When football was being established back in the early 20th century, grounds were generally built among the people.
But often hemmed in on all sides, with back gardens bordering the grounds, they soon became inconvenient for people living in the vicinity or those wishing to park their cars. The grounds were also limited in how they could expand and as floodlights arrived, if you had a football club next door, it was more than just a noisy neighbour.
In the early 1990s, the trend of out-of-town grounds gathered momentum. Scunthorpe, Yeovil and Wycombe were among the first to relocate. Since then, new grounds, in purpose-built locations, have sprung up all over the country.
Hitchin Town’s landlords have tabled a plan for an out-of-town ground that is just under two miles from the town centre. Some people are upset by the prospect of this. But it is basically a case of moving from one side of town to the other – if you live in the Purwell area of Hitchin, the Poets Estate or other parts of town, you are, after all, one and a half miles from the current Hitchin ground. The distance is not as prohibitive as people think, but psychologically, it will always seem considerable.
Aside from developing Hitchin’s current ground, any new venture by any club is destined to be an out-of-town site. The luxury of a centrally-located sports facility of any kind is outdated and economically difficult to achieve. Housing will always win the day. Why do you think retail parks were developed? To accommodate, more comfortably, shoppers with motor cars. The same rule applies to football clubs.
Hitchin fans compare the new development to Cirencester and Leamington. Leamington’s ground is five miles out of town, but it doesn’t seem to have harmed them – their crowds average 500-plus. Weymouth FC, the best supported club in the Southern League Premier, is two miles from the town centre. And Stevenage, a modern day footballing success story, have their ground more than one and a half miles out of the town centre.
There’s another element to consider. The future of any club is the youth of today. They do not share the cloth-cap nostalgia of some longer-standing supporters, or hanker for days spent in crumbling stadia. Any new ground has to have more than one eye on what will attract the younger supporters. They care not for grounds that are museum pieces with limited lifespan.
The important thing is not necessarily where a ground is, because if the product is right, people will come. A new ground, regardless of location, can act as a springboard to better things. Yeovil, Wycombe and a number of others all benefitted from their moves. Get the product working properly and nobody will mind where a club plays. Most people will just use up a little more petrol than normal.
There are many questions to be asked about the Hitchin proposal, not least whether planning permission will be granted and the status of the club in the grand scheme of things, but if it does go ahead, and it’s a big “if” – people may have to get used to a little bit of [initial] inconvenience.