Hinckley AFC recorded a fine opening-day win as they held off a late Droitwich Spa fightback to win 3-2 at a wet Kirkby Road.
On an afternoon that felt more like November than early August, a severely depleted Hinckley took a three-goal lead early in the second half.
But Droitwich, who fought back from 3-1 down to draw the play-off semi-final between the sides in May, looked like pulling off the same comeback – Hinckley this time hanging on to the win that gets them off to the perfect start.
Hinckley were missing key trio Chandler Pegg, Jack Edwards, Sam Walton through injury as well as summer signings Zaki Evans and Tom Armitage – while Mitchell Piggon and Jack Kennedy were unavailable.
But given the stuttered build-up, the campaign could hardly have started better. Just 53 seconds were on the clock when Johnny Johnston, who signed on dual registration from Redditch United on the morning of the game, latched onto Ky Green’s pass and drove into the box before finding the far corner.
The visitors responded well to that early setback and had a couple of half-chances in the drizzle, Charlie Tilley and Josh Hurdman both shooting wide from outside the box.
Preston Bitemo then did likewise as Hinckley went close to a second shortly before the break, after Johnston cut inside and had one deflected past the near post.
AFC started the second half quickly, and scored twice in ten minutes by the hour mark to put themselves in control.
Quick thinking led to the second goal as a cleverly taken free-kick found Matt Dawson on the flank. His drilled cross was parried by Dom Rogerson back into the danger area, where Ben Whitehead lashed home his first league goal for the club.
Droitwich’s Perry Moss was sin-binned for his reaction to the goal, and it was during his ten-minute breather that Hinckley added a third. Johnston turned provider for Joe Obi, tempted out of retirement to help during the injury crisis, to bend a fine finish into the far corner from the edge of the box to make it three.
Hinckley were rampant at this point – Johnston went within inches of a fourth when he speculative effort flew narrowly wide, and Rogerson saved from Josh Clews.
But even at 3-0 up, Hinckley are all too aware of Droitwich’s ability to comeback and they threatened another in the final 25 minutes. Brandon Bache saved from Hurdman, and Dawson was adjudged to have fouled Moss in the follow-up. Connor Collins reduced the arrears from the spot.
Hinckley had another chance to kill off any comeback but Joe McNulty headed Danny Fraser’s delivery onto the post, and the nerves around Kirkby Road only increased when Collins headed a deflected cross wide from close range.
Charlie Tilley did pull another back for the hosts with a minute to go, converting Collins’ knock down, but it was too little, too late and Hinckley held on for a vital three points on the opening day against a side tipped to be title challengers.
Hinckley: Brandon Bache, Matt Dawson, Danny Fraser, Preston Bitemo, Ky Green (Joe McNulty 43), Ben Whitehead, Johnny Johnston (Lewis Rankin 88), Jordan Holmes (Josh Clews 58), Joe Obi, Harry Walker-Donovan, Adam Barber (Tom Parker 54). Sub not used: Jack Beasley
Goals: Johnny Johnston (1), Ben Whitehead (51), Joe Obi (61)
Droitwich: Dom Rogerson, Jack Brighton, Callum Green, Max Loveridge, Alex Dugmore, Gavin Podmore, Perry Moss, Charlie Tilley, Connor Collins, Luke Molloy (James Halsall 69), Josh Hurdman (Ollie Thompson 81). Subs not used: Joe Heywood, Joel Chadwick, Aston Amies
Goals: Connor Collins (68 pen), Charlie Tilley (88)
pictured courtesy of Mathew Mason