SOUTHERN LEAGUE CHALLENGE
KO CUP – ROUND ONE
St Neots Town 1 Hitchin Town 1 (St Neots won 4-3 on penalties)
Original Photograph kindly supplied by Mark Cowling
In a dramatic penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw, St Neots kept their nerve to knock out higher graded Hitchin Town to repeat a first round Challenge Cup victory over the same visitors in the 2013/14 season when the Saints went on to win the trophy. The home hero of the hour was home goalkeeper George Whitehall who saved three of Hitchin’s spot kicks. Manager Pete Gill chose to use this occasion to give some of his squad players some match time making six changes in his starting line up from that which had appeared three days earlier at Harlow. This included two new signings – Kwai Marsh-Brown and Ayub Kadiri and two of the talented U18 squad were also included on the substitutes bench. Conditions could hardly have been more testing with a swirling wind and heavy rain, yet the two sides produced an entertaining and competitive match with the home side coming back from behind to earn their chance in the shoot-out.
Playing against the elements in the first half, St Neots made a bright start creating the first real opening as a Harvey Steel cross found the head of Neo Richard-Noel but visiting keeper Charles Horlock saved well. An early injury to a visiting defender saw Hitchin forced into a change and they responded with a slick move that saw a shot from Rio DaSilva deflected for a corner. With both sides struggling to master the conditions many efforts on goal were from distance with Joe Sutton trying his luck at one end and Luke Brown bringing a useful save from George Whitehall at the other. New signing Ayub Kadiri looked bright and three minutes before the break he lit up the game with a mazy run past two defenders, but his finish was wide of the far post. Jake Battersby making his first start was also off target after good work by acting skipper Myles Cowling and the first period ended in added time as Kai Marsh-Brown was denied by the crossbar from a Battersby corner.
Goalless but never dull summed up the first half action, and the end-to-end pattern continued after the break with defender Mamadou Jobe keeping St Neots in the match with a dramatic goal line clearance after 55 minutes. Having utilised Brendon Shabani as a second half replacement for Kadiri, St Neots replaced their second debutant with striker Joe Rider in a positive move to break the deadlock. He was quickly in the thick of the action and after 64 minutes he forced the save of the match – full length from Horlock. A third St Neots substitution with the exciting Julinho Gomes replacing Battersby after 69 minutes appeared to have gone wrong when two minutes later from a Lawrie Marsh throw found the unmarked Lewis Barker and his cross into the area set up Ryan Smith arriving late to open the scoring. This seemed to motivate St Neots and for a spell they dominated possession being rewarded after 78 minutes when a header from a Gomes cross by Rider rebounded from the bar with the visiting keeper stranded, and Neo Richard Noel was quickly on hand to level the scores. In the last few minutes both sides went looking for a winner and St Neots thought they were denied a penalty when Richard-Noel was upended in the area, but the Referee waved play on.
And so onto the dramatic finale from the penalty spot. St Neots failed to score from three of their first four kicks with Rider and Cowling both shooting over the bar and Gomes sending his effort wide, but fortunately for them the visitors were equally inept thanks to George Whitehall’s three saves. In the end successful kicks from Richard-Noel, Joe Sutton, Harvey Steel and Wynford Marfo saw them through to the second round of the competition for the first time since 2016/17.
Tonight’s Saints Supporters’ Man of the Match was awarded to MAMADOU JOBE
St Neots: Whitehall, Steel, Smith, Cowling, Marfo, Jobe, Marsh-Brown, Kediri, Richard-Noel, Sutton, Battersby
Subs: Shabani (for Kadiri 46 mins), Rider (for Marsh-Brown 58 mins), Gomes (for Battersby 69 mins, Thomas, and Anthony.
Cards: Shabani (Y – 62 mins), Marfo (Y – 82 mins)
Goals: Richard-Noel (78 mins)
Hitchin: Horlock, Akubuine, Brown (A), Smith, Webb, Marsh, Barker, Coldicott-Stevens, DaSilva, Brown (L), Tearle
Subs: Georgiou (for Akubuine 15 mins), Jones, Snee, Black, and Gordon-Douglas.
Cards: Barker (Y – 63 mins)
Goals: Smith (71 mins)
Referee: Ryan Dix (Northampton)