It is December 1990. I had just – against my better judgement – become involved with a non-league football club. “It will frustrate you,” I was warned, and that prediction would prove to be correct. But on that dark Saturday evening just after Christmas I was still excited at becoming part of my local club.
In the bar after Hitchin Town’s 2-0 win against Lewes, a round man with a grin the size of a split water melon thrust his hand across the corner of the bar. “Steve Norris, manager,” he beamed. He was happy. His team was top of the Isthmian Division One and the prospect of promotion was still on, despite the recent announcement the club was in financial crisis. “What do you think of the team?.” I had watched Hitchin since their relegation in 1988, but I was still relatively uninformed as far as I was concerned. Nevertheless, I responded: “Your number four is your best player.” Norris grinned some more and quipped: “Why do you think he’s my captain? He’s different class.”
I have never forgotten that first conversation with Norris and whenever we bump into each other, invariably the discussion will turn to Hitchin’s current manager, Mark Burke. Norris, still a great football enthusiast, inevitably insists, while grabbing his shirt: “Burkey’s doing a great job. He’s Hitchin through-and-through. It’s in the heart.”
A quarter of a century since that post-match exchange, Mark Burke is now the “gaffer”, leading a group of [incredibly] young players that offer a bright future for Hitchin Town. Against a background of off-pitch intrigue and confusion, Burke’s team has just finished his second season, Hitchin’s best ever Southern League Premier campaign.
As Hitchin Town appointed Burke as manager in the summer of 2013, I announced my departure from the club after more than two decades of active participation. The prophesy made by my close friend had come true. I had never wanted to be called a club stalwart, words used to describe people like Mark Burke, but I moved on happy that the club had given him a chance to make the step from player to former player to management. Nobody knew the club better than Burke and when it came to setting the right example on the pitch, there had been few to match his philosophy.
After Hitchin’s last game of the 2014-15 season, Burke was on the pitch signing autographs for children that have benefitted from the community activities orchestrated by the Canaries’ manager. A few youngsters insisted on taking “selfies” with battered iPhones. His players had trooped off, basking in the glow of a 4-0 win against an abysmal Burnham side that had already been relegated. The players emerged from a “group hug” with some cheering and a mock retirement parade for veteran striker Simon Martin. The mood was good – real progress had been made in 2014-15. “I am very pleased,” he said. “I wanted to finish in the top 10 and we’ve done that. And we’ve hit 70 points which is a bonus. It’s been something of a roller-coaster of a season, but we’ve finished on a very high note. Now we have to aim higher for next season.”
“Higher” to most people would be a real stab at the play-offs, but Burke – always cautious in his ambitions – prefers to call it “consolidation” in the top 10. He knows that the club’s resources may not accommodate his desire for an out-and-out striker that can bring more consistency to the goalscoring ranks. “They are gold dust and expensive and we just don’t have the cash to bring someone like that to the club. Goals haven’t necessarily been the problem [only half a dozen teams have scored more in the Southern Premier], but it’s always nice to have a striker who can get you 20-odd goals.”
The current Hitchin side is one of the youngest fielded by the club, possibly even younger than the team Burke was blooded in under former Luton and Burnley midfielder Alan West. Hitchin have occasionally cried out for an older head to provide some on-pitch guidance. “We may need some experience in the heart of the team, someone to show leadership when things are not going so well.”
And at times, the “roller-coaster” of a season that Burke refers to has meant digging deep to get through a poor sequence of results. Hitchin’s squad is relatively thin and the absence of key players is difficult to cover. “When we had our bad period, we were without three of our best, Matt Lench, Dan Webb and Alasan Ann, and don’t forget we were deprived of Stuart Pearson right from the start of the season.”
Although there’s no doubting the value of players like Lench, Webb and Ann, Burke refuses to single out names among a hard-working squad. For many, the Hitchin team is a classic case of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Burke is no disciple of Gestalt psychology, but he has built his team with what he calls “the three As: Attitude; Application; and Ability.”
Certainly some promising young players are flourishing under the regime implemented by Burke – on the back of his three As – and his number two, Adam Parker. Kane Smith came to the fore in the latter weeks of the season and showed enough to earn himself a contract. Lucas Kirkpatrick, who scored twice in the final game against Burnham, is another who could play at a higher level. And then there’s Jonny McNamara, an eye-catching “will o’ the wisp” of a player who, in my view, is Hitchin’s best prospect.
The club’s historic problem has always been to keep promise together, but Burke believes that with a long lease in place and the drive to develop Top Field, the club can start to use that as something of a bargaining tool. After all, bigger – and more monied clubs – may well be circling Fishponds Road in the summer to try and lure some of Burke’s players away.
Team spirit may well be another big plus. Burke knows a thing or two about building dressing room morale. Parker, too. “Parks is a great link between management and players,” he says. “He’s a big kid, after all.” The relationship between Burke and Parker goes back a long way and the duo seem to “bounce off each other”. When Hitchin were looking for a new manager in 2009, Parker was eager to return to a club where he always felt most wanted. As a young player, he had talent in bucketloads. His former manager at Stevenage, Paul Fairclough, when recalling Parker, would always enquire about the once precocious teenager’s progress, shake his head and comment: “Such talent.”
There’s arguably no Parker, indeed no Burke, in the current side, but there are few teams to match the work-rate or energy. Hitchin ended the Southern League campaign with just one defeat in 11 games. “There’s been a few highlights this season, especially away from home, but a cup run would have been nice. However, we have finished just shy of the play-offs, which has exceeded most expectations. Already I am looking forward to next season.”
Mark Burke will celebrate 30 years at the club later this year at a time when Hitchin will commemorate 150 years of football in the old town. It will also be 20 years since one of Burke’s finest hours, marking Bristol Rovers striker Marcus Stewart in Hitchin’s famous FA Cup giant-killing feat of 1995. As glorious as that may have been, it is an appropriate time to make some new on-pitch headlines…