Yawning in the sunlight

Brett Donnelly (Hitchin), a study in concentration. Photo: Peter Else

HOW often does a big game fail to deliver, stubbornly refusing to provide some form of entertainment? That was the case when Hitchin Town met Leamington as second took on third in the Southern League Premier Division in front of a large crowd enjoying the Spring sunshine.

There was definitely an air of expectation in Fishponds Road, Hitchin and it wasn’t down to a swimming gala or a hockey match on the artificial pitch at Hitchin Boys’ School. Earlier in the day, a few lads with yellow and black scarves were stalking the old market town, suggesting that Leamington had brought a healthy following down from the Spa resort.

But not even the presence of former editor of Loaded, James Brown – who spent the day fascinated by Hitchin Town and Top Field – could raise the occasion above the tedious. Leeds United fan Brown could surely not have been impressed by the spectacle, for it was so grim that Canaries’ manager Mark Burke – probably tongue in cheek – said he would prefer to lose and produce something more tangible for the spectators.

The day seemed to start with some promise. A huge, ultra-style flag was being waved around as Leamington’s fans camped-in at Top Field. Leamington were still holding onto the hope of catching Chippenham Town, but Burke had given up on the title after losing at home to Slough two weeks previous. Hitchin wanted to finish second or third to get a home tie in the play-off semi-finals, but nobody has really taken anything for granted that the Canaries have already secured their place in the top five. They’re a cautious bunch.

Hitchin had recovered from a sticky patch where they lost two in three home games. A brace of away wins, at Redditch and St. Ives, had restored confidence and with just six league fixtures and two cup finals to come, Burke and his young squad could be very satisfied with their 2016-17.

But Leamington were a tough nut to crack, a team built on a strong defence, just 24 goals conceded in 39 games before arriving at Top Field. Moreover, Hitchin were facing them without Dan Webb, who had become “unavailable”. Unconfirmed rumours quickly circulated that Webb was wearing a sombrero and swigging Tequila on the other side of the world. On a positive note, Hitchin were very satisfied with new signing Jay Dowie, who has looked impressive since joining the club. And with Webb away, Lewis Rolfe was able to return to the team. The defence was still in good hands.

There were over 800 people in the ground when kick-off came.  The first half was dismal, a catalogue of misplaced passes and niggly challenges. Neither side created anything worthwhile, although Leamington’s Jack Edwards, with his aerial power, caused some problems for the home side.

Leamington’s efficient defence got the better of Hitchin, who struggled to create any openings. The Canaries’ took off striker Brett Donnelly and brought on Mason Spence, but still they failed to get round the Brakes’ backline. At the other end, Edwards went close with a flying header from a Rob Thompson-Brown corner and then had a volley that flew past the Hitchin goal.

The game opened up a little in the latter stages and Hitchin’s Jonny McNamara should really have done better when a long ball landed invitingly in front of him as he closed in on the Leamington goal. He just failed to connect, but with four minutes remaining, his volley tested Tony Breeden in the Leamington goal only for his effort to be pushed for a corner. The visitors had their best chance of the game when Richard Gregory headed wide from close range with only Michael Johnson to beat.

Both managers seemed reluctantly pleased with the outcome. “There was a distinct lack of quality and neither side coped especially well with the conditions,” said Leamington manager Paul Holleran. “It was a case of two well-matched sides playing for their play-off places. We shouldn’t be too surprised that it was a little tense at times, but it’s another clean sheet for us and it takes us that little bit closer. We had a couple of good opportunities to win, but we were just not clinical enough.”

Mark Burke admitted that his side “failed to play for the entire 90 minutes”. “It was not very pretty,” he said. “A lot of endeavour, but not much end product. We came up against a very strong defence – as their record shows – but we are still in the mix and going for that play-off place. I’m not disappointed with the draw.”

It was another tough fixture out of the way for Hitchin, whose run-in has proved very challenging. It was a shame that such a big crowd didn’t go home exhilarated by 90 minutes of non-stop action. Hitchin have home games remaining with leaders Chippenham and local rivals Biggleswade, while they must travel to Banbury, Dorchester and Basingstoke. In between, they’ve got two county cup finals, the Herts Charity Cup against Cheshunt and the Herts Senior Cup when they come up against Bishop’s Stortford.

Somebody asked, “What’s Loaded?” when the subject of the presence of a celebrated journalist came up. “I’ll tell you what’s loaded, our fixture list,” joked one Hitchin fan. And with a possible nine games in 35 days, he was not wrong.

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