We’re delighted to welcome Nick Kelsall’s popular blog back to the Canaries website. Thanks again for your efforts Nick, here’s part one…

As England basked in a mid-summer heat wave, Hitchin Town continued their pre-season preparations in earnest with a 5-1 victory away to Pitstone & Ivinghoe.

I must concede that I had never heard of the Buckinghamshire side, or either of their two villages combined to form the football side. Yet this unfamiliarity did not detract from what was a picturesque journey to the club, nestled at the foot of the sweeping landscape of the Chiltern Hills. Despite getting severely lost more than once en route, the voyage was made more tolerable by the novelty of Pitstone being located right next to Whipsnade Zoo. As I passed the penguin enclosure I winced as to how they were coping in the roasting temperatures.

The Pitsone & Ivinghoe “Tea bar” bore more of a resemblance to someone’s garage, with just a trestle-top table and a kettle as ornaments. This really was non-league. A charming chap made me a cup of tea while I waited in the deserted area. Awkward small talk ensued as the kettle took an eternity to boil!

On the hottest day since records began with the mercury reaching 38°C, Mark Burke assembled a squad featuring numerous trialists. For the Canaries, it really was a midsummer night’s dream as they cruised to a 5-0 lead before an uncharacteristic error from normally rock solid goalkeeper Josh Mollison led to the Pitstone & Ivinghoe opener.

As the game progressed, Kieran Barnes showed superb nimble footwork by in the no 10 role. After numerous loans at Stotfold and Baldock (winning player of the season last year), I began to think that could this be Barnes’ real breakthrough season for his parent club Hitchin. He has since been playing for Biggleswade FC, however, so is perhaps once again cast aside on loan for the season. Shows what I know!
Taishan Griffiths looks fleet of foot at left-back. The ex Biggleswade FC defender comes from a club renowned locally for producing reels of talented young players. After the loss of Noah Chesmain there are certainly big shoes to fill in the number 3 shirt.

Joe Gauge, also hailing from Biggleswade although this time United, has all the hallmarks of a natural centre half. Tall, dominant in the air and very vocal, Gauge has the innate characteristics of a commanding centre back.

The opening friendly marked a brace for James Verney – his second in three days as the centre forward exhibited his razor sharp finishing and poacher’s instinct. This striker bares more than a phonetic resemblance to the Leicester and England striker Jamie Vardy, both certainly have an eye for the net.
All in all this was a convincing win against opposition three rungs below. Hitchin appeared to cope better than their opponents with the stifling, oppressive heat.

Canary fans were blessed with a decidedly different climate in the next friendly at home to an Arsenal XI. Gone was the heat and humidity, to be replaced with a far more familiar deluge of rain and cloud. There really is nothing quite like the predictability of the British summer.

Top Field creaked under the weight of a bumper attendance and 654 spectators made their way through the old turnstiles. And the home fans were almost treated to an early goal, yet new signing Mo Ahmed dilly dallied when presented with an opportunity to open the scoring.

The first half featured copious strong and accurate deliveries from Charlie Hayford on set-pieces. Hayford is a classy player, able to both hold the midfield and spray forward passes across the turf. With a background in the Tottenham academy, today really was a grudge match for the hair-band sporting Hayford.

Star centre forward Harry Draper tested Arsenal goalkeeper Tom Smith. Smith, the Stevenage local boy, desperately scrambling Draper’s shot out from over the line. Draper again showed the proverbial good feet for a big man and fired narrowly over with his weaker left foot.

Apologies for the cliché, but this really was a game of two halves, as Arsenal took the lead straight after the break. This was before the refined Max Ryan elicited a sublime piece of skill, turning on a 6 pence and floating a swerving shot which cannoned onto the post. Moments later Draper equalised showing his customary penalty-box predatory instinct

Draper’s acquisition on a season long loan from neighbours Stevenage is a real coup for Burke, as the forward looks to build on his superb form on loan last season. He really excelled at Top Field, netting 4 times, before a slightly less successful loan spell at Biggleswade Town. The returning Brett Donnelly has perhaps coaxed Draper back to the canary’s nest to spearhead the attack of this new Hitchin side.
Onto Bedford Town and Hitchin were reacquainted once more with another Donnelly. This time they faced the combative and incisive midfielder, Callum. Donnelly received his customary yellow card in the first half but his fire and will to win is much missed at Top Field.

Hitchin rather surrendered to their Southern League Central Division 1 opponents. The Canaries were 0-2 down at half time and fell to 4 goal deficit with very little in the way of defiance.

The poor afternoon’s work was summarised by Lewis Ferrell’s late red card. The best that can said is that it would surely have been a good workout for this Hitchin side, chasing shadows in the heat and humidity of early August. Bedford made the play-offs last season so are certainly strong opponents, but the manner of the lamentable defeat was disappointing.

It was onwards & upwards, and into another local derby versus Biggleswade FC – a satellite club formed from Biggleswade Town’s youth team. This was Hitchin’s final preseason friendly and a chance for Burke to hone his starting eleven for the ensuing league campaign.

There was a regrettable late withdrawal as key man Jack Green was replaced through injury before kick-off. This is a mighty blow before the first league fixture and it is to be hoped that Green can recover soon.
Hitchin fell behind after the opening goal for Biggleswade, and struggled to get a foothold in the match. It must be said that with so many new faces every new season at non-league level, it cannot be easy for a manager to formulate a system so quickly that all the players can adjust to.

The talismanic Draper was key in the build up to Hitchin’s equaliser, a superbly weighted pass to the jet-heeled Leon Okuboyejo who set up Charlie Thake for an adept finish. Draper’s delicate pass was expertly placed with finesse radiating from a player from a higher, professional level.

At times, Thake had to fill in to wide areas and these are parts of the football field with which he is not particularly comfortable. Yet when given a sight of goal he is clinical and his is finishing lethal. Thake holds the ball up valiantly and has a hammer of a left foot.

Centre-back Gauge was excellent in the air once again and composed in possession. He is a real diamond in the rough that Burke and his coaching staff must polish into the cultured centre half that his potential promises. With central defensive rocks Dan Webb and Ferrell signed up for a other season, if Gauge continues his development could Burke elect for a defence with three centre halves in a 3-5-2 system perhaps? With the absence of an established left-back this could well be food for thought moving forward.

After a pre-season that also saw commendable results with a narrow 3-2 loss against Wealdstone and a 2-0 victory against Arlesey Town, Mark Burke has many decisions to make ahead of the new league campaign.

With a fiercely contested and narrow loss to league favourites Stourbridge on opening day, Hitchin showed true mettle to banish last season’s horrendous 8-1 loss away to Needham Market. The Canaries came away from Suffolk with a point and a 1-1 draw, giving a glimpse of a Hitchin side with perhaps a little more backbone this season. Some of this good work was undone with a disappointing 5-0 loss away to Alvechurch. Perhaps the team have now found a new bogey side to replace Needham Market!

With plenty a long season ahead there is plenty to play for and the recent promising loan acquisitions of forward Jay Bird (MK Dons) and left-back Jordan Norville-Williams (Cambridge United), it is to be hoped that The Canaries are once again flying high.

Here’s to a successful season!

BY NICK KELSALL