FA CUP: Leatherhead 1-2 Hitchin aet: Mark Burke’s battlers show character to reach the first round for the first time in 23 years on a dramatic night
PUBLISHED: 22:44 24 October 2018 | UPDATED: 01:06 25 October 2018
Mark Burke’s Hitchin Town travelled to Leatherhead’s Fetcham Grove to play their FA Cup fourth qualifying round replay. Read on for LAYTH YOUSIF’s match report.
Mark Burke’s battling braves from Hitchin Town have reached the first round of the FA Cup for the first time in 23 years after another performance full of character and fight as they beat Leatherhead 2-1 aet at Fetcham Grove on Wednesday evening.
Jerry Nnamani swept Leatherhead into a first half lead before keeper Michael Johnson saved a Travis Gregory penalty moments before half-time – which proved to be a pivotal moment.
Supersub Dan Webb headed a leveller late in the second half - before Jack Green’s 100th minute goal put the visitors ahead for the first time in this utterly absorbing tie to clinch an unforgettabale victory for his side.
Webb speaking to CometSport moments after this gutsy performance hailed his team as the comeback kings after their refusal to buckle on this never-to-be-forgotten evening in Surrey - while club stalwart Roy Izzard, who has seen more than 3,000 Canaries matches, simply said he was stunned by the win.
Every single one of the side deserve credit for the way they showed such character as the Hitchin story continues.
Charlie Smith came in for Scot Belgrove as the only change from Saturday’s hard-fought draw in North Herts while for the Tanners Daniel Gallagher replaced Robert Cullen from the original game after returning from suspension.
As on Saturday fans were queuing down the street ahead of kick-off as the world’s oldest knock-out competition sprinkled its magic on this part of Surrey.
The opening stages were dominated by the home side and the pressure eventually told on 25 minutes after Nnamani rifled past the highly-rated Johnson in a crowded box after having his initial effort blocked.
In truth the goal was coming as the home side looked lively, sparked as they were in the first game by the impressive Gregory.
Hitchin fired a warning when Jay Dowie went close with a shot moments later with a powerful drive which narrowly flew over Zaki Oulalah’s bar and into the trees behind the goal.
FA rules allowed the combative Dowie to play despite being sent-off at the weekend.
The tough-tackling 25-year-old former Boston and Histon midfielder looked distraught four days ago after receiving a straight red card following a high challenge on Tanners captain Elliot Benyon on 21 minutes.
The rash challenge did not cost the ten-man Canaries thanks to the battling qualities his colleagues displayed – which were again evident against Leatherhead.
Burke’s boys endured a tough start to the season which included a dispiriting 8-2 loss at Needham Market.
But Burkey – as he is known to all – and his quiet dignity steadied the ship and won acclaim everywhere as they rallied since that low point – evidenced by the way his side clawed back to draw 1-1 on Saturday after captain fantastic Josh Bickerstaff calmly slotted home a spot-kick to level, only six minutes after Gregory put Leatherhead 1-0 up after a goalmouth scramble at Top Field.
The stalemate led us to Monday evening and the splendid Mark Chapman, Dennis Wise, Dion Dublin et al turning up at Top Field as the BBC broadcast the FA Cup first round draw from the Canaries clubhouse.
That memorable evening has been well-chronicled elsewhere, not least in the pages of the Hitchin Comet newspaper - but as boss Burke said in the aftermath of the draw which pitted fifth placed National League side Solihull Moors against the victor of Wednesday’s tie, all that mattered was Leatherhead at Fetcham Grove.
With many Hitchin fans and officials opting for their usual superstitions – a rough poll on the team bus included lucky socks, jelly babies and looking for magpies to salute among other rituals - Leatherhead were quietly confident of progression simply by dint of playing another side in their FA Cup run beginning with the letter ‘h’.
Herne Bay were dispatched by the Tanners in the first round of qualifying before Haverhill were sent packing prior to Leatherhead disposing of Hanwell Town after a replay.
Would Hitchin be victim number four?
It felt that way when Gregory strode up to take a penalty right on the stroke of half-time.
Referee Chris O’Donnell caused consternation among those in yellow and green when he awarded a spot kick moments before the break as the clock ticked down.
Gregory strode into the box before having his shot blocked by ma n of the match Johnson. He drifted out wide before receiving the ball again and feinted past right back Alex Anderson. The defender attempted to draw level with his man and as the pair tangled in the box Gregory went down.
It was one of those where the home fans in the crowd of 637 howled for a penalty while the 150 travelling Hitchin fans vehemently disagreed. Yet the only opinion that mattered was the referee who pointed to the spot.
In a pivotal moment Johnson dived full length to his left to save Gregory’s shot as the half-time whistle blew.
The 21-year-old Johnson is certainly making a name for himself, not just in terms of saving FA Cup penalties – he saved three to become the Canaries hero in the 4-2 penalty shoot-out drama on a dramatic night at Didcot in the second round – but with a smattering of scouts in attendance including one from Wolves, his sterling performance would have caught the eye.
Would his save prove to be vital? We were to find out in the second half as Nikki Bull’s side went into the break 1-0 ahead.
Johnson again proved to be the difference as he denied Gregory early in the second half.
Burke’s side broke moments later as Smith had a shot palmed away by Oualah as they attempted to gain a foothold in the match.
Smith then sent in a great cross into the box as Lewis Ferrell’s header went agonisingly over the bar – much to the chagrin of the travelling support including the guys from North Herts FM who broke their listening records with more than 15,000 fans in total tuning in as this gripping FA Cup tie unfolded.
Burke’s battling braves finally grabbed a deserved equaliser when substitute Dan Webb – who replaced the tiring Matt Spring on 71 minutes - angled a header across Oualah’s goal and into the net via the far post to send the travelling fans into raptures to make it 1-1.
As the final whistle blew for extra time after 180 minutes failed to separate this absorbing tie the news filtered through that the viewing figures for North Herts FM had broken the station’s all-time record – proving that the resurgence in the FA Cup is gripping the early rounds.
The Tanners’ Aflie Cue almost prompted a Leatherhead revival as his shot early in the first period of extra time.
Yet, it was the never-say-die Canaries who went ahead for the first time in this utterly absorbing tie after Jack Green slotted home from close range in the 100th minute to put the visitors ahead – prompting wild scenes of deep joy among Burke’s players and the travelling fans behind the goal.
There was deep, deep joy at the final whistle as fans and players celebrated as one as Burke’s braves made it through to the first round of the world’s oldest knock-out tournament.
The magic of the FA Cup?
My word, yes.
Follow sports journalist Layth on Twitter @laythy29