THE RACE for promotion is hotting-up in the Southern League Premier Division but it does already look as though the top five are more or less decided. While the title should go to either Chippenham Town or Leamington, the other three play-off places will come from Slough Town, Hitchin Town and Merthyr Town. What’s at stake is the running order.
As it stands, Leamington will host Merthyr and Slough will be at home to Hitchin. But it could all change and surely will.
In a couple of nervous weeks, Hitchin have almost certainly blown their title chances. After looking good for top spot, they’ve drawn a couple of games and lost twice at home. Against Slough, they were without two key men, Lewis Rolfe and Matt Lench and it showed at times.
It was a day when khaki dominated the Top Field landscape as the club had its “armed forces” event, which meant the RAF flew in for some formation marching and bucket shaking. The National Anthem was played before the teams came out to a guard of honour. I thought I was at the FA Cup final and was looking to the heavens for the Red Arrows to drop the matchball at any moment! The PR was generally positive for Hitchin Town, however, and no doubt contributed to the crowd of 828.
Within two minutes of the start, Slough were ahead, which underlined the current unease in the Hitchin team. A good run by Simon Dunn ended with a cross to Warren Harris who shot high into the net. The home side were a little stunned.
By six minutes, it was 2-0 to Slough as goalkeeper Michael Johnson spilled a cross from Chris Flood and Guy Hollis scored. Game over? Not quite, but Hitchin were certainly facing an uphill battle now.
They were in need of some inspiration and veteran striker Brett Donnelly tried to stir his team-mates up by calling them into the centre of the field for a pep-talk. He showed the way by pulling a goal back in the 37th minute, intercepting Mark Nisbet’s header and lifting the ball over Alan Walker-Harris.
That should have inspired Hitchin to better things, but then they had to endure the imperialistic soundtrack at half-time. But the task got harder in the 60th minute when Dan Webb fouled Nisbet in the area and a penalty was awarded and duly smashed past Johnson by James Dobson. That really did look like three points sealed by Slough.
Hitchin had, second earlier, introduced returning hero Jonny McNamara, who has joined on loan until the end of the season. He’s not match fit, but the Canaries other new face, Jamie Dowie, looks as though he will be a good acquisition.
Mark Burke’s side were not going down without a fight and in the 79th minute, Kane Smith scored with a shot from outside the penalty area. It suggested an edgy finish and Brett Donnelly almost pulled off the recovery when he struck the woodwork. It wasn’t to be and Slough’s fans were clearly a lot happier than when they last met Hitchin, so there were none of the uncomfortable exchanges between supporters that slightly blemished the post-match at Arbour Park in November.
Hitchin could have no complaints, Slough were the better team and deserved their victory. The two teams could meet again in the play-offs. On the evidence of this game, Slough have less to worry about at the moment, but there is still plenty of time for twists and turns in this drama. Hitchin need to rediscover their verve quickly to ensure their play-off place is a positive one.
It should be noted that the RAF were quick to assist a veteran Hitchin supporter when he had a nasty fall before the game. Their impressive assistance was doubtless welcomed by the football club and reminded us of the organisational skills of the services and their speed-to-action ethos! Game of the People sends best regards to 89 year-old Fred Andrews and hopes he has a quick recovery from his mishap.