There’s no more hotch-potch venue than Banbury United’s Spencer Stadium. Hemmed in by an industrial estate, a river and a water meadow, the ground is prone to flooding and as a result, the pitch is one of the poorest around. The car park is also one of the toughest to navigate comfortably only to the best 4 x 4 vehicles. That said, Banbury United’s ground – which, incidentally, they are desperate to depart from – has a curious charm.
It’s an unlikely place to find manager Eddie Stein and his entourage, the sort of trio you’d expect to find in more urban surroundings, given Stein’s past career. Equally, it was a surprise to find that Banbury’s centre forward is one Leon Simpson, 6ft 7inches of limited ability who was named Hitchin Town’s worst ever player by the club’s supporters.
Simpson, surprisingly, has never found it hard to find employment. Hitchin fans might recall the time at Haverhill in the FA Cup when the amiable Simpson – known for some reason as ‘Ocean’ – had trouble contorting himself out of the dugouts as he was called into action from the bench. Simpson was the hero of the day as Banbury beat Hitchin Town 2-1, scoring both goals against youthful and shot-shy opponents.
Banbury had a similar season to Hitchin in 2012-13 and finished eight points clear of relegation. A year earlier, the club had much more lofty ambitions and started the season well, but financial difficulties meant the squad started to depart and since then, life has been tough for the Puritans. Stein arrived in September 2012 and typically, there’s been a high turnover of players.
Both Banbury and Hitchin crashed out of the FA Cup at the first time of asking: Banbury were surprisingly beaten by Cirencester Town and Hitchin lost to Arlesey in a highly-charged local derby. How they both responded to this early setback may shape the direction of the 2013-14 season.
As far as league results were concerned, Hitchin had lost just once before this game – a 2-0 defeat at Chippenham. But the early season fizz, which saw them win three of their first four games, had started to go a bit flat, despite the plaudits for the quality of their football. Banbury, meanwhile, had won their previous two league games (against Corby and Redditch).the most recent just a few days earlier when they beat Corby 3-1 in front of barely 150 people.
Crowds are clearly on the decline at Banbury – last season’s average was 220, a marked drop on past seasons. The atmosphere was a bit flat at the Spencer Stadium, but FA Cup defeats do have that affect.
Banbury’s keeper, strangely wearing the same shorts and socks as the visitors, claimed he had “never heard of Hitchin” to the visiting fans, who swelled Banbury’s gate to 290. I must admit, the crowd seemed somewhat less than close to 300 – I counted only 30-odd in “The joi I Holls TA d” stand, so-named because so many letters had fallen off the awning of the seated area. It reminded me of the constantly changing “Sunshine Desserts” sign in the original Reggie Perrin series.
Banbury took the lead with a diving header from Simpson, a good goal but a few questions had to be asked about marking. In the 38th minute, however, Hitchin equalised with a spectacular strike by Robbie Burns. To Banbury’s credit, they announced it as “a quality goal”.
Banbury’s winning goal came from the big man in the 52nd minute, a less spectacular affair but one that owed much to the indecision of Hitchin keeper Tahj Bell.
The fireworks were not over, for late in the game, both teams were reduced to 10 men, Banbury losing Scott Bridges for fighting and Hitchin’s Lewis Rolfe going for an early bath after a second yellow.
I spent the final minutes observing the Banbury bench and its three-man shouting team. A few feet away, Hitchin’s own touchline team was positively tranquil.
As the game drew to a close, referee Mr Husband deserves credit for admonishing Banbury players and urging them to “get on with it” as they tried to run the clock down. Hitchin missed a couple of chances in the closing seconds, both of which underlined their poor finishing. It’s a problem that the management team of Mark Burke and Adam Parker will have to remedy sooner rather than later. Final score: Banbury 2 Hitchin 1.