When game management goes astray

HITCHIN TOWN’s FA Cup run seems a long time ago these days. Since losing to Solihull Moors on November 11, they have played 14 games and have lost nine of them. Six home games in the league have yielded a combined attendance of 2,230 – whatever happened to those new found fans that discovered their local club when the TV cameras were present? How fickle and opportunist the football community can be!

A four-match winning streak that ended a week before Christmas has been overshadowed by five consecutive defeats from December 22 – the holiday season has not been kind to the Canaries, who now face a desperate battle to keep away from the dotted line of shame in 2019.

This was always going to be a year of transition for Hitchin. The team that went close to promotion in 2017 has fallen apart and the replacements are either learning their trade or have been found wanting. The old zip and thrust of the team that reached two play-offs just doesn’t seem to be there. Some fans keep talking about “we’re not playing to our potential”, but 22 games have now passed, you know what sort of team you have when you reach that stage of the campaign. There’s not many surprises to unlock, unless you dramatically revamp the squad.

There was hope in the aftermath of the Solihull game that there were funds to strengthen the team and when Matt Lench – arguably the best player from the team that almost went up – returned on a dual registration from Weladstone that things were looking up. But he left as quickly as he arrived as the Stones recalled him for Christmas.

Even Mark Burke, the club’s manager, used the word transition after the latest defeat, at the hands of AFC Rushden & Diamonds, but the trick is to evolve and not accidentally fall through the trapdoor while you’re rebuilding.

Burkey likes to use terms like “game management” but against the reconstituted Diamonds, who contributed a very healthy chunk of the 530 attendance, there was a distinct lack of that very modern of clichés – by both teams.

Rushden looked home and dry as early as the 20thminute, two effortless goals for which the Hitchin defence should have been credited with a couple of assists. All too easy. “That’s game over,” said one veteran Top Fielder.

After a miserable Christmas at Hitchin – the team was very below par against Needham Market and did little to impress in the big derby against Biggleswade, and on top of that, club stalwart Roy Izzard was taken ill – it was not unreasonable to suggest Burke’s team might capitulate after conceding two early goals. However, they had a route back in the 24thminute when the very eye-catching Isaac Galliford volleyed home to reduce the arrears.

Actually, Rushden seemed to lose the plot or at least their own game management at this point. “If I were a Rushden fan, I’d be pretty annoyed the way their team has thrown away control,” said a Hitchin fan at the interval.

It got worse for them after the break, with Hitchin equalising through Galliford and then Matt Nolan rolled back the years with a first-time effort from a corner. Apparently, this move has been tried many times, but you do need someone like Nolan to finish off the manoeuvre. It would have been a storybook ending, but Rushden scored two goals in the final seconds to win 4-3. Hitchin’s “game management” had certainly gone out of the window. Actually, it was bloody sloppy.

It was a sickener for the Canaries and made it five defeats in a row. The big R word has been mentioned, albeit quietly, and it is starting to look more like a possibility, but there’s still time for another feat beginning with the same letter – revival.

Would it be the end of the world if Hitchin did go down? This is their eighth season in the Premier, and the past two relegations (excluding the restructured relegation in 2004) have come after 10 and eight seasons. Moreover, the revival – i.e. promotion – has come after one and two seasons in 1998-99 and 2010-11 respectively. The club’s three relegations (1987-88) have all seen them bounce back stronger and with support still intact. Not that anybody would welcome the drop with open arms, but sometimes it is a way to get rid of staleness and relaunch a club. Hitchin are, arguably, too big for step 4 but the club has, historically found it hard to sustain step 3 over the long haul.

But that’s worst case scenario and with a huge percentage of points up for grabs, Hitchin can banish any fears of relegation with a few decent results. Mark Burke, as ever, was upbeat despite his team handing out the points like confetti – as a former defender (and an exceptional one at that), he will have been pained by the generosity of his back line. He used that magic word “transition” again as he sped along Bedford Road and the glow of the floodlights started to fade.

Actually, he was giving me a lift home from Top Field. Given that he’s one of those characters that epitomise the claim “cut my arm and I bleed yellow and green”, he’s surely hurting at the moment. Equally, he’s been around long enough to know that the old adage, “what goes around, comes around”, is very true in football.

Photo: Peter Else


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