Hitchin Town’s season has continued to be nothing if not inconsistent with eight wins and twelve losses in all competitions.
Against Welwyn Garden City in the Herts Senior Cup a loyal band of seventy three spectators turned up as Max Ryan gave Hitchin the lead with a neat slotted finish. Ryan is a fast becoming the perfect utility player – filling in at right-back, centre-back, defensive midfield and here at left midfield. But this versatility does him a disservice. Ryan is a fine footballer with physicality and a grace on the ball that harks back to his days in the Watford reserve team. Surely there should be a space found for him in Mark Burke’s starting line up?
The game turned on it’s head in a whirlwind five minutes. Hitchin threw the lead away with a Welwyn equaliser before then conceding a penalty. Hitchin’s #1 Charlie Horlock produced a superb save. A strong right palm thrusting the ball away provided welcome memories of predecessor Michael Johnson’s penalty saving prowess.
Could Hitchin respond to this fillip and find a winner in the closing stages?
Welwyn were reduced to ten men for the last ten minutes as an injured player was withdrawn with all substitutes already used. This was a real opening for the Canaries. Jhai Dhillon was denied with a fabulous left-footed free kick as Hitchin turned the screw.
The Canaries finally won the tie after a penalty shootout, which provided great irony. After such a miserable record from the penalty spot it took some courage for the four takers to step up and dispatch to send the Club through to the next round.
Against Barwell Steve Cawley had returned to his parent club but new loan signing Jake Hutchinson took his place with aplomb. Hitchin enjoyed early territorial advantage as they looked to build on good recent form with the opening goal.
Cold and frosty conditions did not interrupt the play as the Top Field surface was immaculate as ever. The ground staff face an unenviable task this time of year with rain and frost, not to mention the deluge of leaves that submerged the turf in a golden blanket. It is high credit to these volunteers that Hitchin’s playing surface remains in pristine condition.
Hitchin took the lead as a deep Jack Green cross was headed against the crossbar by Lewis Barker then off the line from Dhillon before it was third time luckily, as Dhillon swept in the rebound.
One almost became two after a tantalising cross from the sweet left foot of Ben Walster trickled narrowly wide of flailing Canary legs (or should that read wings?). Hitchin were fully in the ascendency as Canary bodies flocked into the area with ease.
The left foot of Walster in particular is a weapon that Hitchin should use to their advantage. The left-back is capable of firing precision missiles into opposition territory, just begging for the finishing touch.
Dan Webb extended the home lead just before half time using an implement that Canary fans hitherto though was used purely for standing – his left foot.
The lead was comfortable and deserved. But as we all know 2-0 is a dangerous scoreline. Of course, in reality this makes little to no sense and Hitchin proved it to be a myth as Dhillon swept in a tremendous third goal. There have been few better halves of Canary football in recent seasons, and it must be noted that the opponents are no mugs, sitting as they did just four points shy of the play-offs.
Finally, there was a debut goal for new boy Hutchinson, the loanee side-footing home calmly from a sublime Dhillon cross. In reality Dhillon had done all the hard work and the “Rice N Spice” man put the chance on a plate with a mouth watering delivery.
After such a splendid performance and result, Hitchin were ravenous and were straight back into action with a home fixture versus Lowestoft. Mark Burke was afforded the luxury of a relatively fit squad and made just one change with Lewis “Camel” Rolfe making a return. He really would have the hump if he couldn’t get back into the side.
In the ever entertaining Brett Donnelly’s latest blog we were enlightened to another rather unflattering nickname in that of Benny “Belly” Walster. I prefer to focus on another part of the left-back’s anatomy and that famous left foot was back in action once again, driving a stinging free-kick that was tipped narrowly over the Lowestoft bar.
After nifty dribbling Dhillon was upended in the area and Hitchin were offered the chance to take the lead from twelve yards. Just when we thought the penalty curse was over, up stepped Alex Marsh and side footed meekly into the goalkeeper. That is now a (scarcely believable) 7 misses out of 10 penalties this season. The quite remarkable profligacy must be a club record and perhaps even a league record! As discussed in this blog before, it is no fault of any single player and more a collective responsibility with seven different spot-kick takers this season. This must be a cause for psychological work as it seems to have become a mental block for the team. I recall how a badly skied penalty from Elliot Bailey last season seemed to affect the confidence of the previously ebullient striker. Lamentably we never saw Bailey in a Hitchin shirt again. I believe Marsh is made of stern stuff and he can bounce back from this disappointment but the team needs to end this run of missed spot-kicks and the sooner the better. On the positive, credit to the team’s forward players for winning ten penalties at least!
Hitchin then conceded the opener, vastly against the run of play. But the best left foot in non league football was at it again, Walster delivering immaculately from a free-kick which culminated in Hutchinson’s looping header finding the back of the net. Two goals in two games now for the Colchester loanee. Have we found another Harry Draper?
Hitchin lamentably went on to concede twice more in the second half and lost this game 3-1. A bitterly disappointing result as Lowestoft began the game two places below the Canaries in the table.
After another loss away to Hednesford (4-2), Hitchin’s form had begun to slump and the Boxing Day local derby against Biggleswade Town could not have been any bigger. Last year’s former Canaries playing for the Waders were no longer at the club (a few of them have rejoined Hitchin actually) but there were still a few familiar faces in the opposition line up. Teak tough centre half Lewis Ferrell appeared and flying speedster Trey Charles was out wide for The Waders. Both of these, in my humble opinion, were fine Hitchin players and are going on to excel for this Biggleswade side that was forced to rebirth itself mid-season with the loss of the manager and a large chunk of the playing squad.
Former boss Chris Nunn has rallied the troops though, and Biggleswade were tough opposition.
The monsoon like conditions and heavy pitch made passing football difficult (as if it isn’t rare enough in the Southern Premier Division Central) and Hitchin were undone by two set pieces. The first goal came from a corner and the second from a penalty conceded by Walster, filling in at right back for the suspended Green.
Hitchin have failed to beat The Waders for four seasons now and this record is disappointing but it must be noted the opposition’s lofty status as play-off contenders. The New Year’s Day loss at home to Kings Langley was a further blow as Hitchin defended manfully with 10 men for much of the match. Walster was dismissed but his teammates rallied and kept the opposition at bay before a late sucker punch goal for the away side sapped the life out of the Canaries. A devastatingly harsh defeat and now four defeats in a row.
Prospects looked glum away to giants Stourbridge who average attendances of 700. Yet Hitchin were able to show a real resolute side, perhaps a new year’s resolution, as they outplayed The Glassboys. The ever reliable Webb gave the Canaries the lead before new boy Diogo Freitas Gouveia extended the advantage. Hitchin overcame the pressure of a late Stourbridge comeback to hold on for a 2-1 victory. An away performance and result that should breath life into the campaign.
As things stand Hitchin are still some distance off the play-offs (15 points) but also hopefully safely away from the relegation trap door (8 points). As such, they are dwelling in relative footballing no man’s land and need a resurgent push to rise up into play-off contention. Perhaps such ambition may be too grandiose for this season and the team should focus on less bold aims of ensuring safety and competing in the two remaining cup competitions. With winnable upcoming fixtures at home to Needham Market and then Leiston, Hitchin need to find some consistency to avoid being dragged into a relegation dog fight.
BY NICK KELSALL