Staying in their comfort zones – Hitchin v Arlesey, FA Cup 1QR

How do we get past Frater?
How do we get past Frater?

When the FA Cup draw was made in the summer, the first qualifying round threw up an intriguiong local derby in the form of Hitchin Town v Arlesey Town. The two clubs are a £2 bus ride away from each other or one stop of the First Capital Connect route north. There is also some bitter recent rivalry between the two of them, largely due to the two-way trafficing of players and an unsavoury incident at the end of 2010-11 season when Arlesey and Hitchin were going neck-and-neck for the Southern League Central Division title.

Since 2011, Arlesey have had the better of things, finishing just outside the play-offs and winning the League Cup as well as enjoying a fine FA Cup run in 2012-13 that ended at Coventry. While Hitchin struggled for much of last season, their neighbours had one of their best-ever campaigns. What’s more, the Southern League rumour mill passed on Chinese whispers around Arlesey’s playing budget, which got bigger with each subsequent whisper. The contrast between the two clubs couldn’t be more striking: Hitchin have excellent support but are prudent in their outlook; while Arlesey are the original “noisy neighbours” but cannot attract the crowd to match their ambition.

The summer was one of change for both clubs. Hitchin manager Carl Williams resigned after the final game of 2012-13 and the club turned to his number two, Mark Burke. Up the road at Arlesey, benefactor Gary King left the club, amid rumours he was bound for Hitchin. With King gone, the expensive twin striking force of Drew Roberts and Chris Dillon also departed. In addition, Burke pulled off a coup at Hitchin in persuading Ryan Frater – a former Hitchin youth product – to return from Arlesey.

With Hitchin rebuilding under Burke, Frater was seen as a pivotal figure in that process, especially as prolific and talismanic forward John Frendo had left for St. Albans. Arlesey had also lost a huge chunk of their squad. So, two clubs in transition. But then, on the eve of the season and following a poor summer, Frater decided to rejoin Arlesey. This left a bitter taste in the mouths of Hitchin supporters and Frater, long considered to be a decent fellow who had not forgotten the club that nurtured him, probably severed all ties with Hitchin for good.

The chance for Hitchin fans to show what they thought of Frater’s behaviour soon came, with the two clubs meeting on Bank Holiday Monday at Top Field, Hitchin’s tired but homely stadium. Hitchin won much more comfortably than  the 1-0 scoreline suggested. The win represented a good start for Burke, with three wins out of four games.

Long faces as Arlesey go ahead
Long faces as Arlesey go ahead

Psychologically, it also put Hitchin in good shape for the FA Cup tie. But Arlesey picked up two wins after the league defeat and were higher in the table, thanks to Hitchin drawing three games in  a row. That said, Hitchin’s young side had impressed everyone with its smooth, flowing football and energy. “It’s the best football I have seen us play for years,” said club owner and former manager, Andy Melvin before the game.

But there were some blows to Hitchin’s hopes in the day or two before the FA Cup tie. For a start, centre half Alasan Ann had been lured away to St.Neots where he will line-up as a forward. Ann had been impressive at the back, but in his previous spell with Hitchin, had not been so effective as a striker. Simon Martin, who joined the club in the summer, was on the bench recovering from injury and promising defender Stuart Pearson was sidelined.

The game itself was fast and furious at times, but it lacked the edge of previous local derbies with Arlesey. Hitchin opened well, with Rogan McGeorge – a player who seems to get better and better with every game – expelling lots of energy. But it was Arlesey that took the lead in the 14th minute, a long ball by Sam Pemberton running kindly for Andrew Osei-Siribour and he outpaced and outmuscled the Hitchin defence to shoot home past Tahj Bell. It was Arlesey’s first attack of note and was clearly against the run of play.

The goal caused a bit of anxiety in the stands – the FA Cup is important to clubs like Hitchin and going out early can have an impact on budgetary planning. Two seasons ago, they went out of the competition cheaply at Waltham Forest and memories of shock exits at the hands of Molesey and Beaconsfield – to name but two – are still fresh in Fishponds Road.

But Hitchin didn’t have to fret for long, eight minutes to be precise, as Michael King shot past Arlesey keeper Nathan Abbey – whose frame belies his agility – after good work by Callum Donnelly.

Hitchin could have regained the lead through King on a couple of occasions, and Osei-Siribour struck the side-netting from close range, but the game petered out in the second half.

While Hitchin had more possession, Arlesey were dangerous on the counter with Jonny McNamara impressing with his busy running and trickery. In the final seconds, Hitchin’s Robbie Burns saw his shot deflected for a corner by the rump – although the appeals were for handball – of Frater.

So it ended 1-1 and the two clubs meet again on September 17. A bit more fire in the bellies from both clubs should make for a more interesting tie – this one never really caught fire despite early promise. It will be a close-run thing, but Hitchin’s youngsters will not be intimidated by the short journey to Arlesey – there will be another near-500 crowd of which a large percentage will come from Hitchin.

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