Analysis: A day for defenders as AFC Telford United draw a blank
An encounter between two teams in form promised much but delivered only a tactical deadlock as the Bucks came up against a well-organised Hitchin outfit.
AFC Telford had to be content with a point from a cagey, tactical contest, one that extended their unbeaten run in the league to eight matches. It was also the third clean sheet in a row for Kevin Wilkin’s team, who looked vulnerable only on the odd occasion.
Unfortunately, the same could be said of their opponents Hitchin, who smothered and stifled the Buck, restricting them to only a few shots on target.
Wilkin’s side wasn’t helped by a lack of cohesion between the attacking pairing of Montel Gibson and Reece Styche. The two have exhibited signs of being a genuine handful for opponents, but both had off days, making little impression on Hitchin’s defensive unit.
Styche was back in the starting XI after missing last weekend’s 1-0 win at Berkhamsted with double vision following a head injury and replaced Tré Mitford as Gibson’s partner. Wilkin also welcomed back defenders Orrin Pendley and Ellis Myles; Pendley slotted back into the defence alongside Sam Whittall whilst Myles played in a more advanced role on the right, in front of last weekend’s matchwinner Jared Hodgkiss.
Steffan Jones and George Forsyth, able deputies at Berkhamsted, returned to the substitutes bench.
Gibson fired an early shot well wide as he searched to find his range, but the game’s first serious effort on goal saw the Canaries’ Finley Wilkinson give an early indication of why he has been catching the eye this season. His run down the right-hand side and some swift interplay set him up to test Brandon Hall with a low shot that he dragged wide to the base of Hall’s left post.
From early on it was clear that Hitchin, under experienced manager Mark Burke, would try to play the ball out from their goalkeeper Charlie Hurlock. They remained committed to it for most of the game but couldn’t always find the pass they wanted. As a result, the game began to resemble a chess match, each side countering the other’s moves but unable to construct anything that posed a serious threat to the other’s goal.
Styche tried to unsettle the Hitchin defence but ended up being booked for a confrontation with Daniel Idiakho, who may have been fortunate that referee Daniel Pattison didn’t see his two-handed shove into Styche’s chest after the two eye-balled each other following a foul.
Soon after. Idiakho slid into a challenge against Styche with his foot raised and arguably out of control, but the officials allowed that one to slide, quite literally.
Former Wolves man Stephen Gleeson tried to test Hall from 25 yards, but his strike wasn’t precise enough and curled wide.
The Bucks fell foul of Hitchin’s well-marshalled defence, too often straying offside, and at the other end, Wilkinson must have been cursing Galliford when his hooked shot towards goal struck his team-mate, and went wide. The shot lacked power and may not have troubled Hall, but Galliford’s decision to run across his team-mate’s sight of goal made certain it did not.
The first half ended with the Canaries using their wings, and right-back Bradley Bell’s inviting cross from the left curled in towards the six-yard box and away to safety with no one in front of Hall getting a touch. Hitchin retrieved the ball and won a corner, but Sam Whittall, a colossus in the Bucks defence, headed clear and set up a counter-attack through Ricardo Dinanga. The 21-year-old Irishman can both excite and frustrate in equal measure and his direct but graceful run won a late corner that brought no reward.
Early in the second half, a foul on Styche won a free-kick that was repelled but when the Bucks returned the ball to the penalty area, Pendley almost forced the ball home at Horlock’s near post, the ball blocked by the keeper and rebounding off Pendley, denying the Bucks even a corner.
Soon after, Dinanga showed good strength to retrieve possession after an attempted through ball for Styche was cut out; he then cut onto his left foot and brought a save from Horlock at his near post.
Both sides continued to exchange thrust and counter-thrust, but neither appeared willing to commit enough attacking resources to genuinely make it count. As a result, defences remained on top, able to deal with what was thrown at them.
Each won the occasional corner or free-kick in promising positions, and as the game entered its final 20 minutes, both managers made substitutions in the hope of introducing something different.
The disappointing Gibson and Styche made way for Mitford and Ty Webster but by that point, you began to sense that it would take something extra special to prevent the game from ending with honours even.
It almost came in injury time, when Dinanga showed a flash of excellence to turn his marker in the box and put the ball on to his left foot; in a flash, he was facing Horlock and he struck his shot well, only to see the despairing challenge of a Canaries defender deflect the ball wide of the exposed keeper.
It was a moment that summed up the day. Resolute and committed defending might not excite crowds, but it pleases managers. Being hard to beat is by no means a bad quality to possess; however, Wilkin knows his team needs more goal threat and cutting edge if they are to turn themselves into bona fide promotion contenders.
AFC Telford United: Hall, Myles, Fox, Piggott, Pendley, Whittall, Dinanga, Walker, Gibson (Webster 82), Styche (Mitford 74), Moore. Subs: Forsyth, Jones, West.
Hitchin Town: Horlock, Bell, Eadie, Syme, Tearle, Georgiou, Cotter (Freeman 69), Gleeson (Emovon 80), Idiakho, Galliford, Wilkinson. Subs: Matshazi, Snelus, Gouvela.