Stevenage manager Graham Westley sat in the stand at Hitchin watching his team take on a club that is four divisions below them in senior football’s complex structure. The Stevenage side was a combination of youth players and squad members eager to please him. It may have only been a Herts Senior Cup tie, but the prize at stake for one or two of those on display at a sparsely-filled Top Field was a place in the Stevenage squad against the mighty Everton on Saturday.
Another landmark FA Cup tie awaits the new town club and they expect a sell-out 6,500 crowd at the Lamex Stadium to take on Roberto Martinez’s team. The Roaring Meg and the Leisure Park will echo to the sound of scouse accents as 1,900 Everton fans alight at Stevenage.
Stevenage were beaten 1-0 by a youthful Hitchin, a great fillip for the home side who could claim a Football League scalp of sorts in the county competition they haven’t won since 1997. Manager Mark Burke, who was a room-mate of Westley’s when the pair were at QPR as kids, captained the team that lifted the impressive piece of objet d’art that is the Herts Senior Challenge Cup in 1997, in fact he scored a rare goal in the Canaries’ 4-1 win against Boreham Wood that afternoon.
For Stevenage, the tie with Everton will be a welcome distraction from their struggles this season in League One. Everyone seems to expect that a club that has risen from a playing field to the very biggest stages will go down in May, but the League One table is extremely tight and a decent run could lift them out of danger. There are bigger clubs than Stevenage fighting for their lives, such as Sheffield United.
Some Hitchin fans still believe that Stevenage are their rivals, but those days have long gone. The last time they could be counted as anything like peers was in 1993-94, a season which saw a fine Hitchin team win 2-1 at Broadhall Way – the Stevenage ground before sponsorship came in – in front of 2,500 people. At the end of the campaign, the Borough won promotion to the Conference and in 1996, they won that title, too. Then came problems as the ground failed to meet Football League standards. What followed was a somewhat undignified challenge from the club to try and win a place in the League, which was strange given they knew all along their ground was not fit for purpose.
Their manager at the time, Paul Fairclough, one of the most interesting football managers you will ever meet, spoke of “my hollow triumph” and it must have been tough. Fairclough would never achieve such heights again with Stevenage, although he locked horns with Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle in 1998 and almost pulled off a major FA Cup shock. Those that admired the way Stevenage, under Fairclough, slalomed their way through the Isthmian League, only to be denied a Football League spot, were pleased to see the articulate Liverpudlian take Barnet into the League. As an Everton fan, he will be smiling this weekend.
Graham Westley took Stevenage into the League at a time when many felt the fire had started to go out at the club. Certainly there didn’t seem the passion of earlier years, although Stevenage were now a much slicker, possibly more “professional” club. At the time, there were still a few Stevenage fans who felt it was worth goading the smaller outfit on the day Borough won promotion in 2010. Call to Hitchin: “This is Stevenage Borough FC here….read it and weep…. read it and weep….ha ha ha,” the caller then hung up! At the time, Hitchin were trying to scramble out of the Southern League Midland Division, which they did a year later.
When Stevenage finally became the club they had aspired to be for over a decade, some predicted that this would signal the death knell for crowds at Hitchin. Some had visions of hordes of youngsters boarding trains for the new town bedecked in Stevenage colours. Happily for Hitchin, that has not been the case, largely because of the natural aversion [and neurosis] Hitchin folk seem to have for Stevenage as a whole. They are, after all, very contrasting towns: Stevenage is the product of the post-war Abercrombie Plan, Hitchin is an ancient dwelling steeped in history and a strong awareness of its past.
The difference between the two football clubs is equally vast. Hitchin have long been stymied by their ground, a 1920s period piece that deteriorates by the year, despite the efforts of a handful of hardy volunteers. The ongoing battle with the club’s landlords prevents any real development being carried out until issues around the lease and a possible relocation are dealt with. Stevenage, however, had local authority help in securing the stadium that is neat and compact although one of the smallest in the entire Football League. As Stevenage fast-tracked their way through the 1980s and 1990s, Hitchin suffered two relegations and struggled to stay at a level they had become accustomed to. Two memorable FA Cup giant-killings allowed the Canaries to, at least, stay in Stevenage’s slipstream.
But although they had been upstaged by their noisy neighbours, Hitchin retained their loyal following and their crowds have been consistent throughout the last 20 years. Stevenage are currently averaging 2,900 people per game, which is only a few more than they were attracting at their Conference peak of 2,881 (1996-97). They have also lost 500 people per game since 2011-12.
Where Stevenage have a big advantage for future growth is in the demographics. It’s a huge town, lots of teenagers, lots of football fodder. In the mid-1990s when the wonderful old football man Jim Briscoe used to champion Borough’s cause with a hoarding on the pitch,“Your children want League football”, he was spot on. Hitchin also has lots of youngsters, but the football club’s clientele – like many non-league clubs – is ageing.
The average age of a Top Field crowd is probably over 50 and rising – the future at Top Field depends on new blood coming through. It’s not through lack of trying, because the club does a lot of worthy community work and has attempted to reach out to different segments of society. Raising money is always a problem for non-league clubs, but when you have a Football League club on your doorstep, it becomes that much more harder.
Despite the relative “glitz and glamour” that Stevenage can offer football fans, it’s always been a source of amazement that Hitchin Town has hung on to its support and that Top Field, with all its faults and eccentricities, remains a popular place for genuine non-league fans. With the huge trees fringing the ground, the corporation green stands and the precarious wooden terraces, there is an olde worlde charm about the club that the peculiar breed that is the non-league fan truly loves.
Not so the gaggle of young Stevenage fans, used to modernity and the segregated world of League football, who claimed Top Field was a “shit hole”. But, as one Hitchin lifer commented: “That’s why they follow Stevenage and not Hitchin…they don’t appreciate character.” It’s quite possible that the boot will be on the other foot when Everton roll into town.
Once Stevenage exit the FA Cup, it will be back to League One survival. In all probability, they will drop into League Two at some point, because in reality, and to their enormous credit, they have over-achieved on a massive scale. League Two is not so bad, especially when you consider how quickly they have arrived in One. As for Hitchin, they survive on “little victories” like the one they achieved against their neighbours in the Herts Senior Cup. It may not be the oldest cup competition in the world – and let’s not forget the club’s ancestors were one of the original participants in 1871-72 – but it will do for now.