After an extremely promising start to the 2020/21 season with two victories and an 8-1 aggregate scoreline, Hitchin’s positive start dissipated into seven measly pieces in a 7-1 thumping at Rushden & Diamonds.
The match was held at Rushden’s rather cramped Hayden Road stadium. In normal circumstances this tight environment would be superb for the atmosphere, but in the era of Covid social distancing, it was very apparent that the venue was not quite as spacious as our relatively luxurious Top Field. The fact that the one-way system managed to confuse me perhaps says more about the size of my brain than the clarity, or lack of signage. At first glance, I spotted the red and blue floor markings and thought – Rushden club colours, how jolly. No no, these are blue standing and red “NO GO” zones. Negotiating your way around a football stadium in these times really can be a logistical nightmare at times.
On the field, there was a catastrophic start for Hitchin who were, quite incredibly, 4-0 down within 20 minutes. After such resolute defending in the battling 1-0 loss to Stourbridge the Hitchin defence was like the parting of the red (or perhaps yellow & green) sea.
The Rushden number 10 Christopher Wreh (the ex-Arsenal striker’s Son) was superb, proving far too hot to handle in notching four neat goals.
The Hitchin defending was lamentably poor. It was really disappointing to witness but it can sometimes be easy to forget that these players have probably already put in a shift at work and travelled themselves.
Hitchin certainly missed the colossal presence of captain Dan Webb and perhaps the excellent Laurie Marsh was finding it hard playing at centre-back, having performed most of his career at Biggleswade FC in midfield areas.
Then just before half-time, Alex Marsh struck and there was an unexpected glimmer of hope. Was this the filament to wake Hitchin from their slumber? Callum Stead immediately went close with a header and suddenly we had belief, however ludicrous, given the score line.
After a penalty shout and a spell of pressure the Hitchin bubble was well and truly burst with a fifth goal for Rushden – a thumping header from a corner. Sixth and seventh goals were the cherries on an already giant cake for Rushden. Those greedy Diamonds showed real gluttony as they absolutely demolished us.
This loss left plenty of redeeming to be done at home to Leiston, as autumn leaves cascaded onto the Top Field surface. Was Hitchin’s season also about to fade and wither, or could the Canaries bounce back?
Manager Mark Burke had delved into his magic hat of transfer tricks and defensive reinforcements arrived in the shape of Daniel Akubuine & Sam Okoye-Ahaneru. This reinforcement was much needed after the shipping of twelve goals in two games.
Most importantly, defensive colossus Webb returned to skipper the side. This allowed Laurie Marsh to push further forward into his more natural midfield position. Webb it was who met a cross with a header that was well dealt with by the Leiston goalkeeper Sam Donkin, formerly of Biggleswade Town.
The Leiston custodian was in action again in the opening stages as Stead raced through on goal and had his shot parried. Alex Marsh was then sent through one-on-one by Stead, but his shot was well saved by the Leiston keeper.
In the second half the game began to drift. Such was Hitchin’s lack of threat in the attacking half that a flock of seagulls began to graze on the turf near Leiston’s goal. Quite what they were doing in landlocked North Herts is anyone’s guess but they were certainly more active than our centre forwards!
1-0 down soon became 2-0 after a defensive error and Hitchin were treading water. We were then handed a lifeline after Jhai Dhillon’s dying swan impersonation in the area resulted in the award of a penalty. Layne Eadie duly converted and the game was back on as a contest.
Hitchin increased the pressure and late on we were treated to a goal made entirely in the Marsh family. Alex’s corner was met by Lawrie and bundled into the back of the net to capture a valuable point from the jaws of defeat.
A sell-out bumper crowd of 600 attended the A505 derby versus Royston Town as Top Field was packed to the rafters. The return of 2018/19 club legend Isaac Galliford ensured that the Crows would be a force to be reckoned with.
Marcus Goldbourne started wide on the left hand side of the attack, fresh from his goalscoring exploits in the highly commendable 2-0 away victory at Bromsgrove.
Webb was once again lamentably absent and Ben Walster suspended for, I dare say, not the first time in his career! As such, new boy Akubuine partnered Laurie Marsh at centre back.
Goldbourne was extremely lively early on and terrorised the Royston right back, driving at the defence with flair and verve.
Hitchin huffed and puffed but were unable to break down the obdurate Royston defence and something of a chess match ensued. Akubuine was strong in the tackle, launching a passage of play that resulted in Lewis Barker’s rasping drive stinging the palms of the Royston goalkeeper.
Throughout the match, Goldbourne was fouled repeatedly, and some of these “challenges” were industrial to say the least. Walster and Barker would have been proud of them! Goldbourne clearly was a real nuisance to the Crows and this was reflected in their rather brutal treatment of him.
Despite much promising play, Hitchin were defeated 2-0 by Royston, in an unwelcome reminder of their pedigree as they looked set to surge to promotion before last season’s premature end. Royston will surely once again be candidates for promotion.
Herne Bay were up next in a tantalising FA Trophy tie against opponents from the level below.
With a second lockdown looming, it felt very much like a case of last orders. And Hitchin Town started as if they’d been at the bar all day, Herne Bay taking the lead early on. Akubuine drove forward from right-back and should have shot earlier and more precisely across the goalkeeper. Poor finishing aside, the recent acquisitions of Akubuine and SOA have really bolstered the Canary’s defence of late.
Hitchin were once again eternally grateful to the Marsh family, Alex teeing up brother Laurie for a neat finish. Thank you Mrs Marsh for all you have done for the club! With an early FA Cup exit and no League Cup this season due to fixture congestion, this FA Trophy tie had added significance.
As the second half began the debt of gratitude to the Marshes extended as Alex skilfully rounded the goalkeeper and after pausing rather theatrically, finished nonchalantly. Next round here we come! Late on, Stead picked the pocket of the opposition’s goalkeeper and slotted home to make it 3-1. This was a welcome return to his predatory form of early season.
Appearing as a late substitute was the mercurial Luke Brown. With his socks rolled right down to mid-shin à la Jack Grealish, Brown is the personification of a flair player. He befits the number 10 shirt, such is his sophistication and guile in possession of the ball. Brown struck seven goals in pre-season and I had hoped he would provide a twin-pronged goalscoring threat alongside Stead, but so far he has proven to be more of a creator. Here’s hoping he can add to his season’s tally of two so far.
As things stand, Hitchin are scheduled to recommence their Southern Premier Division Central campaign on Saturday 12th December. After seven league games, we lie tenth and within touching distance of a much hallowed play-off spot. The team must endeavour to recapture the promising form of three wins out of the last four games and really aim to mount an ascent up the still nascent table.
BY NICK KELSALL