St Ives Town manager Ricky Marheineke was left cursing a sluggish start as his side slipped to defeat last night.

St Ives Town goalkeeper Martin Conway saved a penalty at Hitchin. Picture: LOUISE THOMPSONSt Ives Town goalkeeper Martin Conway saved a penalty at Hitchin. Picture: LOUISE THOMPSON

Marheineke's men were beaten 1-0 at Hitchin Town in a Southern League Premier Division Central clash settled by an early goal.

The hosts made the only breakthrough after six minutes before second-half heroics from goalkeeper Michael Johnson prevented Saints from clawing themselves level on a night when both teams had penalties saved.

"It's a tough defeat to take," said Marheineke. "Our performance in the final 15 minutes of the first half and throughout the second half didn't warrant us coming away with nothing.

"Ultimately we ended up paying for starting the game awfully and giving away a really poor goal where we were caught in possession and didn't react anywhere near quickly enough.

"We tend to play well when we're behind which is encouraging in one way, but frustrating in another as we find ourselves in that position too often. We need to really focus on getting going better for the first 15 minutes of matches."

The only goal arrived after six minutes as a static Saints defence allowed Michael Cain to pounce after Martin Conway parried a Matt Lench drive. That move began when Cain robbed Ben Baker of possession inside Saints' own half.

Saints survived a strong penalty appeal on the half-hour when a deflected Cain cross appeared to strike the arm of defender Jarvis Wilson.

Sam Cartwright and Ben Seymour-Shove saw goalbound efforts blocked in the same attack as Saints attempted to haul themselves level before being fortunate not to see their deficit double as one of their former players, defender Lewis Ferrell, curled a shot just wide for the hosts.

Saints finished the opening half strongly and were then the better team after the break when unable to turn their pressure into goals.

Hitchin number one Johnson was the major reason for Saints' drawing a blank as he pulled off a stunning save to deny Danny Kelly at point-blank range before also keeping out a Robbie Parker penalty after Seymour-Shove was tripped.

That spot-kick drama came only a few minutes after Conway saved a penalty at the other end to spare the blushes of Wilson after he sent Hitchin substitute Alfie Cue tumbling.

But their earlier goal proved enough to earn them a fourth successive league victory and bring Saints' four-game unbeaten run to an end.

Marheineke added: "I would have been disappointed to pick up one point so I'm gutted to get nothing.

"The Hitchin goalkeeper has to be applauded for his penalty save and the world-class stop to deny Danny, but it's still a game we should have got something from."

A busy festive spell continues for St Ives when they go to Tamworth on Saturday, 3pm, before hosting Royston in a Boxing Day date, 1pm, at Westwood Road.