Here is the latest instalment of Nick Kelsall’s wonderful View from the Terraces, written prior to Wednesday’s win over St Ives Town.
Hitchin’s season has taken a turn for the better in recent weeks, with the Canaries recording 3 successive league wins for the first time in over a year, as they sought to escape the vice-like grip that the relegation zone has held them in all season and rise to mid-table.
Before the match against Barwell, torrential downpours gave way to bright winter sunshine. The slick Top Field surface glistened in the dying December light as the players emerged onto the grass.
The inclusion of the talismanic Matt Lench, who started once again for Hitchin, provided a boost for all attending the match. Lench’s presence on the team-sheet was a galvanising reminder to Canary fans of successful past times and two successive play-off campaigns.
Recent signing Matt Nolan took his place on the bench. Nolan is a muscular, rugged presence who is sure to unsettle defences – a prerequisite for attackers at this level. Even from the sidelines he made an impact whilst warming up as his booming voice could be heard cajoling and encouraging his younger teammates.
With the regrettable long-term absence of Macsen Fraser, Jack Green filled in at right-back. Green who is much more comfortable further up the flank, showed his versatility and tigerish commitment to the cause by playing out of position. He acquitted himself rather well in unfamiliar surroundings, biting into tackles and gallivanting forward with support runs as and when required. Green is quick and nimble, enabling him not to be easily turned, and he also possess the natural attacking instincts that are so vital to full-backs in the modern game. If players can comfortably operate in multiple positions, they swiftly become a really useful asset at this level with such limited resources and small squads.
Mark Burke’s side set up in a 4-1-4-1 system with Jay Dowie and Josh Bickerstaff forming a double pivot at the base of the midfield. The security provided by these two nominally defensive players allows Isaac Galliford a free role in the number 10 spot, able to pick passes at will and unleash his venomous shot. Galliford is free to roam where he wants in this position, demanding the ball and fully able to dictate the play.
Galliford it was who was able to cunningly beat Barwell’s offside trap and cutely cut the ball back to Michael Cain who finished high into the roof of the net for the Hitchin opener. Finally there was a platform from which to build for this Hitchin side with such fragile recent confidence. Galliford was playing a big part in the resurgence. He is a Rolls Royce of a player who, in full flow, glides past opponents effortlessly.
The Canaries may have begun the game 8 points from safety but here, buoyed on by a partisan crowd, they looked ravenous. With Lench and Galliford spraying the ball at will to mobile, powerful runners in Cain and Ezra Forde, Hitchin finally resembled the potent attacking threat that Canary fans wistfully remember.
Another goal would inevitably quell any lingering doubt and it surely arrived. Galliford once again was the creator in chief, and his deep corner was met by the robust boot of Bickerstaff at the far post. It may sound complacent, when describing a team that shipped 8 at Needham Market, but this two goal lead immediately seemed insurmountable – such was Hitchin’s assuredness in their play.
A word for Forde, the number 9 who in recent months has ploughed a lone furrow up front in a team which is not particularly creative and has certainly been bereft of confidence. Never once has his head dropped and his work rate has remained undiminished. It would be pleasing if Forde was able to notch a couple of goals which would provide the gloss that his industry merits. His low shot cannoned off the Barwell post in the second half, in a further reminder that the forward has great potential but just needs a touch more belief in front of goal.
In the Herts Senior Cup tie with Hemel Hempstead there was a rarity in the Hitchin line-up – a completely unchanged XI. Hemel fielded a side which boasted numerous players with vast experience of League football. The squad featured the likes of Darren Ward (ex Palace & Millwall), Ismail Yakubu (Barnet), Rob Sinclair (Stevenage), as well as the ex-Arsenal forward Sanchez Watt and our own former stalwart Matt Spring who were on the touchline. One thing was for sure, The Tudors were full of pedigree and we would be in for a tough contest.
The most significant moment in the opening exchanges was the rather comical scene where Matt Lench came dashing over to the bench to have a word with the Hitchin technical staff. What was wrong? Was it a tactical issue Lench had noticed with the team’s set up, or had he suffered an injury that required attention? No no, it soon became clear as Lench approached the physio that he had lost his hair band and required a replacement immediately. The last thing we needed was his lion-like locks interfering with his vision and detracting from his fine play. Hair band substitution complete, the match resumed and Hitchin competed well with the National League South opponents.
The midfield pairing of Dowie and Bickerstaff remained solid, if lacking a little in dynamism. It was slightly surprising that the cultured midfielder Danny Talbot was not introduced sooner. Talbot, who holds the role of Senior European Scout at Fulham, is unable to play most matches due to work commitments so it seemed sensible to utilise his talents in this midweek fixture. Particularly once Hitchin lost Lench through injury, although the errant hair accessory cannot be blamed on this occasion. Lench had succumbed to a hip complaint.
The Canaries shaded the second half against Hemel. The gazelle-like paced of Galliford regularly left defenders for dust, and his mesmeric footwork really can be a work of art. And so it was to the lottery of a penalty shoot out – a roulette wheel that has been rather fruitful for Hitchin in recent campaigns. Having missed the first two spot kicks, The Canaries were left with a mountain so steep to climb that even Michael Johnson’s cat-like reflexes could not surmount it. Overall, however, a 0-0 draw with a side mid-table in the league above is not to be sniffed at.
Onto the Royston away Southern League Cup replayed fixture, and on arrival (15 minutes late) full of hope and anticipation at the turnstile I enquired as to the scoreline. 0-0 was it, game just settling down and all to play for? No, I was told by the helpful steward, Royston were already 2-0 up. Well that well and truly burst my bubble! Can I have my money back??
Hitchin were somewhat overwhelmed by Royston in falling 2 goals behind (I imagine) at the Crows’ quaint Garden Walk. Yet The Canaries pressed on as they sought to resurrect their cup ambitions.
Galliford showed his immense frustration at the scoreline by booting the ball into touch. At times, he I really is a class above this level in his play, as evidenced by his buccaneering run to assist Forde who made it 2-1, and his swerving free kick that cannoned off the crossbar. Galliford was on the mark once again with another masterful set-piece delivery for Bickerstaff to net with a header.
Loan-signing Alfie Cue looks to have a sweet left foot and low centre of gravity. His recent arrival provides Hitchin with some much needed width. The man from Dartford has arrived right on cue after the rather puzzling departures of wingers Patrick Tshikala and Trey Charles. After Charles’s underuse at The Canaries and exit to Bedford Town, Cue’s width and pace could become vital to the team’s forward progression.
With Galliford driving Hitchin forward, Scott Belgrove was able to equalise. 3-3 and The Canaries were not lying down easily. Hitchin’s season and any chances of tangible cup success hung on a thin precipice. They continued to dominate the second half with sweeping attacking moves then, out of nowhere, succumbed to a Royston sucker-punch goal. The Canaries duly exited the Cup that they so manfully triumphed in last season. All that seemed left to play for was stabilisation in the league table and a distant prospect of the Herts Charity Cup.
Yet in the relegation 6-pointer against Halesowen, any negativity was blown away in a commanding performance and 5-1 victory. Hitchin overcame their opponents and the conditions as it battered it down with rain and wind. 207 hardy souls, gluttons for punishment, braved the elements which led to the comical sight of the away goalkeeper’s goal-kick barely leaving his own area, before being headed back into his damp gloves from his own centre back. Talk about failing to clear your lines!
Throughout the first half, the storm that descended on Top Field was almost biblical in nature, as Halesowen took the lead. Cain and Galliford strived to combine as Hitchin attacked the uncovered Bedford Road end which contained just the one (presumably amphibious) soaked spectator. As Forde scrambled in a scrappy finish to equalise, the ball was almost exclusively in Halesowen’s defensive third. This was partly due to Hitchin’s attacking drive but primarily due to physics – each time the ball was pumped forward from the away goalkeeper or defender it literally would not clear the half way line, such was the ferocity of the wind.
With such uneven playing conditions, it seemed as though Hitchin would need to capitalise before the half time changing of ends and the second goal duly arrived. Cain displayed the nimble feet of a ballerina, dancing through Halesowen challenges before despatching high into the roof of the net. This was more like it from the Canaries.
In the second half the comical goal-kicks reconvened. This time it was Hitchin custodian Johnson on the receiving end of Mother Nature – the gusts hemming in his intended clearances and temporarily causing chaos in the Canaries’ defence.
Galliford got on the end of a slick passing move to extend the lead, finishing substitute Lench’s cut-back. Forde then netted his brace, squeezing in at the near post, before an own goal put a gloss on the final score of 5-1.
Hitchin were rampant and imbued with belief from the good recent run as they continually troubled the Halesowen keeper in his garish hot-pink jersey. This is the sort of momentum required building up to a huge run of fixtures over the festive period. With title favourites Kettering away on Saturday, followed by local derbies against Biggleswade and Royston there is plenty for the boys in yellow and green to fight for. The local contest against Biggleswade in particular is a massive game, as The Waders boast 5 ex-Canaries in their squad including the returning fans’ favourite Brett Donnelly. Sparks are sure to fly and it is with great delight that I report that the Canaries are also now airborne.