Non-League football tells itself that it is all about friendly exchanges between supporters, slaps on the back, blazers at dawn and plates of tuck in the boardroom before the host club waves its visitors off into the sunset. “All good pals and jolly good company”. Most of us know different – it’s not the 1950s anymore, amateur status has long been put away with the brown envelopes that contained illegal payments and most clubs are living way beyond their means.
But there are occasions when the camaraderie of the non-league game does come to the fore and restore your faith in some of the values of the past. It’s not quite Corinthian days, but there were handshakes and messages of Bon Voyage as Stourbridge left Hitchin Town on the final day of the regular season.
I say regular as Stourbridge, in drawing 1-1 with Hitchin, earned a place in the play-offs. They will travel to Chesham United in the semi-final and try to win a place in the Conference South for 2014-15. Their happy band of fans swelled the crowd at Top Field and created a carnival atmosphere.
A 1-1 draw meant that Hitchin ended their league campaign unbeaten in their last three games. They finished in 13th place in the Southern League Premier, exactly the same position they ended 2012-13 season in. In 2012-13, the Canaries were unbeaten in their last seven games and lost once in their final 10. The concluding game, a resounding 4-1 win at Bedford, marked the end of manager Carl Williams’ reign. His departure was not a big surprise – after all, in local football circles, the word was that Hitchin were just a couple of bad results away from sacking the popular Williams. He’d had enough, despite the strong end to the season.
Williams’ assistant, Mark Burke, something of a deity at the club, was given the manager’s role for 2013-14. He brought back to the club Adam Parker, the original L’enfant terrible in his younger days. Burke and Parker, as players, were among the most popular to appear for the club in the 1980s and 1990s. If there were any question marks about their appointment, it was around the discomfort that may arise from getting rid of them. After all, there is one thing certain in football – managers get the sack.
But what was clear was that both Burke and Parker would want to play football. Parker was a midfielder-cum-forward who had sublime skills. His former manager at Stevenage, Paul Fairclough, would often eulogise about the talent of someone who was a “difficult child”. Invariably, Fairclough would start any conversation about Hitchin with the enquiry, “how is Adam playing these days”.
Throughout the season, Burke and Parker’s Hitchin side was as inconsistent as past Canaries’ teams. But it was also capable of some excellent football and pulling off outstanding results against some of the league’s best. After a dire pre-season, which saw Hitchin lose the monolithic defender Ryan Frater, Hitchin pulled off a shock 2-0 win against eventual champions Hemel Hempstead. Hitchin won 2-1 at Chesham, a ground where they hadn’t earned three points since 1993. They beat Cambridge City 1-0 and were unlucky not to gain something from the away game with Gary Roberts’ promotion chasers. And they drew twice with Stourbridge.
They also reached the Herts Charity Cup final – a fairly low-key eight team competition that has a questionable future. But it gave the Canaries a shot at winning silverware. They played well against Bishop’s Stortford from the Conference South, drawing 2-2 and losing on penalties. It’s the sort of competition that is meaningless unless you win it!
The league form added up to 13th place, but Hitchin fans have been crowing all season about this campaign being the most enjoyable for years. The stats would suggest not much has changed, but the difference is in the playing style and the fact the team is young, vibrant and eager to learn and more industrious than most. They’ve also had to do this without two of their better players. Robbie Burns was enticed away to Cambridge City and Michael Noone went missing in action. The latter is a player nobody talks about, people preferring to look the other way when his whereabouts are discussed.
Hitchin’s defence has been the key element. Only half a dozen teams have conceded fewer than the 52 goals that have flown into Tahj Bell’s net, a goalkeeper who has improved as the season progressed. What’s more, in the closing weeks, Burke may have found his “new Ryan Frater” at the back in Alasan Ann.
How does the Burke approach differ from his predecessor? Williams had arguably the best Hitchin striker of the past 30 years in John Frendo. He scored a century of goals in his time at the club, although he wasn’t the easiest of strikers to partner. The Frendo era gave birth to a “give it John” strategy that played to his strength. Today, Hitchin have a better all-round team that, with the addition of a forward, could knock on the door of the play-offs in 2014-15 – if it stays together.
There were rumours circulating on the final day that skipper Callum Donnelly is being courted by a Conference South club and that goalkeeper Bell wants to try his luck at a higher level. Whether that’s true or not, Burke will doubtless be tying down his players in much the same way that his mentor, Andy Melvin, used to secure his squad during his time as manager.
Burke is a great spin doctor and knows the value of a strong team spirit. Throughout the season he has managed the Hitchin faithful extraordinarily well. During some of the less successful runs, he has received nothing but support and his team bonding sessions have been well publicised and fully exploited. These very qualities have contributed to a successful outcome for Burke and Parker and for Hitchin Town and silenced the sceptics. As Stourbridge were leaving Top Field, Burke was seen carrying a crate of beer out for the coach journey home. They won’t forget that in the Midlands and although Hitchin may not get to visit Stourbridge next season, when the two clubs do meet again, it’s sure to be a pleasant experience.
Hitchin Town have an annual “clubman of the year” award, usually given to someone who works behind the scenes at the club. I would suggest that Mark Burke deserves such an award in 2013-14.