Hitchin Town’s season has taken somewhat of an upward turn in recent weeks, yet familiar weaknesses remain apparent in the team. The lack of goals scored has become something of an anathema with the club finding the net only fifteen times from fourteen league matches – the second least in the entire division.
Against Bromsgrove Sporting at home Hitchin were in the relatively luxurious position of naming five outfield substitutes for the first time in months, giving the squad a fortified look to it. Such impressions are important at non-league level, not only do supporters often complain when a full quota of subs are not named, it also shows signs of weakness to the opposition on deliverance of the team sheets.
This strength in depth was in stark comparison to recent weeks when two goalkeepers were named on the bench at Maidstone and at Barton. Whilst number 2 Josh Mollison must have been hopeful of keeping Charlie Horlock on his toes, number 3 Kieran Gordan-Stern must really have been twiddling his thumbs in the dug-out as the third goalkeeper in the match day squad!
Squad depth is so important at this time of the season with FA Trophy and Herts Senior Cup games on the horizon.
Hitchin have been boosted by the astute acquisition of attacking midfielder Alex Marsh from Biggleswade FC. Marsh is a real coup. Along with brother Lawrie he has driven BFC to successive promotions and is capable of excelling at a higher level. Canary fans must be patient as he has made a two league jump (three leagues from last season) but he should really be a key asset to the team, in terms of work rate, craft and goal scoring. Marsh demonstrated some of his potential in the first half when winning a penalty for the home side. Ben Walster it was who stepped up to the spot before sending the ball high into oblivion. A concerning statistic is the spate of spurious penalties missed by Hitchin recently. Six out of eight this season have been missed including the last four! It certainly isn’t one player’s fault as we have had six different spot kick takers this season, so it must be contagious!
Hitchin cashed in a little on luck as a Bromsgrove own goal equalised the match at 1-1 before The Canaries fell behind to a quite honestly world class second for Bromsgrove. It really was quality of the highest nature as the free-kick soared into the top left hand corner, leaving Horlock with no chance.
Hitchin were joyfully able to force home an equaliser in the 94th minute. Dan Webb levelled with a powerful header, pummelling the ball in at the back post. Webb scores such vital goals with real regularity for a centre-back. The stopper clearly has the goal scoring knack, as well as having a nose for sniffing out danger at the other end.
The 2-2 final result provided a valuable point against strong opposition but a win was needed if the Canaries are to climb the table and escape relation concerns. Happily, the Canaries attracted a healthy crowd of 633 spectators on Non-League Day, the most at a home league game for quite some time.
Next up on the menu was the tantalising A505 derby versus Royston at the historic Garden Walk. Hitchin started well with the triple attacking threat of Bradley Bell, Leon Okuboyejo and Marsh causing Royston’s defence all sorts of trouble behind the wily old dog Steve Cawley at number 9.
A goalkeeping blooper from the Crows’ number 1, who failed to punch clear a cross, set up Lewis Ferrell who swept in a left footed volley which nestled majestically into the back of the net.
As Okuboyejo entered the Royston box he was almost felled by an industrial challenge. “Oh no, the last thing we want is a penalty” grimaced assistant manager Brett Donnelly! Gallows humour at its finest.
From the touchline, the Hitchin coaching staff faced the catcalls of the Royston fans, whether it was Mark Burke being labelling “a four eyed” something or other or Donnelly being teased for his long hair, the away dug out in non-league football certainly can be a daunting place!
Jhai Dhillon sat deep in midfield and showed a super work rate and engine (to be expected for a young man who supplies fitness fuel as a day job). Dhillon kept the ball moving neatly and offered a composed presence in comparison to his midfield partner the rather more up’n’at’em Jay Dowie.
Hitchin were unfortunate when the woodwork denied first Cawley and in the second half Marsh as the away side pushed to extend their lead. A Royston red card for violent conduct epitomised their frustration at failing to gain a foothold in the game.
Things were going so swimmingly before a defensive mix up allowed Royston an equaliser and the illusive three points disappeared before Canary eyes. The result can be seen as two points dropped in the circumstances, with Hitchin 1-0 up against ten men, but perhaps this was a valuable away point against strong opposition.
Coalville Town at home presented a mammoth task as The Magpies lead the table. This was a potential baptism of fire for the (second) home debut of the returning Lewis Rolfe.
Yet the Canaries took the lead with a thumping finish from that man Webb with only a paltry four minutes on the clock. Once again Hitchin’s captain fantastic was to the rescue as the home side attempted to recover from the crushing 3-1 weekend loss to bottom side Leiston.
Last season Hitchin seemed to do better against the bigger sides, beating table toppers Stourbridge and Kings Lynn when they were flying high, could the same incongruous pattern be replicated here perhaps?
A brisk yet relatively mild October night greeted the visitors from Leicestershire who brought a hearty travelling contingent. And from a fan’s perspective what a joy it is to see the club return to Monday night as their chosen evening home fixture date from last season’s Wednesday. The Monday evening fixture, whilst undeniably tough on the players’ legs with only a 53 hour turnaround from Saturday, certainly does put Hitchin on the footballing map as it is most unusual to play a non-televised football fixture on a Monday instead of the usual Tuesday or Wednesday evening. This has been reflected in attendances as the club garnered an average of 392 fans on the Monday night matches during 2017-18, compared to 201 on average for their Wednesday night home matches last season.
Rolfe slotted into a holding midfield role with aplomb and, with the recent Canary returns to the nest of Rolfe and Walster, memory harks back to the glory days of the double play-off campaigns 2015-17. Whilst I am sure Hitchin supporters long for a similar return of such stellar names as Will Wright, Kane Smith and Matt Lench the team’s aims presently are a little more limited and the twin return of these club stalwarts can hopefully ensure continuity of Step 3 football at Top Field.
Lewis Barker showed some neat touches and nimble footwork in the centre of midfield. Barker was much missed in the Hitchin engine room during his recent three game suspension and he really does look the part out on the field with graceful strides and incisive forward passing.
Barker showed another side to his game in the second half as he crunched into a heavy challenge and was a touch fortunate to escape with a booking. After a recent three match ban and red card it’s safe to say the ex-Baldock Town midfielder certainly has a ‘presence’ on the field!
Hitchin had a second goal ruled out for offside and there were ambitious calls for VAR to be introduced to the Southern Premier Division Central!
After losing on the Saturday to a side who haven’t won all season in Leiston, Hitchin were able to respond in the remarkable manner of beating a team on Monday night who had not lost all season. Talk about a Jekyll and Hyde football team!
There is still plenty left to play for in numerous cup competitions as well as in the league where Hitchin now lie in sixteenth place in the twenty two team division. Mark Burke’s men will surely be relieved to be out of the relegation places as they aim to stride up the table.
BY NICK KELSALL