Damp it may have been, but Hitchin continue to surprise

Tempers fray at Hitchin Road
Tempers fray at Hitchin Road

August Bank Holiday games are often a let-down, especially if the elements decide to upset the final public holiday of the summer. As local derbies go, Arlesey Town v Hitchin Town was as flat as day-old lager, with the incessant rain keeping the crowd to a disappointing 343.

It was only last season that Arlesey sent Hitchin tumbling out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle. The local rivalry between the two clubs simmered – sometimes unhealthily – for a few years, peaking with the infamous final day Southern League Central Division title decider in 2011. More than adequately resourced, Arlesey often outshone their neighbours across the border in Hertfordshire. In 2013-14, only four points separated the two sides, with Hitchin in 13th place and Arlesey in 15th.

While the local football grapevine suggested that Arlesey would struggle in 2014-15, Hitchin went into the new campaign with a strange sense of optimism founded on finishing 13th for the second season running and a seven point swing.

The optimism was not without foundation, however. Hitchin are now enjoying their best Southern League Premier start to a season. At that level, they have only equalled their current haul of four wins and a draw from six games four times in the past 20-plus years (1993-94, 2000-01, 2005-06 and 2011-12).

The transient nature of non-league football is underlined by the current Hitchin line-up. For various reasons, only five of the team that started the Canaries final league game of 2013-14 kicked off against Arlesey Town. Manager Mark Burke lost his captain, the precocious Callum Donnelly, to Cambridge City, the new default destination for Hitchin players wanting to move up a notch, but in return, he brought back the talented Robbie Burns from the same club. Another Donnelly returned to the club in the form of Brett, Callum’s elder brother.

Matt Lench, one for a higher step?
Matt Lench, one for a higher step?

Brett Donnelly’s second coming was something of a surprise. His first spell had scarcely been successful and was punctuated by disciplinary problems. But he had matured away from Top Field and walked back into the Fishponds Road dressing room claiming he had “unfinished business” with his home town club. He certainly looks a more focused player six years on from the start of his first stint.

Hitchin’s other close season capture of note was Jonny McNamara, a “will o the wisp” player who makes up for his lack of height with tenacity. Like Donnelly, he is a former Arlesey man.

With the exception of Donnelly and the veteran Simon Martin, Hitchin have a young, high-energy team that appears to train on Red Bull. Raw talent like Lewis Rolfe, Sam Barker and Matt Lench all performed well in 2013-14 and they are all expected to continue improving. Of the three, Lench could well be the next Hitchin player to try his luck at the next level. Still only 21, he impresses with his positive approach and he also has an eye for goal. He’s a valuable asset that could earn the Canaries some money.

Hitchin wasted no time in taking control against Arlesey. With less than two minutes gone, McNamara was brought down in the area by Arlesey goalkeeper Alex Tokarczyk and Rolfe slotted the penalty confidently into the net. Before the home side could draw breath, Hitchin extended their lead in the eighth minute, Lench shooting into the bottom corner after neat approach work involving Barker and Donnelly.

With Arlesey’s confidence fragile, Hitchin could have buried them if their finishing had been more accurate. By the interval, though, the pace had dropped and Arlesey came out in the second period with a little more energy and aggression. They had plenty of possession, but rarely troubled Johnson in the Hitchin goal. A late effort by Kameron English was the closest they came to scoring.

The passion that had been somewhat thwarted by the weather came to the fore in the closing minutes. A tackle involving Harry Carr and Michael King boiled over and sparked some posturing from a number of players. Strangely, Carr avoided any punishment, but King (lucky to stay on the pitch) and Andre Maltay were both yellow-carded. The referee was very vocal in saying he did not have the “full picture”.

Hitchin were comfortable winners and should, on the evidence of this performance, better their 13th place of last season. As for Arlesey, it may be a long winter, but in non-league football, things change quickly, as the regulars at Hitchin Road will testify.

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