After 166 days away, most of which were spent in lockdown, Hitchin Town have finally returned to action. Hopes of a return to watch football matches in stadiums seemed like a faint and distant dream in the deepest, darkest days of March and April. Yet here we were at Ampthill Town’s quaint home, about to embark on another season.
It felt great to be back and Hitchin players seemed to respond in kind with a dominant performance and result to follow on from the earlier resounding victories against Letchworth GCE (8-1) and Leverstock Green (3-0). The final scoreline was 5-1 against Ampthill but in all honesty I do not think many of the spectators, home or away cared one jot. There seemed to be a mutual delight at being back in a football ground, with the freshly cut grass, the smell of stodgy onions frying and the regular expletives emanating from the Hitchin dug out. Thanks Brett Donnelly, how we have missed you!
Canary goals came from forward Henry Snee, complete with Marouane Fellaini style mop of hair, Lawrie Marsh, Lewis Barker and a brace from the spectacular Luke Brown. Marsh joins his twin brother Alex in moving to Hitchin form local side Biggleswade FC. His addition is pleasing as both brothers posses remarkable athleticism and no little skill. Lawrie has displayed his impressive versatility in pre-season, playing all across midfield and as an auxiliary centre-back. Things could however become a little confusing for Canary fans and commentators alike as the Marsh twins’ resemblance really is striking. I feel confident Lawrie can make as big an impact as Alex did last season.
The appearance of Brown for Hitchin really whets the appetite for the upcoming season. The forward has notched in virtually every friendly for The Canaries and some of his strikes have been absolutely spectacular. His presence in the forward line for Hitchin whether as a number 9 or a little deeper in the number 10 role is a huge fillip for manager Mark Burke. Brown comes to Top Field after a spell in the USA where he represented the University of Maryland and he looks to be one tough cookie. With a physique to battle it out in the Southern League Central and the technique to grace many a field, Brown has the potential to be an All-American hero. Much like with 2018-19’s Isaac Galliford, it looks like Burke has unearthed another gem.
Hitchin’s pre-season continued with an away friendly at The Eyrie of Bedford Town. The presence of a matchday mascot fully clad in an eagle costume was a first for myself in non-league. Eyrie The Eagle brought a touch of class to proceedings as he hovered around the perimeter of the pitch greeting fans. Perhaps our own club could take note and look to launch a Captain Canary of our own back at Top Field!
Hitchin once again were impressive on the pitch, dominating the game despite Bedford pegging back the score to 1-1 after Brown’s neat opener. Braces from Brown (again) and Alex Marsh, along with goals from Lawrie Marsh and Jhai Dhillon secured a resounding 6-1 demolition in favour of Hitchin to continue the excellent pre-season form.
Finally on 10th September, a whole 185 days after our last visit, there was a welcome return to the resplendent Top Field in all its tattered, slightly deteriorating splendour. Not even the bird’s nest that had developed in the main stand could detract from the beauty. Someone certainly has been busy during lockdown!
Despite a lengthy absence since March, it was somehow comforting to be reminded that there is nothing quite as pretty as football under the lights. The new paint on the terrace sparkled, the new one-way system was well observed and we were off!
Forward Callum Stead put The Canaries one up with an astutely taken early goal. Stead is a constant menace who never stops moving. A pest of a forward who harries and battles throughout the 90 minutes, much like Jamie Vardy, Stead can finish as well. He is a waspish forward who could be a real asset to the club moving forward.
Max Ryan occupied the right flank, not his strongest position in my humble opinion but one he took to with aplomb. Ryan, also comfortable at centre-back, right-back and central midfield, showed astute application swinging in numerous arrowed deliveries and protecting his full back with characteristic diligence.
Perhaps the defence would need some protection here with a relatively inexperienced back line. The double-pivot central midfield of Barker and Josh Coldicott-Stevens certainly helped bring a touch of security to the line up.
The later added some comfort to the shoreline as he notched the second for The Canaries with a cute finish.
The evocatively named Ziddane Gourgel-Sequeia looks to be a very tricky winger. Neat interplay from the wide-man with the technical Dhillon down the left side led to a shot on goal. Then, as the half drew to a close, Zidanne almost won a penalty, driving at his full back with great skill.
Hitchin’s relentless pressure continued as veteran Steve Cawley, back at the club after last season’s successful loan spell notched a third. Manager Mark Burke seems fond of a veteran forward to lead the line and Cawley brings a touch of knowhow and cunning to the squad.
Ex-Stevenage youngster Marcus Goldbourne took to the field for Hitchin in the second half. He comes with a burgeoning reputation and made a real impact with a long-range strike that found the back of the net. Hitchin’s forward prospects certainly look greatly improved this campaign.
Despite the opponents being two divisions below, Hitchin really impressed, knocking the ball around nicely and knitting together some good passages of play.
In the final pre-season fixture, a much sterner test awaited in the form of Conference behemoths Barnet. The sun was out and Canary fans flocked into Top Field for this contest against The Bees.
Stead got Hitchin off to a fine start, notching with a neat early finish. This was real form from the front man who was up against Barnet’s giant defender Ben Nugent. Nugent was until fairly recently a League 1 defender with Gillingham, before being released last season after a disappointing League 2 campaign with Stevenage.
Hitchin maintained the early pressure, as a 40-yard scorcher was fired in at goal from Barker on his left foot. Stead then latched on to a lofted through ball to make it 2-0 in the second half.
The forward could perhaps have had a hat-trick late on in a commanding performance. Hitchin certainly have an abundance of prominent options in the forward line with Stead, Brown and Cawley all enjoying impressive pre-season campaigns.
Up until the victory against Barnet, Hitchin’s outstanding pre-season form could perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt as each of the opponents were in leagues below The Canaries. Yet here we were outplaying and outmanoeuvring a strong Conference side who made the play-offs last season. Barnet were earlier on in their own pre-season than Hitchin so perhaps this is a mitigating factor but after eight victories in succession, it is clear that Hitchin have had a fantastic warm-up campaign.
In the opening League fixture Hitchin were up against Alvechurch, as Top Field bathed in resplendent sunshine. This was a fresh beginning and the team was quickly presented with an opportunity to banish last season’s torrid penalty record as a spot-kick was awarded early on. Layne Eadie no mistake here, rifling the ball into the back of the net with gusto.
The new Canary Kitchen is a welcome addition to the matchday experience. Gone are the days of plain old tea or coffee, here I was offered the choice of a colossal five different types of coffee! Caffeine kick complete, back to the game and Alvechurch’s green strip with yellow and black trim was a little confusing but Hitchin certainly had little to grumble about in a commanding opening period. Mark Burke opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation which at times resembled a traditional 4-4-2, Brown dropping off into the number 10 position in front of the double pivot of Coldicott-Stevens and Smith which offered great defensive protection.
In the absence of captain and defensive totem Dan Webb, Ben Walster skippered the side and was filling in at centre-back. Or perhaps he is now an orthodox central defender and is no longer considered a buccaneering left-back. Age catches up with the best of us, Ben.
The players in the South League Central have a rather mixed range of athleticism, and today the backline were up against a giant centre forward, as broad as he was tall. The Alvechurch number 9 resembled a tank and Walster and Lawrie Marsh certainly had their hands full.
The Canary front two of Brown and Stead linked well on the edge of the box, Stead writhing like a snake to avoid his marker and win a free-kick in dangerous territory.
Clever footwork from Smith on the left released Dhillon who had the vision to pick out Stead, and the ball was slotted home for 2-0. Stead went on to notch a second with a looping effort that flummoxed the goalkeeper. He is turning into the proverbial fox in the box for Hitchin.
As the sun beat down, Alvechurch were reduced to 10 men, their number 3 presumably suffering some sort of sunstroke as he lost his discipline. It was an early bath for him, although I am unsure if the recent Top Field renovations have stretched to new baths. A cold flannel perhaps.
As Brown and Goldbourne goals put a gloss on the scoreline, The Canaries were perched proudly at the top of the nascent league table. Very early days, no doubt, but things look promising.
Onto The FA Cup First Qualifying Round, and a tournament that has been so kind to Hitchin in recent seasons. The opponent was Needham Market and the tie drew nightmarish memories from the second game two seasons ago where Hitchin were trounced 8-1 by The Marketmen.
There was nothing of the sort here, as Hitchin were assured once more. An early Lawrie Marsh headed goal was followed up with another double for the stupendous Stead, his third brace in a row and sixth goal in three games. The frontman is as dangerous in the air as he is on the ground and is in outstanding form just now.
With the goals of Stead, the craft and guile of Brown and solidity from Webb, Walster and ‘safehands’ Charlie Horlock, Hitchin have a fine spine of a team this season. With attendances up and averaging 430+ in our homely stadium there is a feel-good factor buzzing around the club and it is to be hoped that Hitchin can mount a serious play-off charge this season. With an upcoming fixture against giants Stourbridge away, The Canaries will be keen to continue their splendid form.
BY NICK KELSALL