They came from far and wide: Australia, Doncaster, Bedford, Stevenage…and the Hertfordshire village of Ickleford. There were different agendas: saving a football ground; protecting the local economy; and conserving the countryside. Saturday morning was a nervous time for the organisers of a campaign aimed at saving the development of a football ground. Would the town of Hitchin react to the call for support of a protest march intended to make a point to a group of now demonised trustees known as the Cow Commoners?
People like Ickleford-born Roy Izzard, Secretary of under-threat Hitchin Town Football Club and the club’s can-do head of infrastructure, Lenny Leroux, needn’t have worried. The response was magnificent, with close to 1,500 people joining a march that must have sent shivers down the spines of the self-appointed Cow Commoners.
It is likely that this body may have underestimated the depth of feeling against the proposal to place a supermarket on the Top Field site just as it failed to recognise what football means to the local community. Certainly, the pressure is building on these people as a town points a collective finger at them. “They’re the type of self-important individuals who feel they run small towns like Hitchin,” said one participant who bemoaned the fact that Cow Commoners could not be named and shamed in the march.
Izzard, who almost ran the show in the absence of key figures at the club, had doggedly “sold” the story to the media, engaging BBC, ITV and SKY. The local media excelled itself, producing eye-grabbing front pages in the days leading up to the march. Estimations of numbers for the march ran from a realistic 500-plus to Izzard’s own hope of a couple of thousand. The result was somewhere in between, which was a resounding victory for the club.
But it’s not just football folk that are incensed by the plans to relocate the club. Counciller Judi Billing, using the “preserve our town” card, questioned how the Trust could have expected “anything as stupid as this to be allowed”. She was also exasperated by the fact that the Cow Commoners had agreed a deal with the Clifton-based developer in secret, something that would led to a “public lynching” if a local council had done likewise.
Billing’s words were still ringing in the ears of the steadily-building crowd awaiting the starting pistol when SKY Sports’ Spanish football expert, Guillem Balague (pictured), a Hitchin resident, spoke about the charm of his adopted home town. Impressively quoting from Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England, which claimed that Hitchin, after St. Albans, is the “most visually satisfying town in the county”, Balague urged the Cow Commoners to “come and meet us. Talk to us. Give us a chance to put our case”. The sad thing is it may be too late for that.
And so, the march got underway and revealed itself to be an impressive procession, bringing relieved smiles of self-satisfaction from Izzard and the original instigator of the event, Peter Cant, as much a dyed-in-the wool Canary as Izzard himself. Into the main drag it went, drawing applause from bystanders and sympathetic horns from passing cars. Although nobody is likely to admit it, the turnout was a little surprising and included former and current players of the club, long-lost supporters – “I haven’t been to Top Field since 1951” – and people opposed to the building of a huge supermarket on a central Hitchin site. Izzard, meanwhile, updated club owner Andy Melvin, who was away in Rome, perhaps seeking divine intervention from a well-known football fan from the Vatican?
Some 40 minutes after setting off, the throng returned to Top Field to be entertained by a local singer, Alex Bay (brother of current flavour of the music month, James). The next leg of the day was a match, Hitchin Town v Southern League leaders Poole Town. It was free admission, so Hitchin officials hoped for a larger-than-expected crowd to see a team that had warmed up for this vital weekend with a 7-3 win at Biggleswade Town. Hitchin’s recent form had not been good, but the win at one of their local rivals hinted they had turned the corner.
In the end, 1,606 people took the club up on its offer, the highest league crowd at Top Field since 1993-94 season when over 2,500 saw the Canaries play Stevenage in the Isthmian League Premier. If ever there was a game that emphasised the contrasting fortunes of two clubs, it was this one. Twenty-five years ago, Hitchin were a more senior club than Stevenage, today the new-town club is in Football League Two, while Hitchin are three steps below them in the footballing hierarchy. Some of Stevenage’s success has been attributable to a simpatico local authority, while Hitchin’s decline has been partly due to its fractious relationship with its landlords.
On this December afternoon, at least, Hitchin had something to cheer on the field of play as well as off it. They more than matched a strangely subdued Poole Town side and were the better team for much of the game. There were few scoring opportunities, but the size of the crowd meant that every Hitchin attack was greeted with a roar of expectancy. They had to wait until the final minute, though, to let off steam. A free kick from Matt Lench was met at the far post by centre half Dan Webb and his header arched beyond the Poole keeper. The celebrations were furious and more in keeping with a cup final. On Saturday December 6, the whole town of Hitchin seemed to be gripped in a mild form of cup-tie fever. A successful march, a big crowd and three points…Roy Izzard could not have asked for a better day.
But this is just round one. The fight to solve the complex issue of Top Field has beaten many people over the years. The club has a 25-year lease with a five-year break clause. Some folk who know about these things predict a battle of attrition for another half decade. As successful as this event was, Hitchin Town may need a few more marches of this nature before they win their own long walk to freedom…