When Mark Burke was appointed manager of Hitchin Town, some of the Canaries’ regulars felt that the club had gone for an “easy option” in appointing a man who has been roaming the corridors of Top Field for more than a quarter of a century.
In the past, the Canaries had made a number of what can be termed, “experimental appointments” of relatively untried managers – witness Darren Salton, Darran Hay and Carl Williams. That said, the best spell for the club over the past 25 years was due to a man who had precious little senior football experience, Andy Melvin.
The only genuinely experienced non-league manager to be installed at the club since the 1980s was Colin Payne, and it’s no coincidence that of all the men who have filled the role, Payne is the only one to move on to a new job when he left the club.
So when Burke was given the task of leading a local institution he had served so loyally since 1985, there were a few sceptics. But those same people are being force to eat their words as they glance at the league table. The Canaries are poised to have their best season since joining the Southern League in 2004.
Burke cut his teeth on relegation battles, so he knows how to scrap his way out of trouble, and he’s had to call on that durability at times in 2013-14. The pre-season programme, for example, was horrendous and threatened to derail the new regime before it got off the ground. A series of morale-sapping defeats, notably a ragged display at Dunstable, sent Burke and his assistant, Adam Parker, racing back to the drawing board on the eve of the season. “That was my low point,” says Burke. “Parks was on holiday, I felt all alone and I realised a couple of people had to go.”
That didn’t include Ryan Frater, a key summer signing who was supposed to be the centrepiece of the new-look Hitchin. Burke saw Frater as a signal to the fans that the club was on the move after a troubled close-season. “We had lost John Frendo and Lawrie Stewart, after trying desperately hard to keep them, and we needed a big name to demonstrate we were still in business, so it was very disappointing to lose Frater,” recalls Burke.
Frater left on the eve of the campaign, surely severing all ties with a club that had nurtured him from a teenager. Burke went into the new season, in his own words, “a bit nervous” as the opening day visitors were title favourites Hemel Hempstead. “We played well and I think we caught them on the hop. But a 2-0 was a major boost to us and helped steady things.”
The early games also saw the development of the 4-2-3-1 system that Burke and Parker have sworn by all through the campaign. Apart from the early exits in the FA competitions, the management team has been pleased with the team’s performances since day one. “We’ve had a couple of below-par performances, but overall, I have to be pleased. This is a very young team but they are genuinely learning from their mistakes.”
The squad is possibly the youngest seen at Top Field since the days when Alan West rolled out a bunch of raw and promising youth players in the 1980s. Parker enticed a trio from Chesham – Lewis Rolfe, Sam Barker and Matt Lench – and they have all settled in well. Furthermore, players like Stuart Pearson and Dan Webb have been a revelation at the back and Michael Noone has come on since last season in midfield. Burke made the precocious Callum Donnelly skipper and this has seen the talented card-collector mature as an individual. Put simply, if Donnelly doesn’t play well, then Hitchin struggle. Burke knew he couldn’t rely solely on youth and brought Simon Martin, a player who had scored a few goals against the Canaries in his time, to the club to add experience to the team. “Ideally, we would like to add another one like Simon,” he says. At times, Hitchin have played some outstanding football this season and the supporters have been quick to show their appreciation.
What has really pleased Burke has been the work-ethic and togetherness of his young team. The former Canaries captain sounds like a management consultant when he rolls-out his three principles to the approach he wants his players to take. He calls them his “three As – Ability, Attitude and Application”. He explains it far simpler than a white-board guru from a US business school. “If you have the right attitude and you’re prepared to apply yourself, the ability will show through,” he says. Simple.
So far, the Canaries are showing that they know the three As quite well. The next stage will be to take the team from A to B. Burke said at the start of the season he wanted to better the 13th place of 2012-13. It’s looking good – six straight wins earlier this season suggested there’s considerable ability in the squad. Mark Burke and Adam Parker created a few records of their own as players – “Burkey” made over 700 appearances and captained the club’s FA Cup giant-killing team. “Parks” scored over 100 goals, and not many players do that. They could be setting some new landmarks as a management team in 2014.