A drizzly, cold Boxing Day and a local derby between Hitchin Town and their near neighbours Arlesey Town. There were many reasons not to go: Cold Turkey ( and I don’t mean the Plastic Ono Band), TV, the Hobbit on DVD and after all, there was a whole weekend of possible football viewing to consider – if 22 mm of snow doesn’t play havoc with the fixtures.
But oh yes, Arlesey have just appointed a new management team in the form of Nick Ironton and Dave Kitson. Yes, the very same Dave Kitson who was revealed as The Secret Footballer – or was he?
Not a lot of people know this, but Kitson started his career with Hitchin, although his record is very much filed under “cameo”. As a gangly 17 year-old with floppy ginger hair, he looked to have a cultured left foot. But the Canaries then-manager Andy Melvin didn’t really fancy Kitson, mostly because he preferred to stack shelves than play football – or at least, that’s the terrace legend.
Hitchin’s loss was Arlesey’s gain and they certainly did benefit from the talented youngster. The rest, as the old cliché goes, is history. For Hitchin, it is certainly a case of the one that got away.
The prospect of seeing Kitson on the touchline was the deciding factor. Hitchin v Arlesey it was…Bilbo Baggins would have to wait.
But alas, no Kitson, he wasn’t there. “A publicity stunt,” said one Hitchin cynic. “It sounds good, but what’s a 34 year-old, just out of the top flight doing coaching at this level at this stage of his career?” I thought I’d ask the Arlesey chairman, but he was also absent, “on his honeymoon”, came the reply.
Never mind, there were plenty of other recognisable faces. Ironton himself is an ex-Hitchin player, albeit for a brief spell in 1987-88 when Hitchin desperately threw money at trying to stave off relegation. Ironton was one of a group of hired guns who almost pulled off the great escape. He later emerged at Arlesey as manager, brought to the club by then Blues Chairman, Eddie Haeztman, an ebullient character who seems to be the forgotten man at Hitchin Road these days. Ironton was instantly successful and presided over one of the best periods in the club’s history.
Other former Hitchin men like Luke Gregson and Dean Gilbert have returned to Arlesey, so there were plenty of talking points. Both were popular characters in their time at Top Field.
For once, the Top Field chatter was not all about the ground, the march and the two-horned devils known as the Cow Commoners. Hitchin had recovered from a sticky autumn to put together an unbeaten run of six games, three wins and three draws. In the middle of that sequence was the memorable 1-0 victory against league leaders Poole Town. As for Arlesey, they had won just once in 11 matches, although with Hereford’s demise, that was now one win in 10.
And it was easy to see why. Quite frankly, apart from James Hatch, they looked pretty dispirited. Hitchin didn’t play especially well, but they didn’t have to. They took the lead in the 14th minute from the penalty spot when Matt Lench was brought down in the area, Lewis Rolfe scoring the goal. Their second goal came just before half-time and was an easy tap-in by former Arlesey man Jonny McNamara.
Hitchin’s old problem of goalscoring reared its head again (how they netted seven at Biggleswade is a puzzle) and both Brett Donnelly and Nat Peacock didn’t have productive games. The secret of Hitchin’s success was the midfield – Sam Barker, McNamara and Lench all impressed – and their outstanding goalkeeper, Charlie Horlock (wasn’t that the name of a Dr Who monster?). Horlock is on loan from Wycombe Wanderers until the end of the season, a real coup for Hitchin after the inconsistent custodians they’ve had this past year. Arlesey have got some work to do, but Ironton may be just the man to get them out of trouble.
Not a classic by any means. Mark Burke, the Hitchin manager, summed it up: “It was a case of ‘game management’”. I don’t know where he’s read that one. Perhaps it was in the “Secret Footballer”?