Non-League Football

Check-out time? Another twist in the Hitchin saga

Hitchin Town Ground (450x274)The tale of Hitchin Town and their atmospheric old ground took a new twist this week when a local property developer posted an application to build a supermarket on the club’s Top Field site. The timing couldn’t have been worse – the club begins its 11th Southern League campaign this weekend and the news has cast a bit of shadow over the big kick-off [at Corby].

Naturally, this has started a fresh debate over the future of a ground that divides opinion. Traditionalists love Top Field. It evokes dimly-lit winter afternoons, Bovril, rattles, Sports Report and home in time for tea and Dr.Who and the Daleks. It is a lovable time-warp that urges you to don your bobble hat and get behind the local team.

On the other hand, it is falling down. Undermined by the very trees that make the ground appealing, the wooden terraces are an insurance claim waiting to happen and every year, the erosion of the ground becomes more and more visible. New money clubs and their fans, however, refuse to be impressed by the our e nostalgia of the place.

The saga of Top Field is tedious and complex, but it has been an attritional battle that must surely be exhausting the protagonists. Hitchin’s owner, Andy Melvin has committed considerable time and money to the cause but he has been confronted by equally stubborn landlords, The Cow Commoners. It’s like two giant bisons going head-to-head. Both think they are right, both believe they have taken the right advice but both have contrasting agendas. It’s an impasse.

New grounds for old

The Cow Commoners want to move the club to a site on the edge of town. This is hardly a new phenomenum in football – many clubs have been relocated to more spacious sites to capitalise on property values and fund a new site. For most, it has meant rebirth, a new focus and often, better support. For others, it has been less successful with the location hampering progress.

It is the latter that many of Hitchin’s fans are concerned about. They are outraged that the club may be forced to move from its ancestral home. Furthermore, they claim people won’t walk to the new ground, but the overcrowded car park on matchdays suggests that many don’t do that anyway. In fact, a considerable number of Hitchin’s die-hards do not live in the town. And there is the potential for new supporters as thousands of houses are likely to fill the gap between Hitchin and Stevenage in the years ahead. The demographics of that side of Hitchin are poised for change. One thing that probably won’t alter, though, is that the Canaries will still be tenants, wherever they end up, and that will always be a sticking point.

What may be Hitchin’s “Get out of Jail Free” card is the public opposition to the club being moved, and much of that has little to do with the football club itself – otherwise the Canaries would be watched by greater numbers than the 350 extremely loyal people that attend every home game – but more to do with what may happen to a prime site for real estate. A new, large supermarket will be the death knell of commerce in the town centre claim local trade bodies. They may be right, but that could be too late to worry about, the town – a pot pourri of mid-range restaurants, pubs and coffee shops with a sprinkling of niche boutiques selling discretionary goods – appears to have been in decline for some years, although recent “property porn” publications and TV shows have championed the town for its attractive blend of retail outlets and its charming town centre, so Hitchin still has plenty going for it.

One could argue the real commercial damage was inflicted long ago by the arrival of Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose. The next theatre of combat could really be between the supermarkets themselves and their impact on the old market.

Other experts claim Hitchin is under-resourced for food shopping. It’s ironic that one of the people leading the drive to save the club’s ground is employed by Waitrose! Given that the supermarket that aims to move in at Top Field is reputed to be Tesco, it does make you wonder if opposition would be so vehement if it was Waitrose, the supermarket of choice for “Middle England”?

There’s no denying Hitchin Town must do something soon. Their ground can only hold out for so long and there’s only so much Elastoplast you can stick on the patient. Whether that means developing the current site, which is preferable, or moving to Ashbrook, depends on the outcome of the club’s biggest match: Hitchin Town v The Cow Commoners. It’s a game that should be permanently displayed on the Bedford Road fixture board.

Personalities

Andy Melvin is a determined fellow, otherwise he wouldn’t have persisted for nearly 25 years trying to solve this conundrum. But equally, the Cow Commoners – all of them local folk – feel they are merely doing their duty as trustees. They’re all professional people, so they have reputations to preserve. But are they really acting in the best interests of the local community?

The Football Club is the top sporting entity in the town – no other pastime attracts as many spectators. And before local authorities start to think about making decisions that could drastically alter the club’s future, they may like to recall that 20 years ago, Melvin and his team put Hitchin on the map with a glorious FA Cup run that captured the imagination of local people. Top Field was overflowing with goodwill on the night Hitchin beat Hereford – how they could do with some of that now.

It’s interesting that the Cow Commoners have interests in two of the other sports clubs in Hitchin – the rugby club (a fine, progressive organisation) and the hockey club (once jealously guarded as a closed shop by the Grammar School). Perhaps if a few of the trustees had spent some of their youth at Top Field, or witnessed victories against Hereford and Bristol Rovers, their perspective on the value of the club to the community might be different?

The submission of the planning application merely confirmed what everyone knew was going on behind the scenes and there have been rumblings of a considerable arsenal backing up this submission. Tesco has a reputation for getting its own way when it wants to plant a store somewhere and this is perhaps the most worrying element for those hoping for the status quo to continue.

You get the feeling this will run and run. But when something does give, it could be messy and will surely command front page in the local press. The question is, who will unleash the dogs of war first?

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