Spring sprung early as Hitchin played host to Rushall Olympic at a bright and mild Top Field. Blossom was on the trees and the form of this Hitchin side was also in bloom of late.
Manager Mark Burke again opted for a rather progressive 4-3-1-2 system with Morgan Penfold and Harry Draper in a two-pronged attack, supported by Isaac Galliford gushing with flair in his customary number 10 role. The elegant Michael Cain was pulling the strings deeper in midfield. Penfold, a recent loan signing from Peterborough, is a tall and rangy forward and Draper is built like the proverbial brick outhouse. It is hard to believe he is merely 18 years old, such is his stature. If he does not make it as a professional footballer there is sure to be a career for Draper on site as a hod-carrier. A handful for opposition defences this Hitchin striking pair should surely be.
The first half was a somewhat drab affair but Hitchin initially did well to keep the sheet clean in an effort to build on their impressive recent form of seven wins out of eight games. The defensive adaptabilities of Jay Dowie and Josh Bickerstaff enabled Burke to start with four nominally attacking players and, in recent weeks it was a plan that, much like Blackadder’s Baldrick had proved rather cunning.
Yet on the stroke of half time “The Pics” caught the Hitchin defence napping as they took the lead, leaving the Canaries with much to do in the second half. Perhaps the threat of relegation was not quite yet a thing of the past.
A stinging long-range drive from Galliford was palmed round the post by the Rushall goalkeeper before Jack Green gallivanted up from right-back to smash a rip-roaring shot against the post. This failure to balance the scoreline led to a double substitution, as Burke rolled the dice in an effort to restore parity. Striker Ezra Forde and another new signing Jay Bird (on loan from MK Dons) were introduced. The new loanee is a rapid winger and it is to be hoped that Hitchin fans will soon see Bird flying down the wing for the Canaries.
Any hopes of a comeback were dashed as centre-back Lewis Ferrell saw red from a rather pernickety referee, who seemed set on his desire to be the centre of attention. Referees cannot solely lose you games but they can certainly contribute to a loss and the performance of this particular arbitrator was somewhat disappointing.
After two games on the road Hitchin reacquainted themselves with Top Field with a stern test against Coalville – one of the league’s form teams. This fixture was originally due to be played in November but was cancelled and has been rescheduled twice due to Cup progress and inclement weather respectively. Happily, there were no such issues with the pitch as Top Field boasted a positively resplendent surface.
The Canaries began brightly with firm strikes from Galliford and Cain skimming narrowly wide. Goalkeeper Michael Johnson has had a strong connection with penalties in the past, but on this evening his involvement was a little less triumphant than his regular shootout saves, as he conceded a spot kick. Lady Luck smiled on Hitchin, however, as the spot-kick was dragged wide. Shall we put that down as another penalty “save”, MJ?
Diamonds were once again a girl’s best friend as manager Mark Burke opted for the diamond in midfield with Dowie anchoring and Galliford probing and creating at the tip.
In the second half Hitchin were awarded a free kick within striking distance. Up stepped the flamboyant Galliford to curve a looping effort right onto the apex of post and bar but, alas, the rebound was tipped over by the Coalville goalkeeper.
Hitchin increased the pressure and some nimble footwork from Forde created an opportunity for Cain to give the home side the lead. Forde is such a selfless player, he truly grafts for his team mates and, with 9 goals so far, his debut season has been particularly promising.
Forde was eventually substituted to a standing ovation from the home faithful in recognition of his sterling contribution. His replacement, Bird, almost made an immediate impact. The ball dropped in the Coalville penalty box and Bird swooped to snaffle the half-chance which was well saved.
Hitchin Town must have been doing something right as the normally polite and respectful home fans were heard singing! “Yellows, yellows!” they bellowed in unison. This was a clear sign that the team must be approved of.
Onto what had to be a “guaranteed three-pointer” at home to basement side Bedworth, and the Warwickshire side were bedecked in a sky blue strip with black shorts and socks á la the Uruguay national side. It did appear rather amateur that there was no discernible club badge or sponsor on the shirt, and the shirts and socks were also just plain unbranded black. It looked at first glance as if the players were schoolboys who had forgotten their PE kit and had to dip into lost property. What the kit lacked in professionalism it made up for in simplistic elegance. Simplicity sometimes is very much the key (or so I am told).
The Canaries were dealt a body blow with the news that Noah Chesmain had been recalled from his loan back to Colchester United. Chesmain has been consistently excellent and delivered performances of class all season long. Do not be surprised to see him at a club a tier or three higher in the near future (Noah has subsequently joined Hungerford Town at Step 2). His absence forced Bickerstaff into the left back slot and Bird came into midfield to provide some width.
Up against the rock-bottom side a win and a few goals was expected. The natives were restless! Bird it was who was pivotal in the Canaries’ opener, taking flight into the area and bustling past challenges before striking the crossbar. Draper was on hand to neatly tuck away the rebound. Would the floodgates now open?
Hitchin were unable to extend their lead in the first half, coming closest when a game of pinball ensued in the Bedworth penalty area. This culminated in the unfortunate Forde clipping the goalpost.
In the second half Hitchin were pegged back before restoring the advantage with a quite majestic strike from Max Ryan. Ryan cut in onto his left foot before unleashing a venomous volley into the bottom corner, and then celebrated with real gusto.
Galliford added a gloss to the scoreline with a delicate, dinking finish over the goalkeeper. Draper then mimicked Galliford with an almost identical finish to make it a handsome 4-1 victory.
With the team having accumulated a rather disappointing goal difference over the season, they should now be aiming to restore it to a positive total, whilst also aspiring to push on towards the top half of the table. With 10 wins out of the last 14, and relegation threatened St Neots at home to come, the Canaries certainly are flying once again.
BY NICK KELSALL