FA CUP DEFEATS can be hard to take, especially when you realise that £7,500 in prize money has gone astray. Grass roots football depends on such financial rewards to make a club’s season worthwhile. When you’re in the FA Cup, it helps retain enthusiasm and dangles the carrot of expectation. But when it goes wrong, it can be like taking a cold shower on a damp autumn afternoon – or a month of miserable Sundays.
A week ago, Enfield Town and Hitchin Town had fought out a 0-0 draw, setting-up a replay on Monday night at Hitchin’s ancient and cherishedTop Field home. Not for the first time, Hitchin lost a Monday night replay, raising questions about the suitability of a big game just 48 hours after the first meeting. With no time to prepare and little time to publicise, Hitchin had a replay crowd of only 486, some 400 less than the game at Enfield. What’s more, they looked tired and, according to supporters at the game, “didn’t want it as much as Enfield”. The result: Hitchin 1 Enfield 2. Another dream fades with just one more game before the first round proper.
The visitors had pace and audacity
Hitchin have never gone so long without a run to the first round. The last FA Cup sojourn of note was in 1995-96, 20 years ago, when the Canaries beat Bristol Rovers 2-1. Manager Mark Burke knows all about the benefits of a good cup run – he skippered the club in that game and put in a good shift against Marcus Stewart.
The mood at Top Field was sombre for the visit of Redditch United. The turnstiles did not need cold water poured on them to cool them down, for only 211 people turned up to see a run-of-the-mill Southern League Premier game. From Hitchin’s perspective, it was indeed run-of-the mill, but as far as Redditch were concerned, this was a good three points.
Hitchin had recently brought the prodigal son home in the form of John Frendo. Prolific in his first spell with the club, Frendo had moved to St. Albans City and then Hemel Hempstead. He wasn’t getting a game at Hemel, so their manager, Dean Brennan, was happy to let Frendo go out on loan to Hitchin. Frendo was an excellent goalscorer in his first stint with the club, but he returned almost three years older and lacking match fitness.
Certainly, Frendo did not look like the goal machine he was between the years 2010-12. “His arrival has unbalanced our team,” said one die-hard Hitchin fan. “We are accommodating him.” Given Hitchin’s line-up had been crying out for a player of Frendo’s ability, it would seem only logical to make way for a quality striker. Hitchin adopted a 5-3-2 formation to make Frendo’s return work. Jonny McNamara, more effective when he plays out wide, was given a front-line berth.
The Canaries problems against Redditch, however, were at the back. The visitors had pace and audacity in their single-minded pursuit of a goal. They all had long legs, were full of energy and they shrugged aside yellow-shirts as if they were last year’s fashion item.
Both Redditch’s first half goals underlined some slack defending. The first, after 14 minutes, was a scruffy affair following a corner, Daniel Dubidat forcing the ball home. Four minutes later, Redditch doubled their lead, a George Carline header from a Jamey Osborne free kick. It might have been worse if Hitchin goalkeeper Charlie Horlock had not pulled off two spectacular saves.
There was a good deal of head-scratching going on at half-time. Hitchin’s fans were wondering why the alice-banded Matt Lench was in an unfamiliar role in midfield and why McNamara was battling away up front where long balls were of no great use to him. “We’ve got no width at all,” said one Top Field regular.
Redditch took the ball into the erogenous zone of Hitchin’s defence
But both Lench and McNamara went close to reducing the deficit as Hitchin upped their game. Still, though, Redditch’s ability to take the ball into the erogenous zone of the Canaries’ defence made the home side ponderous.
Things got even more challenging for Hitchin when John Frendo was sent off in the 68th minute, presumably for something he said to the whistle-happy (it was shrill) and card-waving referee, who was really found wanting at this level. Frendo went off without a whimper, summing up an unhappy afternoon for him.
Hitchin did pull a goal back in the 87th minute and it was another ramshackle effort, McNamara applying the finishing touch after a free kick. It gave them a brief glimmer of hope, but in truth, a single-goal defeat flattered a very subdued Hitchin side.
It wasn’t all grim for Burke’s team, though. Young Kane Smith at full back had a good game and showed promise. If he continues developing, Monday nights at Top Field will be scouting nights.
Defeat sent Hitchin down to 14th place and, with one eye on the past, caused some Hitchin fans to feel a little anxious about the immediate future. FA Cup exits often have a balloon-bursting effect on Hitchin – in 2013-14, after losing to Arlesey, they won just once in 11 games, and last season, defeat at home to Wingate & Finchley was followed by one win in 14. “When the leaves fall, so do we,” said one cynical Hitchin fan. It’s up to Burke and his young team to buck that trend in the weeks ahead.