AFTER a disappointing week in Fishponds Road, Hitchin couldn’t have asked for a better chance to re-engage with their public. It was, after all, “youth day” at the club – one of the laudable initiatives the club has being running for the past few years in order to connect with the broader community. There were queues in Fishponds Road, something you don’t normally associate with a run-of-the-mill league game at Top Field.
I expected hordes of Welshmen to already be inside the ground, but Merthyr Town’s travelling support was somewhat muted, explainable as it’s a ridiculously long trip for regional football and the Martyrs’ fans have had a few of those recently.
It had been a difficult week for Hitchin. Their totemic floodlights fell victim to a plastic widget and their FA Cup hopes went south of the River Thames at the hands of Faversham. Thanks to the club’s “Mr Fix-it”, Len Leroux, the Canaries’ impressive lights were restored, but Mark Burke’s side, which threw-away a two-goal lead in Kent in the first meeting, lost 0-1.
Hitchin and home replays have a poor recent history. Too often they have gone away in both the FA Cup and FA Trophy and earned a credible draw, only to trip themselves up in the replay. Perhaps it is the fault of Monday night – an experiment that has worked well when it comes to the club’s coffers thanks to slightly increased attendances, but two big cup games in three days puts pressure on the niggles and strains of 90 minutes on the previous Saturday. You could argue that it’s the same for the opposition, so it’s arguably a question of motivation and luck.
FA Cup defeat is always hard to take, especially when the draw for the next round has given you a better-than-even chance of getting through another stage – more money and the approaching prospect of a lucrative tie in round one. For Hitchin, they are currently going through the worst run in their post-war history. It is now 21 years since the club reached the first round proper – that memorable afternoon in 1995-96 when Bristol Rovers were beaten at a packed Top Field. Manager Burke knows only too well about the glamour of the occasion- he captained the Canaries in their two biggest wins in the competition – Hereford in 1994 and Rovers in 1995.
Hitchin and the FA Cup – when it has worked
|1960-61||Round One||Crystal Palace||Away||L2-6||21,118|
|1973-74||Round Two||Boston United||Away||L0-1||3,180|
|1974-75||Round One||Cambridge United||Home||D0-0||4,223|
|1976-77||Round Two||Swindon Town||Home||D1-1||4,927|
|1994-95||Round One||Hereford United||Away||D2-2||3,078|
|Round Two||Wycombe Wanderers||Home||L0-5||2,765|
|1995-96||Round One||Bristol Rovers||Home||W2-1||3,101|
21 years of frustration at home
|2006-07||3QR – replay||Clevedon Town *||D2-2||278|
|2007-08||4QR – replay||Weymouth||L0-1||504|
|2009-10||1QR- replay||Canvey Island||L0-1|
|2010-11||2QR – replay||Cambridge City||L0-2||324|
|2012-13||3QR – replay||Hastings United||L1-2||289|
|2014-15||2QR||Wingate & Finchley||L0-3||261|
|2015-16||3QR – Replay||Enfield Town||L1-2||486|
|2016-17||2QR – Replay||Faversham Town||L0-1|
There’s little doubt that a 0-1 home defeat against a team from a lower level was clumsy, all the more galling given that Egham Town were waiting for the winners.
Needless to say, when such a setback occurs, people start to question things like team selection, management, tactics, the lack of a striker and the “hunger” of the players. Actually, it’s invariably just bad luck. As any manager, armed with his cliché dictionary, will tell you, “we have to put Faversham behind us”. That’s exactly what Burke told his players: “We must look forward and not back.”
A good result against Merthyr was needed. After an impressive campaign in 2015-16, Hitchin had not been firing on all cylinders, although their last league game – a 4-0 away win at Cambridge City – showed what they are capable of. Merthyr were in similar form, just above Hitchin but a game in hand.
The Welshmen got off to a good start, scoring after seven minutes when Curtis McDonald met a free kick from Elliot Scotcher. But eight minutes later, Hitchin netted a cracking goal, Robbie Burns scoring with a memorable strike from outside the penalty area after linking-up with Brett Donnelly. “Goal of the season,” said Hitchin’s long-suffering secretary, Roy Izzard, and he may be right.
Merthyr thwarted Hitchin’s energy with their own version of “gegenpressing” and despite the high level of possession and a couple of Matt Lench efforts, the home side couldn’t add to their tally. There was something of a subdued, shoulder-shrug of a feeling after the game, but that probably had more to do with the FA Cup than a 1-1 draw with Merthyr.