Burgess Hill Town were cast an unwelcome Halloween surprise on Saturday, conceding late on against Hitchin Town in the FA Trophy first qualifying round to sustain their curse this season of falling at the first hurdle of cup competitions.
The Hillians were unbeaten in three games, scoring eight goals, and had made three changes from the side that shared a point with VCD Athletic in midweek. In came Doherty, Pearse and Lee Harding for Pointing, Rowland and Saunders.
As for the home side, they had endured a mixture of recent results, having won two and lost two of their last four fixtures in the Southern Football League, the Red Insure Cup and the FA Cup.
Though big chances were scarce, Hitchin asked some early questions of Hill’s defence, to which the visitors had the answers. Lucas Kirkpatrick delivered a cross into the six-yard-box, which was well headed away by Joe Keehan. Seven minutes later, Hill created their first chance: A nice one-two between Darren Budd and Chris Smith saw the latter’s venomous shot blocked by an onrushing defender.
Burgess Hill broke the deadlock in the 25th minute, following a long Sam Fisk throw, Will Miles flicked on and Smith was at hand to smash home a scissor kick into the bottom corner and grab his eight goal for the Hillians.
The away side had a great chance to double their lead on the half-hour mark when Budd’s whipped free-kick found Keehan, whose powerful header was met by the diving heroics of the Hitchin ‘keeper.
The Canaries came out after half time looking refreshed and carrying a sense of eagerness. This should have paid off ten minutes into the subsequent half when Brett Donnelly’s close range effort missed Josh James’ post by a whisker, after inventive play down the right-wing gave the striker a glorious chance to level the scoreline.
They needn’t have pondered “if only” too much, however, as they drew level in unfortunate fashion just moments later. Robbie Burns played the ball into the danger area, to which Andy Pearson stuck a leg out in an attempt to clear his lines but could only watch as the ball spun off him and caught out James. Muted celebration from the players suggested sympathy towards Pearson, who had been a rock in the back line up to that moment.
Pearson was able to push aside his own-goal in the 65th minute as he sent a perfect cross-field pass to the feet of Pat Harding, who crept into the box from the right-wing and put it on a plate for Smith to coolly slot home his second of the afternoon and give his side a 2-1 lead; falling to the turf in a relieved celebration, joined by his teammates.
Smith set out in search of a hat-trick and so nearly found it when a deflected Keehan pass was caught sweetly on the volley, but saw the chance squandered by the goalkeeper.
The score was levelled yet again when a mix-up in defence allowed Jack Boyd to power through and slot home past the despairing James for 2-2.
A replay in Sussex loomed and a draw seemed a fair result for both sides before Callum Donnelly was sent through and tucked an 89th minute winner into the far corner. Sheer jubilation took over the home side, reeling off to celebrate the giant-killing with the management staff and subs. Disappointment for Hill though, who conceded in the final ten minutes for the sixth time this season, an occurrence captain Darren Budd is keen to change.
MOTM: Chris Smith- Two great goals; could have had three or four.
HILLIANS: James, Doherty, Fisk, Budd (Kirkwood 72’), Pearson, Miles, Pearse, Keehan (Johnson 90’), P.Harding, Smith, L.Harding (Levy 75’)
UNUSED SUBS: Rowland, Saunders.