Sunday, 4 September 2016

Hitchin Town 4 v 2 Biggleswade United

Saturday 3rd September 2016
FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round
Top Field, Hitchin
Admission: Pay What You Want (Usual admission £10.00)
Programme: £2.00
Attendance: 708
Match Rating: 4

For this year's Non League Day, a number of FA Cup ties appealed to me, but in the end I plumped for a visit to northern Hertfordshire. As well as the excitement of an FA Cup tie, the match would be a local derby with a good deal of goodwill between the two sides, and there was a chance of witnessing an unlikely upset, with the visitors plying their trade two steps below the hosts in the non-league pyramid. Following a hard and ultimately successful battle to keep developers at bay and retain football at Top Field, I had heard many good things about the venue, but had also heard of plans for major redevelopments there, and so I wanted to visit before it may become yet another bland modern stadium. I was certainly not to be disappointed.

Top Field is about 20 minute walk from Hitchin train station, and there is much to really enjoy and savour about this traditional non league ground full of character and individuality. Spectators enter through a roadside wooden turnstile block behind one of the goals, where there is wooden steps to stand on and wooden cover immediately behind the goal. In the corner is the club office, tea bar and club shop, all painted in club colours, whilst along the length from that corner is more wooden steps, again with the central section covered. Behind the other goal is a fairly large bank of uncovered terracing. Along the remaining length is an old-fashioned all-seater stand, with various rooms and windows no longer used along the rear and a boardroom is a separate hut that is. A couple of crooked sheds in a corner add to the character of the ground, as do the tall trees beginning to shed their leaves behind three sides of the ground. The programme was very good If rather heavy with advertising, with almost half of the 40 pages devoted. But it contained plenty of interesting read material and the relevant statistics.

Without doubt, Hitchin Town were the strong favourites going into this game, an established Southern League Premier Division side, missing out on promotion in the play-offs last season. They have made an unspectacular start to this season, winning two and drawing two of their opening seven league games. Biggleswade United play in the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division and have won two and lost the other of their opening three league games. They have already negotiated two rounds to set up today’s fixture, beating Newport Parnell Town and then Conley Heath, both 0-1 away. With Spanish football pundit Guillem Balagué as Football Director, it is perhaps not surprising that the Head Coach, Assistant Head Coach and a sprinkling of players are Spanish.

After a sunny lunchtime, intermittent light rain greeted the first half with more persistent heavy drizzle throughout the second half. This was a highly entertaining game which ebbed and flowed – in the early stages, one feared that the underdogs would be getting a hiding, before it looked they might even spring an upset, before the predicted result was confirmed. Hitchin opened the scoring with just two minutes on the clock. The ball was sent into the area from a free kick right by the corner flag and met with a glancing header by Brett Donnelly to find the back of the net. A minute later and a close range powerful header drew a reflex save from the keeper, but on 6 minutes, Hitchin did double their lead. A very quick break down the left wing following a Biggleswade attack resulted in two strikers in the middle with not a covering defender in sight, and the low cross found Lucas Kirkpatrick, and he slotted the ball past the keeper. It really wasn’t seeming to be a fair contest, as the Biggleswade players looked lightweight and perhaps caught up in the occasion. But they did grow more and more into the game, having the odd chance in the break, and on 25 minutes they and the match as a contest scored a crucial goal. Elliott struck the ball from a free kick into the area, and Russell headed the ball goalwards and although the keeper got his hands to the ball, he could only palm it into the inside of the side netting. The game then settled down and became rather scrappy up until half time, and full credit to the underdogs that this tie was very much in the balance after such a poor start.

The game continued to be close after the break, and on 59 minutes, the scores were level. The played was lofted into the box from a free kick on the right wing, and Charlie Black guided the ball into the net. Unfortunately for them, parity only lasted five minutes. The ball was dinked into a central position in the area and Brett Donnelly flighted the ball with his head over the keeper and just under the bar. With both sides looking to have a goal in them, the outcome was in the balance right up  to added on time when Hitchin scored their fourth. Although Hitchin's Matt Lynch had the ball right by the corner flag, he decided against wasting time and instead whipped the ball into the box and Kirkpatrick stabbed the ball under the keeper’s legs and into the net.

No doubt I chose my match well today – a classic cup tie where the underdogs fought back excellently with the tie in the balance right up to the end, with rain adding to the cup tie atmosphere and with a lovely unique ground to enjoy it in. It was also very pleasing to see that the club was rewarded for their "pay what you want" admission policy today with a bumper attendance, something that usually seems impossible to implement for FA Cup matches, and from which 10% of gate receipts would be donated to Prostate Cancer UK.

Video highlights of this match can be viewed by clicking here

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