The Merthyr keeper had no chance...Photo by Peter Else

The Merthyr keeper had no chance…Photo by Peter Else

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

1958-59 Round One Millwall Home D1-1 3,896
Replay Millwall Away L1-2 18,865
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
Replay Cambridge United Away L0-3 3,827
1976-77 Round Two Swindon Town Home D1-1 4,927
Replay Swindon Town Away L1-3 6,064
1978-79 Round One Bournemouth Away L1-2 5,008
1994-95 Round One Hereford United Away D2-2 3,078
Replay Hereford United Home W4-2 3,098
Round Two Wycombe Wanderers Home L0-5 2,765
1995-96 Round One Bristol Rovers Home W2-1 3,101
Round Two Gillingham Away L0-3 7,142

21 years of frustration at home

1996-97 4QR Wisbech Town L1-2 942
1997-98 1QR Bognor Regis L0-2 250
2006-07 3QR – replay Clevedon Town * D2-2 278
2007-08 4QR – replay Weymouth L0-1 504
2008-09 3QR Hinckley United L1-2 503
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.