Monsoon-like conditions enveloped Top Field as Storm Brendan struck at home to Leiston. The surface passed a pre-match pitch inspection but as the heavens opened, visibility was close to zero for the players and the pitch became increasingly waterlogged. This made neat passing football on the ground, something for which the Southern Premier League Central is renowned(!), virtually impossible. The referee called a hault to proceedings on 39 minutes and the game will be replayed. Spare a thought for the hardy Leiston players and supporters who had made a 4 hour round journey mid-week for nothing!
It was the first time I had witnessed a match abandoned midway through but at least I only faced a short journey home. I wonder if goalkeeper Charlie Horlock will be claiming any clean sheet bonus?
In the following fixtures Hitchin happily began to hit some form and, crucially for this notoriously profligate side, found goals! A stunning 4-0 demolition away to promotion contenders Peterborough Sports was followed up by a similarly impressive 3-1 victory at home to Alvechurch. Key in both of these wins was the stupendous form of mercurial winger Diogo Freitas-Gouveia on loan from Colchester United. Along with fellow Col U loanee Jake Hutchinson, DFG has transformed the Canaries’ frontline. Freitas-Gouveia has pace in abundance and is a wily, tricky winger. When he is in possession supporters stand up and take notice, such is his talent on the ball. Freitas-Gouveia it was who netted the third against Alvechurch, capping a fine victory.
How refreshing for Hitchin to have such an exotically named player. Freitas-Gouveia has Portuguese heritage and the Iberian nation is the motherland of world class wingers – producing Figo, Simao, Nani and Ronaldo in the past. He has certainly shown glimpses of such flair and provides the team with a crucial attacking outlet.
Midfield general Lewis Barker was prominent in Hitchin’s first goal. It was credited as an Alvechurch own goal but Barker was once again in the opposition box pushing the Canaries forward. The ex-Baldock man is a fine box-to-box midfielder and the closest Hitchin have to a Frank Lampard with his well timed late runs into the box.
The third attacking loanee, Steve Cawley, notched a fine hat-trick against Peterborough and the number nine has proved an astute acquisition by manager Mark Burke.
After successive victories, the first since October, Hitchin took to the field away to Stratford looking to make it a hat-trick. They came away with an honourable point in a harem-scarem tie which ended 3-3. The late equaliser from Hutchinson on 92 minutes ensured the Canaries went home with a share of the spoils. This showed the true character in the side who refused to lie down and have their bellies tickled. Hitchin would not be defeated on a tough long-haul midweek away fixture and this in itself deserves praise as most of the players would have been working on a weekday.
Top Field was witness to an uninspiring 0-0 versus Banbury, as Hitchin struggled to break down the obdurate away defence. In truth, the man of the match was Hitchin goalkeeper Horlock, who was in customary fine form. Surely the glove-man will be high on the list for the Player Of The Season award for the Canaries.
What followed were two flattening exits in both remaining cups versus Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead respectively. The Hemel defeat was understandable against a team from the tier above but the 4-0 Berkhamsted loss was disappointing as The Canaries fell well short against a side a league below them. With key players Dan Webb, Jhai Dhillon and Alex Marsh absent, the yellow and greens were without the spine of the team and were unable to cope against the rampant home side, leaving just league pride to play for.
Away to Coalville in deepest darkest Leicestershire, Hitchin were faced once more with the lamentably continued absence of the afflicted Josh Bickerstaff. In his place, left-back Ben Walster lined up in central defence alongside stalwart Webb. Warhorse Brett Donnelly led the line remarkably well for a man of 37 years, and post-match on Twitter commented what a physical challenge this was for him, “90 minutes at step 3 at 37 years old is really hard! Monday may be too soon for me!”
When asked by a fan if he had scored, the ever jovial Brett quipped, “No, I don’t think I even had a shot!”
Hitchin triumphed 2-1 in a fine away victory with goals from Dhillon and the prolific Barker.
On a wet and windy night Hitchin entertained promotion contenders Peterborough Sports. In the reverse fixture the Canaries had triumphed in a crushingly convincing 3-0 victory. Since then, Peterborough have been like butter… on a roll.
Optimism was in the fresh (and decidedly damp) air, yet this was undone with a late Horlock sliding challenge that upended a Peterborough forward in the area. The resulting penalty was firmly despatched.
In the absence of the fatigued Donnelly and the injured Hutchinson, Hitchin were light up front and the striking responsibility fell to Marsh to lead the line.
Peterborough had a cluster of away fans who brought with them flags and their voices. In fact, all you could hear in the opening stages was the away support chiding “You’re not very good, you’re not very good.” Fair point!
As if to confound that sentiment, Walster’s subsequent long range free kick soared into the air and nestled nicely in one of the back gardens behind the Bedford Road end.
On the upside, DFG was electric throughout – full of fleet footwork and devilish deliveries. What a talent this young man is.
Hitchin went on to concede a second and fall to a 2-0 defeat after being reduced to ten men following the dismissal of Barker (his third of the season). The red card seemed harsh and the reaction from the Peterborough dug-out and nearby supporters was nothing short of hysteric. Peterborough rose to top of the table, so perhaps a defeat was to be expected!
Overall it is disappointing to be out of all the cups, which so often provide beacons of hope in dismal domestic seasons. Yet this squad is largely very young and inexperienced – only messers Webb, Bickerstaff and Donnelly can be thought of as in the later stages of their careers. There remains plenty to be optimistic about if Mark Burke can keep most of these players together next season. Even more so if he were able to entice DFG and Hutchinson back to the club for another loan spell.
With the COVID-19 outbreak, unfortunately we take a break for an unknown period, but look forward to hopefully seeing the Canaries back flying again soon.
BY NICK KELSALL