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Southern Premier League

Hitchin Town

Jaggard (19), Bridge (90)

Hednesford Town

McSweeney (22)

(1) 2

(1) 1



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Leon McSweeney



Halesowen Town (H) 16.8.04

The Pitmen's start to life back at step three is a losing one this afternoon as they are condemned to an opening day defeat at Hitchin Town courtesy of a late, late goal from Canaries substitute Mark Bridge

It had been a rollercoaster time at Keys Park since May, with the Pitmen still coming to terms with their astounding F.A. Trophy win off the back of their relegation to the newly re-formed Southern Premier League. Club great Chris Brindley had taken over the managerial reigns once more after his short-term spell in charge back in 2002-2003, replacing the now-departed Barry Powell. Brindley had appointed fellow senior professional Steve Anthrobus as his new assistant and the pair had been busy re-signing many of last season's squad as well as bringing in some fresh faces. There were three debutants for today's trip to Top Field as Richard Teesdale, Lee Williams and Leon McSweeney all made their first-team bows for the club

A large amount of restructuring at steps two and three of non-league football had affected Hitchin's league participation over the summer months, with the former Isthmian Premier League stalwarts moved laterally to the newly-structured Southern Premier League and the chance to lock horns with new rivals after a forty-year stay in the Isthmian system. Manager Kerry Dixon - the former Chelsea, Luton Town and England striker - had been busy rebuilding the Canaries side in preparation for their new challenge with no less than eleven new signings, with three of his starting XI making their full debuts today


On a bright summer's afternoon, it was a fast and furious start to the new campaign with both sides starting off with plenty of passion and commitment. New signing Williams - the former Mansfield Town and Peterborough United midfielder - whipped in a fifth-minute freekick from the left that was flicked on by new skipper Carl Palmer, only for the ball to drift away from the boot of youngster Damien Charie at the far post

The home side responded with a neat passing move through midfield on ten minutes that saw Josh Sozzo supply strike partner Darran Hay with the ball. The veteran former Woking man - a scourge of Hednesford sides back in the late nineties - hit a firm shot that sailed just wide of Ryan Young's left-hand post from twenty yards out

Three minutes later, the returning David Berks took a quick free-kick for the men in sky blue and found new signing McSweeney in space. the Irishman took a couple of touches and tried his luck with a curling effort from the corner of the penalty area that Hitchin goalkeeper Neil Cheek watched wide of his far post

It was the home side that were to strike the first blow of the game in the nineteenth minute as Stuart Maynard sent over a teasing cross into the danger zone that was met by striker Gavin Jaggard, whose header had too much on it for Young as it sailed past the stopper and into the net from close-range

The Pitmen were shocked into action and put the hosts under pressure as they looked for an immediate response. On twenty-two minutes, Berks whipped in an inswinging corner kick that was headed goalwards by Teesdale, who saw his effort cleared off the line by debutant James Kidd. The ball bobbled around the Hitchin penalty area once more before McSweeney stooped to head the loose ball home on the rebound for his first Hednesford goal since signing from Hucknall Town recently

Chris Gray was the first Hednesford player of the new season to be shown a yellow card as he was cautioned on twenty-five minutes for a foul on Maynard out on the left

Three minutes later, Gray's deep cross to the far post was headed back across goal by McSweeney and into the path of Charie, whose scuffed shot failed to test Cheek

The tricky Jaggard was giving the Pitmen's new-look central defence a tough time and he nearly wriggled his way through on goal just after the half-hour following a pass from the equally bright Sozzo, only for Young to make a simple save to his right

McSweeney tried his luck with an ambitious long-range effort on thirty-four minutes as he won the ball from Ian Scott and spotted Cheek off his line, only to see his shot drift well over the crossbar

The game continued to yo-yo from end to end, with Hitchin next to have a chance four minutes later; Maynard's pinpoint cross from the right was met by the head of Kidd, whose powerful effort was parried away by Young on his goal line before Alex Gibson completed the clearance


Player/manager Brindley was his unusual threat from set-pieces, heading a free-kick from Williams wide of goal on forty minutes as he met the ball at the near post

 Just a couple of minutes before half-time, Jaggard could have restored the Canaries lead as he picked up a pass from Hay but saw his close-range shot deflected away by the boot of Craig Dean

It had been a keenly-contested first period from both sides, who had both been wasteful in front of goal despite both notching in the first quarter of the game as they looked to shake off their pre-season rustiness

McSweeney won a free-kick in a dangerous area just outside the Hitchin penalty area just three minutes after the restart after forcing Gordon Barr into bringing him down. Berks took the resultant free-kick and curled his left-footed effort just wide of Cheek's right-hand post

Excellent play from Hay on fifty minutes saw him escape the attentions of old adversary Brindley and play the ball into Jaggard, whose speculative twenty-five yards effort was well held by Young

Berks showed Gordon Barr a clean pair of heels down the left-wing two minutes later and sent over an early cross to Charie, who was caught on his heels and just failed to get a touch to the ball as it skipped across the face of goal


The Pitmen they felt they should have had a penalty on fifty-three minutes when McSweeney chased onto a fine Gray through ball and appeared to be hauled down by Paul Covington. Referee Mr Blackledge was unimpressed with the striker's appeals and the game continued

Williams tested the reflexes of Cheek on fifty-nine minutes with a powerful long-range effort that the Hitchin stopper had some trouble holding and gathered at the second attempt

Jaggard's angled drive on sixty-two minutes was watched wide of goal by Young after the Hitchin goalscorer had wriggled past Dean down the right and drifted inside from the flank

Lee McCulloch was warned about his conduct by Mr Blackledge on sixty-five minutes as he earned himself a severe ticking-off from the referee following a crude challenge on Gray but managed to escape a yellow card

The Pitmen's first substitution of the game came a minute later as Grant Beckett made his first appearance of the season as he replaced Dean in a like-for-like swap at left-back

Beckett was involved two minutes later as he gave the ball away to Sozzo in midfield with an unforced error. The Hitchin man took the ball forwards before slipping the ball through to Hay, who was denied a shot at goal by a late offside flag against him. A slightly contentious decision as the ball appeared to take a nick off Beckett before being played through to the veteran, thus playing him onside in the process

Danny McGhee's first appearance of the season came from the substitute's bench on seventy-one minutes as the young midfield man replaced the carded Gray on the left-wing


Palmer's trademark lung-busting run from midfield saw him pick up a pass from Williams on seventy-three minutes and drive past Maynard but hit his shot wide of goal with a wild effort from twenty-five yards out

Anthrobus was to be the Pitmen's final change of the afternoon with sixteen minutes remaining as the visitors looked for a late winner, with the big man coming on in place of Charie. This left Phil Parkes to bark out the instructions from the touchline with both Brindley and Anthrobus on the pitch

Anthrobus flicked on a Berks corner kick into the path of Palmer on seventy-nine minutes, but the midfield man's swerving shot drifted away from Cheek's near post

Brindley rose highest two minutes later to reach a Williams cross following Gibson's quick throw-in, only to loop his header high over the crossbar from ten yards out, under pressure from McCulloch

With six minutes remaining, it was Hitchin's turn to appeal for a penalty kick as Sozzo was brought down in the penalty area by Teesdale after cleverly flicking the ball into the area and past the former Walsall man. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears and Teesdale eventually cleared the ball


With the game starting to drift towards a fair opening day point apiece, the hosts snatched the lead once more in the final minute of normal time; another fine cross from Maynard on the right was flicked on by Sozzo and into the path of substitute Mark Bridge, who had just come on a moment earlier for Hay. He reacted well to the flick-on and volleyed the ball past Young from six yards out for what would be the winner 

There was no time for the visitors to react with only two minutes of added time played, making it a fifth opening day game in a row without a win for the Pitmen. They will get the chance to put three points on the board on Monday night when they play host to newly-promoted local rivals Halesowen Town at Keys Park in their first home game of the new campaign 

Hitchin Town:  Hitchin: Cheek, Barr, Kidd, Covington, McCulloch, Scott, Cavill, Maynard, Hay (Bridge 89), Sozzo, Jaggard      Subs Unused: Case, Hassan, Lamacraft, Galvin

Hednesford Town: Young, Gibson, Dean (Beckett 66), Brindley, Teesdale, Williams, Gray  (McGhee 71), Palmer ©, Charie (Anthrobus 74), McSweeney, Berks      Subs Unused: Barrow, Evans

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