North or South? That may be the question for buoyant Hitchin
Posted on April 17, 2016
THE WIND TURBINES were moving round at pace, the A1 traffic was humming and the elements had been kind enough to make the afternoon dry – but for a pint or two in the Cock pub in nearby Broom. Hitchin Town travelled to Biggleswade Town in search of three more points in their quest for promotion.
The great and the good turned out – including some people who had not been seen for a while at a Hitchin game. There was a slight air of tension. After all, Hitchin were not accustomed to being in this position – the National League South (or North) within spitting distance. Aside from promotion campaigns from a lower division and relegation battles, you have to go back to 1968-69 for a league programme that has stayed so alive at this level.
After weeks of being in denial that elevation was a distinct possibility, the prospect of promotion – albeit via the play-offs – is now being addressed more in terms of “when, not if”. Among the many debates is whether the annual league constitution will place Hitchin in the northern rather than the southern section.
A quick look at the current standings in the three Premier divisions and the current state of play in the leagues above step three suggests it might be a little touch and go, but you never know until the season ends. “If it’s north, it will kill us,” said one Hitchin worthy, but another rubbed his hands in anticipation of playing “up north”. “Darlington here we come.”
There was still a few hurdles to overcome, though. Hitchin had strengthened their case with a 5-1 victory against Chesham United a few days earlier. “When we beat Chesham, you know we’re onto something,” said one wag. And he was right, for Hitchin’s historic record against the Bucks side is not good. But that’s all changed now.
Manager Mark Burke has presided over three seasons of steady, and often impressive, progress. His first campaign, in 2013-14, ended with the Canaries in a familiar lower mid-table standing. Last season they finished ninth place and this year, the momentum has continued. Burke has placed his trust in youngsters with an emphasis on playing passing football. His team is also hard-working and, on the seven or eight times I have seen them this season, displays a very strong team ethic.
A trip to Biggleswade could have been a “banana skin”, although last season, Hitchin won 7-3 at the Carlsberg Stadium. They were nestling in mid-table, but the local derby element, plus the fact that many of the players know each other, made for a tricky afternoon.
Some found it a struggle to watch, such was their nervous state, and there were a few stern faces sitting in the stand. Their nerves were eased when Hitchin took the lead after 12 minutes through Brett Donnelly, a former Waders’ player. But in the 27th minute, the impressive Nick Freeman – surely a player that caught the eye of Burke and Adam Parker – shot low past Charlie Horlock for the equaliser.
Plenty of fidgeting for a few minutes with hands being wrung with anxiety, but Hitchin regained the lead through Josh Bickerstaff on 36 minutes. Half-time was uneasy for some, but at 2-1 Hitchin were still in command. And it soon got easier.
Nine minutes in the restart, Kane Smith, playing more forward on the flank, sent over a cross to the far post that was met by Robbie Burns to shoot home – a fine goal.
Six minutes later, Brett Donnelly scored his second, touching the ball past Ian Brown after a clever back-heel by Dan Webb. Donnelly’s effort had no power and it appeared to trickle over the line, but it still sent the fans wild with excitement.
Biggleswade pulled a goal back on 69 minutes when Horlock seemed to drop the ball for Connor Vincent to score from close range.
But Hitchin were not finished and a stunning move involving Smith and Alasan Ann ended with Brett Donnelly scoring his hat-trick. “I don’t know what to say…another goal for Brett Donnelly,” quipped the good-humoured tannoy announcer.
The Waders kept going, despite being 5-2 down and with three minutes to go, former Hitchin midfielder Ian Rees netted another goal. Final score 5-3, no hint of Fyffes anywhere.
One point that deserves mention. Biggleswade’s Chris Nunn was very complimentary about Hitchin and the club in general, which says a lot about the Waders’ manager: “They have got some great lads and some of the best supporters in the Southern Premier.”
They may also be a little less edgy after this victory. It all but secured a play-off place for the Canaries. One game to go and a few vital fixtures elsewhere in the coming week. Only a fool would bet against Mark Burke’s team now.