Hitchin Town’s season has continued to be consistently inconsistent as the Canaries showed strong, winning form across 5 different cup competitions but have stuttered in the League. Great resilience has been shown though, as Mark Burke’s men are now unbeaten in 9 games.
The cup runs, in particular in the FA Cup, have galvanised the club. The victories against Godmanchester, Didcot and then Hastings contained some of our best football of the campaign. They were important yardsticks for the club and also the fans, helping to build belief that this team can achieve something other than simply fight relegation. Judging our credentials on our only previous league win against Redditch in August was a bit like a primary school teacher valuing themselves as particularly clever when compared to all the kids in their class. Redditch have lost 8 out of 10 league games and our 1-0 victory against them should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Hitchin’s attack has been weak all season, the profligacy even stretching back to the end of last campaign. At times we appear to be armed with water pistols and opposition defences are like a sponge that absorbs all of our efforts. It is to be hoped that there is a recall from loan for striker Elliot Bailey who has scored 4 goals for Hertford Town in the last month. His ability to link the play and classy finishing when his confidence is high could be vital to the Hitchin cause.
Captain Dan Webb has continued his remarkable solidity. Forward after forward has been caught like flies in the Webb in Hitchin’s defence. His fledgling partnership with Lewis Ferrell has blossomed and has seen a huge upturn in the team’s defensive record since the 2 early away-day losses against Needham Market (1-8) and Lowestoft (2-3). Excluding those two horror shows, Hitchin have conceded a paltry 11 goals in 16 competitive fixtures this season – a record not to be sniffed at.
There were many bright passages of play in the home game against Alvechurch, the first half in particular was full of attacking verve and swagger as Hitchin tried to build on their 1-0 advantage. The goal was scored by the magician Charlie Smith using his wand of a left foot to sweep in a tremendous free kick. Smith needs to play centrally in this team, whether it is at number 10 or deeper in a number 8 role, setting the tempo. He has on occasion appeared wide left, no doubt because of his sweet left peg, but this peripheral starting point wastes his talent and ability to run a game.
The Royston away Southern League Cup fixture provided a second half of captivating attacking play, as the Canaries recovered from their 1 goal deficit to secure an excellent away win. A scarcity of options in centre midfield with Smith injured and Matt Spring rested led to a 4-1-4-1 formation being employed by Mark Burke. The team initially took time to settle with numerous changes from the previous match, but began to find their rhythm and secured a rousing away win.
The dynamic Isaac Galliford played centrally in a creative style that suited his number 10 shirt. His game was full of driving runs and threaded through balls to Trey Charles and Ezra Forde.
Forde, the barrel-chested number 9 holds the ball up skilfully and brings others into play. He is blessed with a low centre of gravity that enabled him to swivel and shoot for Hitchin’s first goal after a mix-up in the Royston defence.
A player much more familiar to Canary fans is the wholehearted Jay Dowie who in recent weeks has reasserted himself as the reassuring presence at the base of the Hitchin midfield. Dowie is much more than the all-action force of nature midfielder that is most obvious to the untrained eye. He is a midfield all rounder with a fine range of passing, inspirational leadership qualities, as well as the combative nature that never shirks a tackle for which he has become famous for at Top Field. Dowie’s brief loan spell at Hertford Town has given him the fitness base needed to force himself back into Burke’s thoughts.
A bright spark in Hitchin’s recent steady progress has been the form of Scott Belgrove, who changed the game against Royston after his introduction as a substitute. Playing from an unfamiliar starting point on the right wing, Belgrove drove infield and beat two men before laying the ball off to Galliford who finished off with aplomb for the Hitchin winner.
Belgrove has proven to be a vital squad member in recent weeks. With his versatility and ability to play up front, at number 10, or wide as well as his knack for impacting games as a substitute, he really is carving out a crucial role for himself at Top Field.
The home win against Hastings was possibly the most euphoric victory of the season, securing as it did the £15,000 prize fund for Emirates FA Cup progression. A thumping header from the rock-solid Ferrell got Hitchin off the mark from a fantastic Spring set-piece, before Josh Bickerstaff dispatched a clinical penalty to secure the win. Spring dictated the game from the centre of a midfield 3 including Dowie and Bickerstaff. He appears to be much more influential when he has plenty of younger legs close by to him and the extra man in midfield helped our silver fox dominate the cup tie.
The rain-soaked conditions surely hampered a bumper attendance against Hastings with the crowd recorded at 425. The home tie against Leatherhead surely has the potential to smash that attendance through the roof with Hitchin facing the possibility of qualifying for the FA Cup First Round Proper for the first time since 1996. Big names and past winners such as Portsmouth, Sunderland and Coventry linger tantalisingly in the First Round and further progress really would be a remarkable achievement for a club of our size.
Let it be hoped that Mark Burke can steer the Canaries to further cup advancement, whilst maintaining the excellent defensive record we have built. All we need now is some goals and they are slowly arriving!