After the excitement and glory of the highly commendable FA Cup run, Hitchin Town’s season has come back down to earth with successive recent losses to Rushden & Diamonds and Stourbridge. But the players picked themselves up with an excellent draw against high-flying Leiston to give supporters hope that they can avoid the dreaded threat of relegation.
The Canaries must now seek to build momentum in a season in which there still remain a number of attainable objectives – namely progression in the Southern League Cup, Herts Charity Cup and Herts Senior Cup.
One other target competition, the FA Trophy, was expunged from the Canaries’ schedule back in October in the loss to Hayes & Yeading. ‘Winter Is Coming’ was a fitting sentiment as a biting wind from the Chiltern Hills swept over Top Field. Hat and glove weather it surely was – a sure indicator that the football season is in full swing. To hell with those balmy pre-season evenings, this was real football, undiluted and raw.
The Hayes & Yeading game saw the first start of the season for young Patrick Tshikala. After such a bright end to last season with some mesmeric wing displays, the youngster seemed to have lost his way in the battle to cement a regular place in Mark Burke’s line up. His electric pace and driving runs surely have merit in this squad and, although his game is somewhat unrefined, he still stands out as one for the future.
Trey Charles has been brought on as a central striker once or twice recently and it has to be a consideration to move him there more regularly from his nominal wide-right starting birth. Charles’s ability to take on and engage his marker with his lethal pace could be better utilised closer to goal.
Against Hayes, understudy goalkeeper Josh Mollison showed excellent reflexes to save onto the post, keeping Hitchin in the game. What a superb back-up Mollison is to the equally talented Michael Johnson. One department in which the Canaries are very well stocked is between the posts. It may well end up being a resource that is needed what with so many fixtures in different cup competitions to come.
Hitchin bowed out of The Trophy but still harbour hopes of challenging for the Herts Senior Cup. Burke made 10 changes for the home tie against Tring. It is not often that I turn up to a match of the team I support and find a player in the starting line up completely unknown to me, but the inclusion of centre-half Aaron Gooch ticked that off my bucket list as he found himself drafted into the starting line up. Jay Dowie skippered the side alongside Gooch in an unfamiliar centre back role, providing a vocal and commanding presence to steer the Canaries through the cup tie.
Recent signing Michael Cain began to assert himself in the side. Whether out wide or in the number 10 role, Cain looks a player of some talent. This is evidenced by his previous footballing pedigree – including 32 League One appearances for Walsall, along with League Two stints at Blackpool and Mansfield.
Tshikala was given another run out against Tring and if truth be told, he struggled to get into the game. Paddy needs the team to look for him with their passing as he is currently in the infancy of his career and needs the ball to be given to him, rather than having the stature of a senior player to demand it himself.
In the first half, the night sky was illuminated by an impromptu fireworks display behind Top Field. Alas, there were few fireworks on the pitch as the closest the Canaries came to goal was a snapshot by Scott Belgrove, as Tring led 1-0 at the interval.
Charles offered plenty of penetrative runs from the right flank, dissecting the Tring defence but his efforts were to no avail as the Spartan South Midlands Premier side held resolute. There was a feeling of the calm before the storm as the impending FA Cup tie against Solihull was on the near horizon.
Hitchin showed great spirit, however, to recover from 1 goal down against Tring as Charles equalised when connecting with a Jack Green cross at the end of a sweeping attack. Charles moved to a central attacking role once again and exerted a real influence on the game. His central position also benefited his strike partner, Belgrove, who looked better in an attacking two as well. Belgrove it was who despatched a swirling drive into the top corner for the Hitchin winner. This strike was undoubtedly Hitchin’s goal of the season so far.
The Canaries were irrepressible with two up front and perhaps this 4-1-3-2 system can be a solution to the team’s current goal scoring reticence. Charles playing centrally certainly has to be a consideration. This promising performance was full of morale boosting attacking play in a second half that saw the welcome return to action of the mercurial Robbie Burns.
And so it was, on to Hitchin Town’s biggest game in 23 years – the FA Cup First Round tie against Solihull. The remarkable attendance of 3,148 really was a credit to the town and the club for garnering such support. Rays of autumn sunshine shone down on the immaculate Top Field surface and it promised to be a special day for the club.
Isaac Galliford began the game brightly in the number 10 role that in recent weeks he has made his own, as the Canaries enjoyed the better of the first half. In the first period Hitchin more than matched their opponents from two leagues above.
When the yellow and greens finally did succumb to Solihull pressure, it was ironic that it was a penalty (and a fairly contentious one at that) that beat Johnson in goal – such has been his prowess at defying spot-kicks in the past.
The final 2-0 score line was no disgrace and the team and club must aim to build on this superb FA Cup run. We must take the fervour generated in the local public and try to progress in the other cup competitions whilst, more crucially, gaining some vital league points. We all want to look back on this joyous cup run with enthusiasm, not as the side-issue that got the club relegated.
Hitchin have shown fire and resilience in the FA Cup and they must apply this to their very patchy league form. The club have games in hand on the other clubs around them and must aim to rise to the safety of mid-table.
After the successive defeats to Rushden and Stourbridge, Leiston came to Top Field sitting high in fourth place in the table. Yet there was a sense of optimism in the Hitchin air, as club hero Matt Lench returned to the team on a dual registration basis. Lench resembles a Tarzan figure with his flowing locks of long, sleek hair and it is to be hoped his return can galvanise the team. He certainly showed great prowess in the Leiston game, winning the man of the match award and genuinely looking like a player who is comfortable at a higher level.
Lench is in good company with the talented Galliford and the two flair players dove-tailed nicely in the opening exchanges. Galliford opened the scoring with a hum-dinger of a strike from his wand of a left foot. After Belgrove’s effort against Tring, there seems to be something about the uncovered terraced end of Top Field and superbly struck goals, of late.
With the acquisition of Lench offering the side greater natural balance and energy on the left side of midfield, Mark Burke reverted to a 4-4-2 system with Galliford playing just off Belgrove up front. Lench offers terrific set-piece delivery and dribbling skill. There appears to be a real panache to his game, which compensates for the sad loss of Charlie Smith from the Hitchin squad.
It appears we have finally replaced Brett Donnelly in the squad with the 4 yellow cards and 2 reds in 2 appearances for defender Edwin Mensah. Yet despite his shaky start to life at Hitchin Town, Mensah performed admirably at right back against Leiston. He actually looks a very capable player and Canaries fans will hope he is able to make some more sustained contributions in future.
With winnable home games on the horizon against Coalville, Barwell and Halesowen, Hitchin must really target getting 3 points and that elusive second league win as soon as possible. Starting with the fixture this Saturday at home to Coalville Town, the team needs to ensure that the glorious FA Cup run was not for nothing and we begin to rack up some league points to ensure we are still watching Step 3 football next season.