If you believed some of the stories you read on websites, my trip to see the trustees at the centre of Hitchin Town’s stadium squabble could possibly end with me being dismembered or completely drained of all my blood. But I was pleasantly surprised that the people confronting me didn’t have two heads, certainly no cloven hooves and, to be truthful, I couldn’t pick up the smell of sulphur anywhere.
What I did see was a group of volunteers who have been scorched by some of the comments made about their honesty and motives, people who are “embarrassed” about the relationship between Hitchin Town Football Club and themselves. “We are volunteers and we are merely operating under the terms of the trust. That might not suit everyone’s objectives, but in pushing forward the scheme that was proposed – and I stress proposed – for a new site, we genuinely felt we were doing what was best for the club in the longer term. We were not motivated, as individuals or as a group, by financial gain,” says the Chairman of the Hitchin Cow Commoners Trust, Peter Cranfield.
But Cranfield, a local dentist, and his colleagues, are aware that the proposal to move the club to Stevenage Road, some two miles from its current home, would not have worked unless the football club fully embraced it. “The club would be the centre-piece of the new development and it couldn’t be successful as a venue unless the people at Hitchin Town supported it,” he insists.
It was more than three years ago that the concept was first put to the Hitchin Town committee and that support was tepid to say the least. Trustees like Chartered Surveyor Mark Cherry and local retailer Alan Doggett both felt that a new purpose-built facility would be the answer to the club’s problem of a ground that has become the victim of what amounts to coastal erosion – a bit falls off every year. Doggett has been a frequent visitor to Top Field over the years and has provided sponsorship at times, so he knows Hitchin Town well. “I’d love the club to stay at the ground, but as trustees, we had to look at better alternatives.”
Cherry adds that the proposal was put to the trustees by the developer, Richard Daniels. If it had gone ahead, the club would have had a relatively easy transition to its new home. “The ground would have been built and then the club could move during the close season. Work on Top Field would commence only at that point, so unlike some schemes, where a club might have to move ahead of the new ground being constructed, Hitchin Town’s relocation could have been seamless.”
What would have been different lies at the centre of the equation. The lease to Top Field is not actually owned by Hitchin Town Football Club, but by a private company. While this meets certain requirements, the trust is now obliged to grant a lease only to a charitable organisation. “The club is aware of this,” says Cranfield. “We have suggested that we can remedy this by the club setting up a charitable trust and then sub-letting to the football club itself. This was proposed some time ago.”
And that’s no doubt a contributory factor to the lease – until this year – being of a relatively short tenure. If the new ground had been built, the trust would have been compelled to lease the stadium to an organisation that meets charitable status and plays host to charitable sport. It may seem to some like an archaic arrangement, but that’s integral to the trust’s raison d’etre. “At the heart of our plans was a desire to return the ground to the town of Hitchin. At present, the lease is in the hands of a private company, not the club itself.” On the face of it, that seems a relatively simple problem to solve.
The new stadium project is academic now, and the fresh lease on Top Field, with a break clause installed specifically for the Stevenage Road project and no other, means the trust can now sit back after what has been a traumatic period – if the lawyers let it. “We have doubted our own sanity in staying on the trust at times,” says Tom Williams, a local businessman and someone familiar with property and land management. “Our families and friends, who all understand what the trust is about, cannot believe we have stuck with it. It has been very hard.”
Williams’ story actually underlines the role played by the trustees in taking an objective view on things. “I live in St. Ippolyts and the new ground would have been quite near me. From a personal standpoint, I didn’t particularly want the club on my doorstep, but I felt that for the club, and for the trust, it was the best thing to do.”
Public perception hasn’t been helped by a very lop-sided media campaign that has occasionally misrepresented the trust and key storylines. Certainly the club did a good job in snaring local journalists to secure their support, and there was also a hint of local politics involved. “We have an issue with the local press,” says Tony Freeman. “They have been fed information and they have skewed it and omitted important aspects that would have put across our side of the story far better. But the football club story sells papers.”
In hindsight, would the Cow Commoners Trust have done anything differently? “We cannot deny that the Charity Commission said we were in breach of not providing a so-called ‘red book valuation’, but we were advised that, given we were still unaware of what we could build and therefore couldn’t possibly know the land’s value, we were following the right path. But the Commission has said we were in breach and we have to accept that, unwittingly, we have done so,” admits Cherry.
So what now for the landlords and the club? “The trust rules mean we are stuck,” says Cranfield. “But by a change in its status, the club would find that we could be far more helpful to Hitchin Town Football Club. I reiterate, the needs of the trust must be met and if they are, we have room to manoeuvre. We do understand the value of the club to the town and we do know there are a lot of good people at Top Field.”
Not too far from the surface is the desire to improve the relationship between the trust and the club and to get talking – rationally – about the future of the ground. Virtually all the trustees are Hitchin folk through-and-through, they do not appear to have any desire to disadvantage the club or compromise the future of senior football in the town. Surely progress can be made?
That was it then. I shook their hands after two hours of open and honest debate. I left the building intact and informed. I didn’t need that crucifix or string of garlic at all…
Game of the People would like to thank the Cow Commoners for their cooperation in producing this article.
Why Game of the People met the Cow Commoners
The whole campaign around the battle for Top Field was choreographed by Hitchin Town Football Club. But there was one important thing missing – the voice of the trustees of the Cow Commoners Trust. As far as the public was concerned, the trustees were the villains of the peace. Harsh words were thrown at them, inappropriate words in many cases. Game of the People gave the Cow Commoners a chance to air their own views, something which they felt had largely been denied to them. It matters not to the outcome, but this merely serves to remind us that like the majority of people involved in the football club, the Cow Commoners are volunteers. Furthermore, in any argument, there are two sides to the story. It should get people talking, and who knows, the right people round the table to improve the fractured relationship between the club and its landlords. Wars may be fought in fields, but invariably, the peace is established around a boardroom table. We’re advocates for civilised dialogue!