After four consecutive wins towards the end of 2018, Hitchin Town entered a challenging run of fixtures against strong opponents with their tails up. Yet, one by one, Hitchin were defeated in a tough period against ruthless opponents who put the Canaries to the sword.
The away clash at Kettering Town presented Hitchin with a mighty blow as talisman Matt Lench had been recalled from his loan spell from Wealdstone. This was not surprising given his fine form for the Canaries but it was inopportune, nonetheless. Lench’s position on the left flank was occupied by a capable replacement in Alfie Cue. Cue showed fine fleet of foot, flummoxing the Kettering defenders on the left flank as Hitchin took the game to the league leaders in the opening exchanges.
What was most striking about Kettering’s Latimer Park was the lack of character of the venue. It reminded me how lucky we are to enjoy the historic Top Field ground. In Hitchin, the classical wooden stands are surrounded by copious mature trees. By stark contrast the Kettering game was played on a bog of a pitch compared to the largely pristine playing surface at SG5.
In this fixture, the Canaries battled manfully on the swampland surface but fell behind to a wonder-strike that was unstoppable even for the elastic reflexes of goalkeeper Michael Johnson. The second goal for The Poppies was even more spectacular, the thunderous strike defeating Johnson from fully 30 yards.
The dodgy surface played it’s part in Hitchin’s struggle to assert a foothold in the game – quite literally as the cabbage patch of a pitch led to Jay Dowie losing his footing and farcically writhing around like a fish out of water, desperately scrambling to regain his balance. The turf was like quicksand and consumed Hitchin players as the game ran away from them.
The rugged presence of Matt Nolan was introduced from the bench as Hitchin went with 2 up front. Quite clearly this was not a game for pretty passes and the introduction of the broad target man Nolan alongside Ezra Forde made sense. Within a minute of Nolan’s introduction, Kettering hit a third and the match was over as a contest. This was a bridge too far for the resurgent Hitchin team who had come into the fixture on the back of four commanding wins. The result was sealed with fourth and fifth crushing Kettering goals from clear penalties.
Onto the huge Boxing Day derby clash with Biggleswade Town and the Canaries took the game to the Waders in the opening exchanges of the Bird Derby. Brett Donnelly took his place on the Waders’ bench, happy to play the role of pantomime villain, playing along with the catcalls from the partisan Top Field terraces. “Shall we have a count up of the match balls before he leaves?” piped up one Hitchin fan “He’s a Westmill boy ain’t he?!” This jocular atmosphere was taken in great spirit by Donnelly who indulged the Hitchin fans’ ribbing. What a shame we have lost his larger-than-life personality at the club.
The Waders had 5 ex-Canaries in their squad, all of whom had points to prove. It was clear that this fixture meant something more than the 3 points on offer. Pantomime aside, Hitchin held their own against the play-off contenders as Cue spun 360° and fired a dipping, swerving shot that sunk narrowly wide.
With the presence of so many ex-Canaries, it felt almost inevitable that there would be a sting in the tail of one of the homecoming players and, true enough, in the second half Liam Brooks struck the opener for the Waders. How cruelly ironic that it was Brooks biting the hand that once fed him, as he held his finger to his lips mimicking a “shh” to silence the rampant home crowd of 693.
The presence on the Hitchin bench of 4 youngsters who had been out on loan was slightly alarming as it indicated the scarcity of senior options for manager Mark Burke when looking to change the game. Josh Mollison, Dessie DaSilva, Craig Packham and Kieran Barnes made up the bench and none of the youngsters were called upon, leaving a feeling that Burke had his hands tied somewhat. These players have all shown promise, particularly DaSilva with 11 goals on loan at Stotfold, but the club will be in a better position with some new signings to bolster the ranks. Hopefully new acquisition Max Ryan can provide some vital squad depth.
On the upside, new signing Moses Olanrewaju looked bright. Although he appears to be king of the step-over, Moses was unable to a cause a parting of the sea in the Biggleswade defence. Brooks was once again the tormentor, winning a penalty that was despatched for a 2-0 victory for the away side.
The last game of 2018 and Needham Market were the visitors to Top Field. Moses was handed a starting shirt this time around, and he became somewhat of a have-a-go-hero with numerous shots from outside the box. Whilst none directly troubled the Suffolk side’s goalkeeper it is pleasing to witness someone with the confidence to have a strike from distance. In the modern game where possession based football is very much in vogue, it is often overlooked just how bountiful deflections and rebounds can be in the hunt for goals.
After knocking on the door several times, Needham Market struck just before half time. Surely this would not be a repeat of the 8-1 hammering in August would it?
The Canaries gravely missed the presence of Isaac Galliford in the number 10 role. Despite the able deputisation of Michael Cain, who was moved centrally from his normal wide-right position to cover for Galliford, some creativity was certainly missing from the side. Needham Market struck a second and with this third defeat in a row, the halcyon days of 4 consecutive wins in November and December suddenly seemed like an eternity ago!
It was to get with worse with a late sucker-punch goal defeating Hitchin on the road to Royston once again, before a fine performance at home to Rushden & Diamonds was tarnished with two late goals conceded. 3-2 up transformed into a 4-3 loss with 89th and 93rd minute goals for Diamonds leaving Hitchin fans lower than snakes’ bellies.
Why is the team conceding so many goals this season? On paper the defence looks solid. The goalkeeper Johnson is without question one of the best in the division, and captain Dan Webb is still the consummate leader and defensive pillar he has always been. Lewis Ferrell appears to be Webb’s equal in terms of leadership and solidity and left-back Noah Chesmain has been a real coup on loan from Colchester United. We have been most unlucky with injuries at right-back, but overall the individuals would appear to be capable of at least a mid-table finish so perhaps it is more of a team organisation problem or, more likely, lack of confidence amongst the ranks. With this in mind, the players need our support now more than ever.
The away trip to St Ives presented a tangible opportunity for those all-elusive 3 points – a mid-table team who we had already recently defeated 1-0 at home last month. And the Canaries began the game with intent. Excellent interplay between Cain and Chesmain was finished off with a cute strike by Galliford into the bottom corner.
The move began with the effervescent Nolan exhibiting good hold up play and wise passing. Nolan is a wily old dog of a centre forward and has been there and got the t-shirt many times before. His selection over the more raw Forde as the spearhead of the Hitchin attack looked to be a smart move from Mark Burke.
The first half was a strong display form the boys in yellow and green with that man Galliford yet again at the forefront of proceedings. When Galliford gets going he is like a steam train and no Southern League defender can stop this locomotive. His dribbling skills and close control really are remarkable for a player at this level.
After such a positive first period, the Canaries were once again responsible for a highly lamentable second half collapse. The equaliser from St Ives came from sloppy marking and 1 soon became 2 as the Huntingdonshire side took the lead. Both goals were conceded from set pieces which made mincemeat of the Hitchin defence all too easily.
After the late collapse against Rushden it does beg the question as to why this Hitchin side cannot seem to hold onto a lead. After 6 successive defeats the team face an undeniable relegation dogfight. There is a further run of tough looking fixtures until the end of January, which we could still take points from. But after this, looking at the league positions of future opponents, there are some winnable matches against the likes of Tamworth, Barwell and Rushall. This more gentle string of games must be capitalised on if we are not to sink to the doldrums of Step 4 football next season.
Unquestionably all Canary fans want the same thing – success on the field. Yet at a time such as this when the team is really struggling, the players need nothing more than a united fan base. Non-league football is about so much more than on-field success such as camaraderie, banter and local community spirit. If we all unite to support the club we love then the team has the best chance of escaping this relegation nightmare.
BY NICK KELSALL