“The home of Triumph” is the welcoming sign to Hinckley, presumably the motorcycle brand and not – in keeping with the town’s links with the hosiery and lingerie industry – “the bra for the way you are”!.
Triumph is not something associated with the town’s football club, Hinckley United, who are going through a lean spell and are tempering expectation after life in the Conference North. Certainly, they have facilities that will be the envy of every club that plays at Step Three, a marvellous stadium that is geared to a much higher level of football. And the signposts directing “away fans” are clearly in preparation for times to come. All that is surely on hold today.
In 2012-13, Hinckley notched up just seven points and finished bottom of Conference North, ending a decline from the days when they fancied their chances of a crack at Conference National.
It’s not a large town, Hinckley, boasting a population of little over 40,000, so lofty ambitions have to be taken into perspective. Nuneaton is nearby and it’s a fair bet that the local youngsters are more interested in Manchester United or, at a push, Leicester City (I did spy a youngster in a Barcelona shirt, which says a lot about the globalisation of football) than Hinckley. What’s more, the Greene King Stadium, while a superb example of what a modern small-town football club can look like, is some distance from any chimney pots along the Leicester Road.
Hinckley have had their financial problems to deal with. The club admits that a “lack of proper budgeting” meant it was unable to meet debts and HMRC also tried to wind the club up. At various stages, they have had embargoes slapped on them that have restricted the engagement of players. Little wonder the past few years have been tortuous. For their opening game of 2013-14 at home, just 246 people watched Hinckley play Hitchin.
Interestingly, when Hinckley ran out against a Hitchin side that had just endured a dreadful pre-season campaign, I thought I eyed Barcelona once more. Perhaps, the Hinckley youngster was, after all, wearing the shirt of his local favourites? Despite the similarity, the colours were the only thing the two clubs had in common.
But anyone watching the game from the well-appointed main stand could not fail to be impressed by the vista. Around the Greene King, there were dozens of people playing five-a-side football in the adjoining courts and fields. In fact, there was more noise coming from the outlying fields than the stadium itself. This was mainly because Hitchin silenced the Hinckley fans with a goal after 35 seconds. “Here we go again,” said one local fan. “And this lot couldn’t hit a barn door in pre-season.” You had to sympathise, for Hinckley won just once at home and three in total in the league last season.
By half-time, Barca were two-down against the green-shirted Hitchin and the bell that rang out when the game kicked-off was strangely silent. The only bell in action was Hitchin’s tall keeper, Tahj Bell. Add Tahj to Hitchin’s Rogan [McGeorge] and Josh [Bickerstaff] and the visitors’ had a curiously oriental feel to their roll-call! Cue Rick Stein’s India.
There was more discontent in the ranks as the game edged to the interval. An announcement revealed that a toilet behind the goal had been vandalised and was now out of action. Everyone looked at each other. It was at the end that the Hitchin fans were gathered, but early reports indicated that somebody had flooded the cubicle and locked it before climbing over to make investigation difficult. Given the vintage and agility of the average non-league fan, this would significantly narrow down any list of suspects.
Hitchin comfortably dealt with anything Hinckley could throw at them. The home side’s management team was visibly frustrated, while the Hitchin duo – manager Burke studious and chin-stroking and the Hemingway-esque figure of Adam Parker, constantly shouted encouragement. Parker, a one-time precocious character, impressed with his notepad and pencil, although he later admitted to using these implements merely for a half-time game of noughts and crosses. He was also spied using the pencil to scratch his head rather than etching out tactics.
And so, Hitchin held on to win 2-0 and Hinckley’s season at The Greene King started badly. A far from triumphant return home for manager Stuart Storer and a happy start for the Canaries’ Burke and Parker, who have a local derby with Arlesey to look forward to on Bank Holiday Monday. By the time the Hinckley and Hitchin meet again, the story could be so different.