Alan Ball, a World Cup winner, was once informed he was too small to make it as a professional footballer. Both Wolves and Bolton rejected the youngster but he went on to play for Blackpool, Everton and Arsenal, among others, winning 72 England caps. “Not bad for a little lad from Farnworth,” Ball told me in 1993.
Ball was indeed small, just 5ft 6in, but he had a bit of muscle about him and was a commanding player in the middle of the park. A lot of young players today seem to be lacking in physique, but at the top level, power and strength are everything. Like perfectly round tomatoes in the supermarket, there is an identikit for footballers. Those that don’t tick the boxes can be found in non-league football.
One such small and somewhat frail-looking player is Saul Williams of Hitchin. We’d heard a few positive things about this 20 year-old after he had come on as substitute at Chippenham a few weeks earlier, scoring twice to win the Canaries the game. He arrived at Hitchin following a nomadic period of his career after being on Tottenham’s books as a youngster. Like many players today, his CV is too busy for a lad just approaching 21: Forest Green, Slimbridge, Paulton, Oxford City and, from August 2014, Hayes & Yeading.
So Game of the People was keeping a close eye on Williams in Hitchin’s game with local rivals Biggleswade Town. “He’s decent, has pace and tricky…he could be one for the future,” said one Hitchin fan on the day of the match. The assumption was that Williams was 17 or 18, not on the verge of getting the “key to the door”.
Williams becomes the latest youngster to join Hitchin. The team is rapidly becoming “Burkey’s Babes”, all boy-band hair-cuts and technicolour boots. Hitchin have had another respectable season and much of this is to Burke’s credit, who has moulded a team of unknown kids into a hard-working unit that has pulled off a few surprises. For the second season running, Hitchin have no relegation worries and the feel-good factor still prevails.
Williams, whose waif-like appearance is emphasised by baggy shorts and painfully vulnerable-looking limbs, started well against a Biggleswade side that featured two players that dwarfed the Hitchin number 11: Ollie Thorne and Gavin Hoyte. Thorne is well known to Hitchin fans having had a brief spell with the club earlier in the decade. Hoyte is one of those man-mountain centre-backs that teams are built around.
Williams demonstrated that he’s comfortable on the ball and that his pace can take him into areas that no defender has gone before. But when he has a Thorne or Hoyte up against him, he’s too easily knocked off the ball. In Ball’s day, they would have fattened him up on a diet of milk, eggs and steak.
Hitchin’s team is full of small men – notably Callum (200 games, 50 yellow cards) Donnelly, who was my man of the match against the Waders, and Jonny McNamara. But without the likes of Matt Lench and Sam Barker in the starting line-up, Hitchin seemed to lack something in midfield. So too up front, where the mercurial Nat Peacock drifted in and out of the game. At the back, however, Hitchin are looking compact and organised, as two clean-sheets in succession game before the Biggleswade game indicated.
In the first half, Williams threatened to do something impressive, a couple of good crosses, the second a perfect effort that found the head of Peacock, were very troublesome. But after the break, Saul seemed to drift away, lacking contact with the ball and the space to cause Biggleswade any problems. Hitchin scored in the 56th minute, McNamara playing the ball through to Peacock who shrugged aside a defender before shooting into the net. A good striker’s goal.
Biggleswade rarely threatened and as for Saul, he was dragged off to make way for veteran forward Simon Martin. A pity, as he had looked so promising in the first half hour. Game of the People switched its player cam off at this point!
Hitchin continue to make their season look more comfortable, but Biggleswade are clearly in relegation trouble. They will have a few more nervous afternoons before the season is out.