FA CUP: Hitchin Town 1-1 Leatherhead: Mark Burke’s ten-man battling Canaries show true character

PUBLISHED: 16:57 20 October 2018 | UPDATED: 17:26 20 October 2018

Top Field, home of Hitchin Town FC. Picture @laythy29 Twitter and Instagram

Top Field, home of Hitchin Town FC. Picture @laythy29 Twitter and Instagram

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Hitchin Town hosted Leatherhead in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup at grand old Top Field on Saturday. Read on for Layth Yousif’s match report

Ten-man Hitchin showed true character to battle back from a goal down through captain fantastic Josh Bickerstaff’s calmly taken penalty 12 minutes into the second half to draw 1-1 with Leatherhead in their FA Cup fourth qualifying round tie on Saturday.

The popular defender was the coolest man at grand old Top Field as he slotted home to level – only six minutes after Travis Gregory put Leatherhead 1-0 up after a goalmouth scramble.

The result was proof of the battling qualities Hitchin possess after Jay Dowie received a straight red card after a high challenge on Tanners captain Elliot Benyon on 21 minutes.

Canaries keeper Michael Johnson was also on top form as he stood firm against the visitors – earning man of the match plaudits - with the whole team deserving lashings of credit for their battling qualities.

The news that the BBC were to televise the first round draw at the home of the winner of this tie prompted queues half-way down Fishponds Road – in both directions – prior to kick-off as the town of Hitchin rallied to support their courageous Canaries bid to reach the first round of the world’s oldest cup competition for the first time in 23 years.

Their dignified boss Mark Burke and their long-suffering supporters had suffered their fair share of lows at the start of this season, including a demoralising 8-2 defeat at Needham Market in August.

Yet Hitchin are renowned for doing the right thing and immediately refunded the travel costs of all their travelling fans, before ‘Burkey’ as he is known to all, issued a heartfelt apology.

Since that low point the FA Cup has provided their talented if underperforming squad a haven from their league travails with victories over Godmanchester in the first qualifying round in early September.

They showed the character they undoubtedly posses by emerging from a tough night at Didcot Town in their second qualifying replay after a 0-0 draw after extra time following a draw in North Herts.

Their highly-rated netminder Johnson saved three penalties in the shoot-out as Burke’s side eased through 4-2 on penalties, before a routine 2-0 home victory over Hastings United in the third qualifying round.

However, after a scrappy opening against Leatherhead, Hitchin’s No8 Dowie was distraught at his sending-off in the 21st minute, after a high challenge poleaxed Tanners captain Elliot Benyon, who it has to be said, milked the moment for all it was worth.

Referee Gardner opted to show a straight red to the tenacious, tough-tackling 25-year-old midfielder who counts Boston and Histon as his previous clubs.

On 38 minutes a strange decision from referee Gardner infuriated the home support after only booking Leatherhead’s No 10 Shaun Okojie after his elbow came into contact with the face of Hitchin’s Alex Anderson’s - leaving many fans questioning the consistency of the man in black. Among a few other comments.

Burke’s braves showed huge reserves of character to battle their way to 0-0 at the break under a clear blue autumnal sky in North Herts with shotstopper Johnson showing his agility and athleticism to tip over a powerful drive from the Tanners Travis Gregory three minutes before the break – even if the feeling was that their courage was just delaying the inevitable.

So it proved.

The lively Gregory poked home the ball from close range six minutes after the break to put Nikki Bull’s side 1-0 ahead.

However, a mere six minutes later the home side earned a penalty after Thomas Cooney fouled Jack Green in a crowded box.

To the delight of the home support in a season’s best bumper crowd of 1,278 - which also bettered every attendance last term - captain fantastic Josh Bickerstaff calmly slotted home straight down the middle to beat Tanners keeeper Zaki Oualah, as Mark Burke’s battling braves make it 1-1 after Gardner also booked visiting left-back.

The crowd roared their relief as much as their approval as it was suddenly game on for ten-man Hitchin.

The home side threatened sporadically, fired by adrenaline and feeding off the support of their fans as they looked to win the game. Yet Moore’s Leatherhead deserve credit for refusing to buckle and could have scored a second in the closing stages as the impressive Gregory curled in a low shot which Johnson dived at full length inches off the ground to push away.

Johnson then showed good positioning to palm away Benyon’s shot with a matter of moments remaining as the two side’s regroup for the replay on Wednesday, where it will be hoped they can show the same spirit – only this time with 11 men at Fetcham Grove.

The magic of the FA Cup? Absolutely.

Follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29

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