Earlier this season, the inevitable happened. Arlesey Town, who had flourished under their previous regime and benefactor’s cash, lost their backer to St.Neots. With him went manager Zema Abbey and his brother Nathan. And, needless to say, a stream of players followed the line of pennies and are now plying their trade at St.Neots.
It’s a scene that has been replayed in non-league football time and time again down the years. The money moves, the players go with it. The new club becomes the next “project” for the transient cash machine. For every club that benefits from this type of funding, the club left behind (and this always happens, inflated team budgets are short term fixes), has to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
While many people were ready to write Arlesey’s epitaph, the club appointed a new manager, Rufus Brevett, and since then, they have regained their momentum. By all accounts, the former QPR defender has changed the ethos at Arlesey – no longer relying on power and long-ball tactics. Indeed, there is a different feel to the club. A team does not always reflect a club, but a club can invariably reflect the antics of a team, and there is a definite refreshing change of air at Hitchin Road.
That didn’t mean that the local derby atmosphere was missing when Hitchin Town turned up for their Boxing Day clash. True, you couldn’t cut it with a knife as in the past, notably when the two clubs were in the division below, but everyone seemed to be looking forward to the actual match rather than the mini vendettas of old. Perhaps that was because the two sides had already met three times before this season, once in the league and twice in the FA Cup. More likely, Arlesey no longer represented the noisy neighbour with a bulging wallet as in the past, and therefore the possibility of having players snatched away had gone.
The other reason for the lack of tension could be attributed to the fact that most of the players on show had little affinity with the immediate area and therefore, with one or two exceptions, it may well have been just another football match. And the Canaries’ new manager, Mark Burke, has a very calm approach to football management. Off the field, though, the Hitchin fans – who made up two-third of the 526 crowd at Arlesey’s excellent stadium – created the sort of raucous atmosphere seldom found at their own Top Field ground. Arlesey went into the game on the back of four successive victories, the last two of which were notable results – a 2-0 win at Stourbridge and a 5-2 home success against Hungerford Town. Hitchin, after an impressive run of wins, had lost their last two outings, 3-2 at Cambridge City and 3-1 at Bideford.
Hitchin ran the first half, but poor finishing and a lack of pace up front meant the Arlesey defence was not often troubled. Callum Donnelly represented Hitchin’s biggest threat from midfield, but he should have scored when he was sent clear, only to shoot wide with the goal gaping before him.
Arlesey never threatened Tahj Bell’s goal. Bell, a Bermudan who played once for the national team in an 8-0 win against Saint Martin in 2012, looked to have a bit more confidence than earlier in the season when he was somewhat error-prone.
Just before the interval, Hitchin had a goal disallowed for offside, headed home by the fractious Kim Forsythe. The Canaries’ striker was unhappy at the decision, gesturing obscenities at the assistant referee and lucky to escape a yellow card. But he had endured a frustrating half, unable to get the better of the Arlesey defenders, especially Harold Joseph. At the other end, the visiting fans picked out their scapegoat for the day in the form of Arlesey’s number six, Kevin M’bala, who was guilty of some over-zealous challenges. M’bala was signed from Namur in Belgium and, according to terrace gossip, doesn’t understand much English.
Hitchin continued to set the pace of the game in the second period, Donnelly again the driving force. Michael Noone had two efforts that might have yielded more than they did, shooting wide from long range and then wildly over the bar with another. Arlesey had their best moments late on, the busy Jonny McNamara – one of the best players on the pitch – shooting across the face of goal, and then veteran Barry Hayles seeing his far post header saved by Bell.
Terry Dixon’s introduction in the 77th minute added some verve to the Hitchin attack, something which had been lacking for much of the game. But he couldn’t change the scoreline, either and the two teams had to settle for a 0-0 draw – a result that ended Hitchin’s losing run and extended the home team’s unbeaten sequence.
It would have been fitting for the festive season if Arlesey had brought on their number 14 substitute, Hallelujah Basmel!