An indifferent start to the league campaign for Hitchin Town began to show signs of recovery with the visit of non-league behemoths AFC Rushden and Diamonds who were welcome visitors to Top Field. Diamonds had a prolonged spell as a Football League club around the turn of the century and regularly get attendances of 600+.
Top Field swelled with spectators and the attendance of 369 was a very commendable turn out for a Monday night.
The bespectacled Mark Burke manned the dug-out, cutting a rather studious look. I suppose someone has to be the intellectual in the Hitchin technical area with the rather more ‘rough and ready’ Brett Donnelly alongside him as coach!
Hitchin set up in a 3-5-2 formation, largely due to an injury crisis in attacking areas. Donnelly was joined on the treatment table by fellow forwards Harry Draper and James Verney. Left-back Jordan Norville-Williams had returned to Cambridge United after a promising loan spell.
With Josh Bickerstaff also absent (taking his place in the dug-out as a true club man), Jack Green filled in in central midfield. It has to be said Green is a footballing chameleon, able to change colour and fit into virtually any position with ease. The midfielder has comfortably transitioned into a highly capable right-back as well as playing right-wing, number 10 and now central midfield.
Up front 16 year old youth prospect Ross Hannah debuted and looked bright and lively. It was notable that he kept showing for the ball, displaying real courage for such a young chap, and also showed good mobility in the no 9 role.
Joe Gauge meanwhile formed part of a back three and sported the number 14 shirt. This allocation was rather incongruous, what with non league teams almost always beginning matches with numbers 1-11. Perhaps centre-back Gauge fancies himself as the next Johan Cryuff or Thierry Henry – such luminaries who donned the illustrious number.
Hitchin settled well and took the game to Rushden. Leon Okuboyejo is a natural box of tricks and showed nifty footwork when attacking their back line, finally mustering a shot on target.
All the good initial Hitchin work was almost undone on 30 minutes when Charlie Horlock was forced into a stunning reflex save, tipping over a header before a game of pinball ensued in the Hitchin area. Rushden were mightily unlucky not to go in front.
Max Ryan is another real asset to the club. Whether in central defence, right-back, or to my eyes his strongest position of central midfield, Ryan is able to assert his strength and physicality on the game with no little vision and ability to dictate proceedings with his passing. Ryan dominated the game from central midfield, displaying some of the qualities of an old fashioned ‘regista’ – able to sit in front of the back four and dictate the rhythm of the game with his passing.
The Rushden strip of claret and sky blue was pleasantly reminiscent of a West Ham or Aston Villa kit but lamentably caused a significant clash with the Hitchin goalkeeper kit of violet and white. Alas, the brave Canaries overcame this visual handicap and battled on to reach the break at 0-0.
After resilient and stout defending, Hitchin fell behind to the Diamonds as the away side’s relentless pressure began to tell. The Canaries did respond with attacking pressure and knocked and knocked at the Rushden door but their makeshift strike-force could not find any break through.
Horlock went on to make a remarkable save with his face, the ball cannoning into his forehead at point blank range. Yet it looked as though Hitchin would go home empty handed and their poor goal scoring record would undermine their efforts.
Then, out of no where, the Top Field atmosphere erupted. The jet heeled Okuboyejo raced through on goal and dribbled past the keeper before being upended. A penalty was given and it sent the crowd wild! Perhaps they haven’t seen much of Hitchin lately – what with many recent penalty misses including two in the previous match!
Yet Layne Eadie stepped up and rifled home left footed to break this particular penalty hoodoo. Top Field was bouncing as Burke gave a fist pump and a “flipping get in there” to the partisan crowd. At least I think that was what he said…
This sealed another excellent point for the Canaries. Despite a paltry points tally of four points (all gained by draws) the team undoubtedly has a few diamonds in the rough.
What followed was a bumper away crowd for the local derby versus Barton Rovers, as Hitchin’s FA Cup journey continued.
Bickerstaff returned to the fold and slotted into a back three. He donned his favourite jersey of number 11 and something about the number 11 shirt on a centre-back is a little unsettling. Or maybe that’s my over-sensitivity!
At the other end of the pitch, the vivacious Hannah started once again up front in another youthful strike force. On queuing at the turnstiles it was overheard that Hannah had “just finished year 11”. Such schoolboy terminology really is a stark reminder of the tender age of the young forward and how well he has done to lead the line for the Canaries’ senior team.
Conor Vincent began the game up top for Barton. The ex canary who has flown the nest enjoyed a fruitful 2017/18 season for Hitchin and it was disappointing he chose to depart the club.
From the terraces at Sharpenhoe Road it was a resounding thumbs up from the home supporters. “OMG look how sick the Hitchin fans are! They’ve got flags and everything!” Muttered one young fan in recognition of the Canary fans’ choreography… #HitchinUltras.
Direct running from fleet footed Okuboyejo procured a foul and yellow card from the rather less fast Barton left-back who looked a little portly.
On the cusp of half time Lewis Ferrell the tub-thumping bulldozer of a centre-half stood over a free-kick by the Barton corner flag. Why was our tall and aerially dominant centre-back taking a free-kick in such a promising attacking area? Wouldn’t we be better served with him in the box to meet the cross? Before this thought had even been committed to paper, Ferrell swept in a majestic delivery that Green flicked on nonchalantly before Lewis Barker converted the rebound. This proved once more how very little I know!
Hitchin saw out the Barton match to progress to the FA Cup third qualifying round and rekindle memories of last season’s epic journey in the competition.
The home fixture against Stratford Town presented the team with a real opportunity to notch up their first league win of the season, and it began in jubilant fashion. Steve Cawley’s third minute penalty was our sixth already this season in all competitions (four scored) – no one can say we haven’t had any assistance from the men in black!
After the initial spot kick was saved the rebound was clinically despatched by the veteran forward, who is already making an impression since his loan acquisition from Hemel Hempstead.
New signing from Cambridge City, Bradley Bell, showed some real promise in the Stratford match. Having seen him impress at Biggleswade Town last term, Bell is capable of electric wing play from either flank and is also a potent goal threat. Bell did well at The Waders and has been joined at Hitchin by another former Wader in left-back Ben Walster. Walster, as Canaries fans know from his previous tenure at the club, has a fantastic left peg and is capable of assists from corners and set pieces, as well as being no mean defender.
Hitchin reached the relative comfort blanket of 2-0 and the second goal came from the ever dependable captain Dan Webb. Walster notched an assist on his return to the Canaries, firing a handsome cross onto Webb’s head to seal the maiden league victory.
With only 6 league points, the Canaries have had little to sing about thus far, but with this recent victory and the tantalising prospect of the FA Cup run to spur the club on, hope springs eternal. In Bell, Walster and fellow new signing Jhai Dhillon, Hitchin Town have fortified the ranks and go into the FA Cup third qualifying round away to Maidstone this Saturday on a real high.
BY NICK KELSALL