As things turned out, the points deduction didn’t make any difference. Arlesey Town won by a single goal at Hitchin Town in the Zamaretto League Central Division on Monday afternoon and, such is the way of things at the end of the season, Hitchin are back in action this evening in the semi-finals of the play-offs against Slough Town. While there is nowhere near the 1,500 that turned out for the championship decider on Monday present this evening (one might be tempted to wonder what happened to those other 900 people), there is another healthy crowd here this evening of just over 600 for this match. These two matches between them will certainly have something of a smile across the face of those in charge of the club’s accounts.
Meanwhils, Slough Town are, for people of a certain age, still a big club. Former members of what we now know as the Blue Square Premier, their fall from grace coincided with their eviction from Wexham Park in 2003. Nowadays, they groundshare with Beaconsfield SYCOB whilst still agitating for a return to their home town, and a small sense of their former scale as a club can be gauged from their rambunctious travelling support of well over 100 people here this evening. They lost out in the play-offs in this division last season, but their supporters seem optimistic. Promotion might just remind the apathetic majority in Slough itself that the club still exists. In spite of having finshed the season eleven points behind Hitchin, they have cause to feel optimistic this evening. They beat Hitchin by two goals to one in this very match, this time last year.
Top Field, the home of Hitchin Town, provides a rustic and agreeable back-drop to the evening’s events. One side and one corner of it are lined with trees. At one end of the ground there is a covered, wooden terrace which undulates as the crowd strains to keep up with play whilst, at the other, there is an almost V-shaped open concrete terrace with an orderly line of green and yellow crush barriers. All around is corrugated iron and wood, much of which is painted a rich shade of green. This is a traditional non-league football ground which has remained unfettered by the demands of exapansive crowds and the more stringent safety requirements that come with them. It is, both literally and metaphorically, verdant football, and the club has a strong sense of community about it. Many, if not most, of the people here this evening seem to know each other. It’s a pleasant, intimate venue for a football match.
Hitchin’s players, one rather suspects, had the stuffing knocked out of them by Monday’s result and they start this evening’s match tentatively, as if the weight of their own expectation if sitting heavily upon their shoulders. They play tidy football in patches, but Slough, wearing a change kit of blue and a shade that falls somewhere between pink and red, look more assertive and control much of the possession, although chances are thin on the ground at either end.
It feels, however, that if any team is going to score first it is going to be Slough and this is what happens with nine minutes of the first half to play. A long throw seems to catch the home defence day-dreaming and Danny Burnell drives the ball in to give Slough the lead. Finally, Hitchin start to wake up. The procession of one or two passes before play breaks down starts to fade and then, right on half-time, they win a penalty. Donnelly seems to have over-hit the ball, which is running out of play, but a defender holds him back and the linesman flags for the foul. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other (one of those that inevitably leads to a manm standing nearby to turn to his friend and say, “I’ve seen them given”, even though it already has been given), but the job isn’t quite done yet. John Frendo’s spot kick is a poor one, but it is only beaten back out into his path by the Hitchin goalkeeper and Frendo heads the back into the empty goal.
It’s difficult to ascertain what the precise effects of a goal right on half-time may or may not be, but there can be little question that Hitchin start the second half like a team reborn, whilst Slough are now looking sluggish – what could have been said in the dressing rooms during the half-time break to cause such a turnaround? – and two goals in seven minutes knock most of the fight out of the visiting team. Eight minutes in, the Slough goalkeeper clears the ball too hastily and Zak Burke drives a twenty-five yard daisy-cutter past him and into the bottom corner of the net. For the first time this evening, Hitchin now look capable of winning this match and they double their lead just before the hour with a superb angled volley from Frendo – his second of what has quite suddenly become a rather productive evening.
With a lead that looked comfortable having been thrown away Slough start to lose their composure and their shape and Hitchin now look more like the team that went unbeaten in the league until the start of February than the one that limped over the finishing line in second place in the table. With confidence now visibly coursing through them, they are playing attractive, attacking football and Slough, who have made substitutions in a desperate attempt to claw their way back into the match, are the ones that are chasing shadows. They have one, final chance to set up a tight finale with fifteen minutes to play, though, and again the luck of the referee’s decision goes against them. A free-kick just outside the penalty area from Sonner is touched over the line by Swift, but the flag raises immediately and the goal doesn’t count.
Upon that moment, Slough’s final chance of forcing the match into extra-time vanishes into the crisp, spring evening. Lewis shoots narrowly wide and then, with seven minutes to play, follows the final nail in Slough’s coffin when their defence fails to cleat the ball and Jamie Arlick prods the ball over the line to give Hitchin an unssailable three goal lead. With the whistle at the end of the game comes relief at a job half-done. Hitchin were well beaten by Arlesey Town in the league title race, but the team caught a second wind with the second half of this match that carried them, eventually, comfortably to the final whistle.
For Slough Town, meanwhile, there will be a palpable sense of disappointment. They may have only finished in fifth place in the league this season, but they matched Hitchin all the way during a tight first half and will feel aggrieved at a penalty award that swung the game as the half-time whistle was set to blow. While such decisions are often those upon which a while season can turn, it feels particularly harsh when viewed through the prism of a one-off play-off match. Having lost at this stage of the play-offs last season as well, they will be praying that next season brings a change of luck. Their noisy travelling support, at the very least, certainly deserves it. For Hitchin Town, meanwhile, the season now rumbles on to a final showdown on Monday against the other play-off winners this evening, Daventry Town. One cannot help but think that the final chapter in the story of their season may also have a twist or a turn contained therein.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.