The attritional battle of Hitchin Town’s Top Field looks set to develop into an all-out campaign to gain support from the people and businesses around the Hertfordshire town. The front-page of the local paper, The Comet, has a poker-faced Andy Melvin, the club’s Chief Executive, emblazoned across its latest edition, calling for a united front to combat attempts to move the club and install a supermarket on the old football ground.
This represents a bold new strategy from Melvin, who has rarely gone public during the 23 years he has been in negotiation with the ground’s trustees, the Cow Commoners. Such has been the delicacy of the situation, the former Hitchin manager – who guided the club to two FA Cup giant-killings in the mid-1990s – has always been reluctant to take the fight to the terraces and stands of Top Field. Until now, that is.
Melvin has called a public meeting, some 20 years after he laid out his personal plans for a new stadium at Top Field. The matchstick model he presented to fans in 1993-94 has been gathering dust since, but his latest announcement indicates that the next phase of negotiation may be the most crucial period in his two-decade long pursuit of a better deal for the club.
“The club wants to stay at Top Field, but we want to ask the fans, the people of Hitchin and the business fraternity what they want. It may be that people think we are better off moving, but I want to know what they feel is best for the town of Hitchin,” Melvin told Game of the People.
Melvin and his colleagues are launching a new campaign, “Save HTFC”, the title of which emphasizes the gravity of the situation. Some people consider that if the club moves to the proposed site on the outskirts of town, it could spell the end of a footballing institution that can trace its roots back to 1865. That may seem unlikely, but the new address, which may have considerable trouble getting approved given its green belt status, is some two miles from Top Field, the club’s home since reformation in 1928.
“We want to wake up the town to what is actually going on at the moment. We’ve been here since the 1920s and the alternative could be another supermarket. Does the town really need another supermarket?,” asks Melvin.
Regardless of what happens to Top Field, there has been an element of “cloak and dagger” about the whole saga. A local property developer and the trustees conjured this up behind closed doors with no prior input from the club. Indeed, it was tabled as a fait accompli to the club’s officials a couple of years ago, amid great secrecy.
The developer will have a five-year period to get his plans approved, so unless something gives, Hitchin Town may have to sweat it out for another half-decade before there’s a resolution. Melvin, a determined and resourceful individual, will certainly go the distance, but will the rotting wooden terracing and rusting floodlights? It’s a worry for the people who maintain the ground.
But with Melvin and the Cow Commoners locking horns for so long that some people might assume they are sworn enemies, but you get the feeling that the door may be open for re-negotiation. Melvin knows, after all, that the optimal situation is to work together with the Cow Commoners to find a fresh solution to end a painful impasse. Right now, a fighting fund is being established to ensure the “Save HTFC” campaign has legs. It will be interesting to see if any corporate money flows into the coffers, given that legal fees will soon swallow-up church steeple-type fund raising. “We want to get the town behind us,” insists Melvin.
It’s ironic that this latest twist comes just a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of one of the highest points in the club’s history, a period when everyone wanted to know Hitchin Town. It was in 1994 that Melvin’s Hitchin team beat then-Football League Hereford (they’re now both in the Southern League Premier) to become FA Cup giant-killers for the first time. The Canaries beat Hereford 4-2 at Top Field in front of more than 3,000 people. Melvin claimed that he was confident they would win that game because, “I’m a lucky man”. In the coming months, he will have to summon up that same level of self-confidence and conviction as his club attempts to stave off what many Top Field regulars see as unpalatable.