Harding the hero but Puritans are thwarted by Hitchin
Banbury United had to be content with a solitary BetVictor Southern League point against Hitchin Town.
Saturday's Premier Central stalemate may have lacked goals but there was no shortage of drama at the Banbury Plant Hire Community Stadium where Jack Harding made his 200th appearance for the club and it turned out to be one to remember.
As expected, manager Mike Ford freshened the side up with John Mills partnering top scorer Jaanai Gordon in attack. Anderson Cayola returned in midfield after missing the two FA Cup games and Pablo Haysham made his first start of the season. Jack Westbrook moved into central defence alongside Lee Henderson with Connor Roberts taking over at left-back from Gedeon Okito.
United began on the front foot and made all the early running, with some neat inter-passing mainly involving Haysham and Anderson. Mills had a couple of half chances but United struggled to open up the Hitchin defence despite completely dominating possession.
Several times, neat build-up play ended with the final crucial pass missing around the box. United played some delightful football but Hitchin keeper Charlie Horlock wasn't seriously tested in the opening 45 minutes.
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Anderson fired well over from the edge of the box as the Hitchin defence made sure clear-cut openings were at a premium. On the stroke of halftime substitute Alexander Anderson shot straight at Harding who, like his opposite number, had a quiet first half.
Straight after the restart a quick break involving Gordon and Mills ended with Anderson shooting at Horlock but the keeper had his near post covered. United took control again but too many times they were guilty of looking for one pass too many in the final third.
The game sprang into life on the hour mark when Harding saved two penalties in quick succession either side of Henderson being sent off. And it was all of United's own making after Westbrook's back pass put Harding in trouble.
Leon Okuboyejo rounded the stranded keeper but Hawtin blocked the initial effort. In the scramble that ensued Hawtin was penalised for a foul on Okuboyejo. After a long delay, Harding saved Jay Dowie's spot-kick but that wasn't the end of the drama.
The assistant spotted an infringement on Max Ryan in the six-yard box after United cleared the danger and Henderson was dismissed. But again Harding came to his side's rescue, blocking Josh Bickerstaff's spot-kick before keeping the ball out of the net at the second attempt.
Hitchin sensed more than a point, Layne Eadie's shot was parried by Harding and Anderson was unable to turn in the loose ball at the far post. But Hitchin were reduced to ten men when Ryan got his second caution to even things up.
The game opened up in the latter stages as both sides sensed a winner. Mills came closest when his low angled drive beat Horlock but struck the inside of the far post and the ball landed back in the keeper's arms.
It was United who went in search of the late winner, asking more of the Hitchin defence in the last ten minutes than they had before. Mills went close again when he dragged his shot wide of the near post from a good position and Haysham burst into the box but his effort was deflected wide with Horlock stranded.