AS EVER, a built-up game failed to deliver, but both Hitchin Town and Leatherhead left the field knowing they are still in the FA Cup and the prospect of a plum tie in round one was still possible.
If Hitchin do end their 23-year wait for first round action, they may thank the heavens for the invention of the penalty spot. This blob of whitewash – or whatever alchemy they use these days to treat and adorn pitches – has been responsible for prolonging the club’s interest in the FA Cup this season.
“It’s ironic that we’re having our best run for years with what is probably our worst or rather least effective team for a few seasons,” said one long-standing supporter. “I guess that’s what FA Cup runs are all about, the unexpected. You never know when they might happen.”
Certainly, nobody would have imagined a FA Cup run with a few minutes remaining of the Canaries’ first qualifying round tie with Godmanchester, when they came back to win 3-1 after being a goal down with five minutes to go. There have been parallels with the club’s 1994-95 run when the lights almost went out a few times – at that time, they were also struggling in the league.
So, that penalty spot. In the second qualifying round, Hitchin had to negotiate a shoot-out to get past Didcot Town and then against Hastings, a penalty clinched victory. This time, Mark Burke’s team was rescued by another spot-kick from, to quote his school employer, “Mr Bickerstaff”. Somebody up there really likes the Canaries this season.
It was carnival day at Top Field. With only a French market in town to distract the punters, they queued down Fishponds Road, armed with home made tin foil FA Cups and freshly purchased static-producing scarves. There were many who had not trodden this path before, the sound of unfamiliar enthusiasm (Hitchin crowds are notoriously sedentary), amplified screams for an opposition red card and chants of “yellows…yellows…”, could be heard from people who had found Top Field for [probably] the first time. “Where will they be when we’re at home on a drizzly Wednesday night in the league cup?,” grinned a regular. Never mind, this is how crowds get from 400 to 1200 – a football match of some substance attracting those that wouldn’t give the club a second glance.
Old war horses also galloped into the ground. There was Andy “I’m a lucky man” Melvin, manager of the team when Hitchin famously disposed of Hereford United and Bristol Rovers, along with his number two from that period, Robin Wainwright, who still looks like a throwback to West Coast rock from the 1970s. FA Cup games are a mix of nostalgia and expectation, as well as a treasurer’s delight, thanks to the financial rewards now involved.
Leatherhead came mob-handed and provided much of the soundtrack. “Blimey, they’ve got high security here,” commented one visitor from Fetcham. “Are they expecting trouble?.” There was also a representation from Japan, two young lads from Tokyo’s Shinagawa and Shibuya eager to film Leatherhead’s Bobby Cullen, who, despite the Anglo-Saxon name, is a Japanese under-20 cap in his veteran years. Sadly, they were not allowed to film him in action. Their cameras remained inactive – well, there there was a hi-vis menace around!
As for the first half, it was a shade disappointing, with Hitchin resorting to Reepian football and Leatherhead adopting a more surface-based style. “This has got 0-0 written all over it,” said a Hitchin fan after the first 20 minutes of, to quote Sly Stone*, “checking each other out”. But then, a careless high challenge by Jay Dowie resulted in a red card for the Hitchin midfielder.
Leatherhead, buoyed by this incident, started to get on top in the latter stages of the half and Hitchin’s goalkeeper, Michael Johnson pulled off some superb saves, notably from former Canaries’ youth player Shaun Okojie.
The visitors should, arguably, have been deprived of their one-man advantage just before the interval when Okojie appeared to elbow Alex Anderson. He was shown a yellow card, despite the home crowd baying for blood.
Leatherhead went in front in the 52nd minute, a corner headed against a post and Travis Gregson following-up to score. It didn’t look good for Hitchin. “That’s it, then,” was one comment from the stand. “It was nice while it lasted.”
But Hitchin are nothing if not determined, a quality that has been a characteristic of the team under Mark Burke since 2013. Just six minutes after falling behind, Jack Green was felled in the area by Thomas Cooney and Bickerstaff netted from the penalty spot. There was a case for Cooney to be dismissed, but the referee brandished the yellow when a red would have been more appropriate.
Leatherhead had one goal-bound headed cleared off the line and Bickerstaff’s long leg hooked over the crossbar from just inside the penalty area late on, but the real hero was Johnson, who saved from Gregory and Elliot Benyon with time running out. Without him, Hitchin would have been anticipating a league game with St. Ives Town on November 10 rather than hoping for a never-to-be forgotten fixture with someone like Sunderland. The dream lives on, if only for a couple of days.
Hitchin will surely be relieved to have come through this home tie, for their record at Top Field in recent years is not good, especially in replays. The road to Wembley has invariably come to a halt at the old ground, sometimes surprisingly, and although a significant challenge is still to be overcome, they may just fancy their chances more away from home.
Meanwhile, the crowd of 1,200 filed out of Top Field. Leatherhead’s fans were still making a noise. “We should have won it,” moaned a green-shirted Tanner. A few feet away, a Hitchin fan was mumbling: “We could have won that…but there’s still everything to play for. When is the coach going to Leatherhead?”.
Note: * Sly and the Family Stone, Family affair