There was no doubt who the star of the show was on the night that Southern League Premier Division club Hitchin Town held a public meeting over the future of its ancient home of Top Field: Mr Mishi Morath of Dulwich Hamlet FC.
Morath, whose name almost belongs to J.R.R. Tolkein’s middle earth, gave an emotional and passionate speech about the value of clubs and grounds like Hitchin Town. “To football fans, these grounds are like churches and palaces,” he said. “And when they are gone, they’re gone.” Hitchin Town could do with some of this fellow’s passion if they are to win their battle against the ground being redeveloped and the club shifted down the road towards nearby Stevenage. The Canaries’ fans are notoriously slow in making themselves heard, despite their renowned loyalty.
But this wasn’t a sedate meeting of 200 people. Most of the noise was coming from people who are not necessarily concerned about the football club, but more worried about the effect that a supermarket on the Top Field site will have. Hitchin, as a town centre, has its challenges – the number of empty units seems to grow annually and its mixture of coffee bars, “vintage” shops (a.k.a. second-hand ), mid-price restaurants and charity shops has struggled through recession. Furthermore, local residents, many of whom have scarcely shown much interest in the club, are now nervous about the mighty Tesco turning up in their back garden. Hence, much of the barracking came from people who have rarely – if ever – set foot inside Top Field.
But that was exactly what Hitchin’s owner, Andy Melvin, wanted. He was aware that the future of the site does not rest with the 300 people who regularly attend matches. He was looking to mobilize the town to react to the intentions of the ground’s trustees, the Cow Commoners and the developer who has come in with a land-swap deal. “They have sold the club down the river….sold the town down the river,” insisted Melvin.
Melvin and his legal advisor, Robin Furby didn’t have to say much all night because they were able to win this leg of the PR battle without revealing too much about their own plans. After club secretary Roy Izzard, as much part of Hitchin as Morath is to Dulwich, went for the throat of the Cow Commoners, “naming and shaming” them, the trustees made themselves known and took the stage.
Amid a very hostile atmosphere, Maggie Dyer, did well to stay composed. But she struggled to articulate the Cow Commoners structure, aims and strategy. This was, however, an evening where there would be only one side of the story allowed. The Cow Commoners were criticized for [apparently] not being present and then equally criticized for showing their face. They couldn’t win if they tried to.
What the Cow Commoners have underestimated is the emotional pull of football. Common sense will tell you that Hitchin’s ground needs demolishing. It may have “character”, but it is falling down. The cost of redevelopment is huge. But some people actually do not want much to change. Romantics like Morath and some Top Field patrons talk about the ground’s quaintness and uniqueness. But this cannot go on, regardless of whether the club wins or loses this mother of all battles – it will surely not last long in its current state or style. In other words, Top Field may remain the home, but the ground, as we know it, cannot possible survive. The club will not go quietly – the Cow Commoners will have to drag it kicking and screaming down the Stevenage Road.
If Melvin gets his way, though, the power of the town will stop the developer and trustees in their tracks. One question that didn’t get asked at the meeting, though, was whether the club would accept a better site than the one being earmarked for the new ground? Given the way the trustees approached the concept in the first place, presenting it as a fait accompli, it is doubtful either party would consider this. And with so much bad blood now between them, the relationship may be at the point of no return.
Melvin has called for a publically-funded fighting fund of around £ 150,000 which will be used to launch a negative campaign, never an easy thing to conduct. Raising this money may be the hardest part of the equation, but judging by the mood in the Hitchin clubhouse, there are plenty of people who do not want the ground to change hands. The club would not mind a few of those protesters to turn up at home games – this season crowds have declined, despite an encouraging start to the campaign.
This story has all the makings of a” big man bullying a little guy” story – one of football’s oldest grounds at the mercy of the bulldozer. It’s a tale that will have many more chapters as it may take another five years to unfold. Who would bet on the outcome?
Meanwhile, Hitchin need to put an approach in for Mishi Morath. What better man to lead the defence of the realm?
Photo: Peter Else