Out of town doesn't have to be out of sight....

Out of town doesn’t have to be out of sight….

Football grounds, relocation plans and lease issues have become something of a battleground in modern day football. Take Hitchin Town of the Southern League as an example. The Canaries’ landlords, the much demonised “Cow Commoners”, have tabled a plan for an out-of-town ground that is just under two miles from the town centre. Some people are upset by the prospect of this.

When football was being established back in the early 20th century, grounds were generally built among their audience. But often hemmed in on all sides, with back gardens bordering the grounds, they soon became inconvenient for people living in the vicinity or those wishing to park their cars. The grounds were also limited in how they could expand and as floodlights arrived, if you had a football club next door, it wasn’t a great selling point.

In the early 1990s, the trend of out-of-town grounds gathered momentum. Scunthorpe, Yeovil and Wycombe were among the first to relocate. Since then, new stadia, in purpose-built locations, have sprung up all over the country and, in most cases, have brought fresh impetus to the clubs.

Hitchin’s situation is in no way unique, but in practical terms, the proposed site is basically a case of moving from one side of town to the other – if you live in the Purwell area of Hitchin or other parts of town, you are, after all, one and a half miles from the current ground. The distance is not as prohibitive as people think, but psychologically, it will always seem considerable and cause long-standing die-hards to kick and scream all the way to the Stevenage Road.

But aside from developing Hitchin’s current ground, any new venture by any club is almost certainly destined to be an out-of-town site. The luxury of a centrally-located sports facility of any kind is outdated and economically difficult to achieve. Housing will always win the day.  Why do you think retail parks were developed?  To accommodate, more comfortably, shoppers with motor cars. The same rule applies to football clubs.

Some Hitchin fans compare the new development to clubs like Cirencester and Leamington. Leamington’s ground is five miles out of town, but it doesn’t seem to have harmed them – their crowds averaged 500-plus  last season. Cirencester is a bad example, but this was a club that has never had a big fanbase in the first place. Weymouth FC, the best supported club in the Southern League Premier, is two miles from the town centre. And Stevenage, a modern day footballing success story, have their ground more than one and a half miles out of the town centre.

There’s another element to consider. The future of any club is youth. They do not share the cloth-cap nostalgia of the older supporters, or hanker for days spent on crumbling terraces. Any new ground has to have more than one eye on what will attract the younger supporters. They care not for grounds that are museum pieces with limited lifespan. And from Hitchin’s perspective, they need to appeal to this huge segment of the community as the average age of Top Field regulars goes beyond the half century.

The important thing is not necessarily where a ground is – and there will soon be a lot of new houses in the vicinity of the proposed new Hitchin site – because if the product is right, people will come. A new ground, regardless of location, can act as a springboard to better things. Get the product working properly and nobody will mind where a club plays. Most people will just consume a little more petrol than normal, and judging by the usage of the Hitchin Town car park, a lot of people drive to games at Top Field anyway, some coming from far flung places like Bedford, Biggleswade, Sandy and St.Neots. There’s no Lowry-esque procession of ant-like figures emerging from local estates.

There are many questions to be asked about the Hitchin proposal, not least whether planning permission will be granted and the status of the club in the grand [development] scheme of things, but if it does go ahead, and it’s a big “if” – people may have to get used to a little bit of [initial] inconvenience. Time is not really on their side – with each season that passes, another piece of the ground falls further into disrepair. There’s only so much patching-up that the club’s hardy band of volunteers can do.

In conclusion, it is a case of tradition v progress, modernity v nostalgia and convenience v pragmatism….the debate rages on, fuelled by the possibility of a supermarket purchasing the site and blitzing what’s left of the town centre’s economy. Opposition to the latter has more legs than any of the other arguments and may yet be Hitchin’s trump card – one senses that protest groups are more concerned with commerce than the future of the club, but Hitchin Town can use that to their advantage.

Me, I’m open-minded – I like Top Field because of its quaint charm and corporation green Subbuteo stands,  but equally, I rather fancy some of the new, modern grounds that are infinitely more comfortable and offer better facilities. Whatever the outcome, and deep down, I would love a solution to be found at Top Field, I will remain a Hitchin fan because I support the club from the town I have lived in for 27 years, not the stadium.

This article, by the way, does not reflect the views of Hitchin Town, or indeed anyone connected with property development!