuesday evening and he genuinely felt they made a difference and created a great atmosphere. He thoroughly enjoyed celebrating in the clubhouse and on the coach.
So to the Solihull game and Dan readily admitted the players were more nervous than usual. He was proud to lead the team out in front of a full house and thought the atmosphere was brilliant. He liked the fact we were underdogs and felt we did really well in the first half. The dressing room was optimistic at half time and a replay at least seemed possible. Dan felt Solihull were very strong defensively and hard to break down. The penalty was due to clever play by their forward and it knocked us back. We never gave up but the second goal killed the game.
Dan said the dressing room was not too sombre as we had given everything and had not let the supporters down. The players went out afterwards and had a few drinks, played pool and sang. The players had all learned just what the FA Cup can do to a club like ours and they certainly want another run next season.
Dan said we needed to move on after exiting the FA Cup and improve our league form. He feels we should be mid table pushing for the play-offs and not in the relegation zone. We are improving and the squad is now stronger. Dan praised Isaac Galliford and said he hated marking him at training as he just dips his shoulder and is gone!
Dan is enjoying playing with Lewis Ferrell and they seem to complement one another in central defence with Dan saying they have two ‘’whippersnappers‘’ helping to provide pace from the full back areas.
The team bonding remains very important at Hitchin. It is something Mark Burke and Adam Parker have always felt can really pull the team together and Dan agrees. Again in the early part of the season with the new players the bonding was not quite right but now it is working as in previous years. There are a number of social nights and meals out. Indeed this Saturday after the Halesowen game the players have their Christmas night out in Milton Keynes complete with Christmas jumpers.
The fines that players face were published in my weekly bulletin earlier this season and the fines committee of Michael Johnson, Lewis Ferrell and Jay Dowie have been building up the funds for the end of season tour as their verdict is final. Dan told me there were proper elections for the fines committee and candidates had their own manifesto! Having a real togetherness does make a difference as players go the extra yard for each other.
Dan feels he should have played more games for Hitchin but has had problems with a hamstring injury for several seasons and has to manage it. He said that current physio Sam Backhouse is helping him deal with the problem.
Boxing Day sees Biggleswade come to Top Field and Dan expects a special atmosphere with so many ex Canaries now at Biggleswade and both teams will be desperate to win. Of the players leaving Dan was quite philosophical saying he could understand why players sometimes have to move on.
Looking ahead to the rest of the season Dan feels we need to concentrate on moving up the league which means beating the better teams as well as the strugglers. He stressed how important the supporters are and how he had really noticed the increased number of young supporters which is great to see.
Many thanks to Dan for giving up his time and giving such a comprehensive review of the season so far. We are very lucky to have Dan as our captain and I am so pleased he intends to stays with us for the rest of his career.