Good Friday after all for those nervous Canaries

Photo: Peter Else
Photo: Peter Else

ON A day usually reserved for holy contemplation, Hitchin Town had their own cross to bear – the expectation of chasing a play-off place. Some Top Field patrons don’t like to talk of such things for fear it may mean be disappointment at the end of the rainbow, but at this advanced stage of the campaign, it’s a fact – Hitchin are chasing a top five position and the pressure is starting to build.

Easter football is a time of nerves and tension. If it’s not, it means you’re not involved in the business end of the season. More often than not, Easter games don’t have much hanging on them at Hitchin, but this time it’s different. The Canaries went into their game with Weymouth in need of a result after a string of disappointing games that have slightly eroded their commanding position among the play-off chasers. “We cannot score goals,” said one regular. “We’ve played OK, but we’ve scored just twice in four.” Hitchin were hanging onto their berth in the play-off zone, with 67 points from 39 games, but Chippenham and Weymouth were both breathing down their neck and even Kettering could not be written off.

A few weeks earlier, Hitchin were looking like play-off certainties, but their recent form, especially against teams with similar aspirations, has been patchy – they were beaten at Poole and Redditch and drew at Chippenham. But they’ve had spells like this before during 2015-16 and recovered to put together another string of impressive results. The game with Weymouth was vital as a win for the Terras would give them the initiative in the race for the top five.

Hitchin’s management pulled off a coup in rearranging the Easter home game for Good Friday. Not only did this offer the possibility of a big crowd, but also would give the team a much-needed rest before the trip to St. Ives to face the nomadic Cambridge City.

As there were few options for those desperate for a game, Top Field also benefitted from the arrival of that curious breed called “Groundhoppers”. There were visitors from a number of clubs, including a gaggle of Dulwich Hamlet fans. And oh yes, there was a scout from Sheffield United who had come to Hitchin to have a look at Kane Smith, Hitchin’s eye-catching full back. He was disappointed, not because of Smith’s performance, but because Mark Burke’s starlet wasn’t playing due to a virus.

From the start, it was clear that Weymouth were not taking any prisoners. They adopted a robust approach and some of their tackles were a little, shall we say, “crisp”. That said, Hitchin drew first blood when Brett Donnelly upended Mark Cooper in the first couple of minutes. Cooper went sprawling and his team-mate, Dean Evans, decided to have a playground shove at Donnelly. Hitchin fans must have feared the worst as the centre-forward’s blue touch paper isn’t normally very resilient, but both he and Evans received a yellow card. Without Evans’ intervention, they may have avoided any sort of card.

But the hipster-bearded Evans was on borrowed time and with the game less than half an hour old, he was red-carded for his third notable offence of the afternoon. And he was a little surprised!

Although Weymouth were down to 10 men, they should have taken the lead just before the interval when Chris Shephard was clear on goal but send a tame effort rolling into Charlie Horlock’s arms.

To Weymouth’s credit, they had much more of the play in the second half, and it looked for a while that Hitchin’s current strike-rate would come back to haunt them. Tim Sills, a player that has troubled Hitchin before in the past, went close with a header that Horlock pushed round the post. After a lull, Hitchin rediscovered their chutzpah again in the last 20 minutes and a succession of near-misses let Weymouth off the hook, notably a scramble where the Canaries’ forwards, Robbie Burns and Brett Donnelly had three bites. “A draw’s not good for us,” whined one Hitchin fan, anxiously examining the league table. “We are looking like we’ve run out of steam.”

That certainly seemed the case until the 79th minute when Callum Donnelly threaded the ball through the Weymouth defence and Jonny McNamara ran on and shot low into the net. You could sense the relief in the ground.

In the dying seconds, Horlock saved Hitchin with a point blank stop from Stewart Yetton. Three more points, depriving another candidate of three at the same time. It may not have been pretty, but for a team aiming for honours, it’s very much function over form.  The result could have gone either way.

Six games to go:
March 28: Cambridge City Away
April 2: Kettering Town Away
April 9: Poole Town Home
April 11: Chesham United Home
April 16: Biggleswade Town Away
April 23: St. Neots Town Home

Hitchin fans won’t like this, but Football Web Pages’ predicted final table is now forecasting they will finish in seventh place and Weymouth in fifth. What do they know??

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