And the clock struck 13 at Top Field

DSCF2733In footballing terms, it was something of a second leg defeat for Hitchin Town’s owner, Andy Melvin and his acolytes. Having won the public vote over a year ago with a carefully choreographed protest march, Melvin slipped into North Hertfordshire’s version of  Animal Farm, transitioning  from “Four legs good, two legs bad” to “Four legs good, two legs better”.

North Herts District Council’s Judi Billing had spotted the Orwellian stance. “A year ago, we marched to save Top Field. You fought to keep Top Field. Now you are talking of a move. What has changed?”.

What had changed was revealed a few days earlier, a report stating that Hitchin Town are considering a move to land forming part of the Priory School. The article, written by local journalist Layth Yousif, said this was the preferred option of three. The club subsequently said Melvin had been “misquoted” which wasn’t supported by his opening gambit on an uncomfortable evening.

While the campaign to thwart the move to Stevenage Road was successful, the underlying issue of how Hitchin Town might develop a dilapidated ground lurked in the background. Some people, particularly the nostalgists, seemed to ignore this “300lb gorilla in the room”, but it was always going to rear its head again.

The crowdfunding attempt was tepid – the club offered little more in exchange for people’s money than goodwill – hence barely £ 3,500 was raised. This pales into insignifciance when you consider that Bath City have recently raised some £ 300,000. Little wonder that Melvin and solicitor-turned property developer, Robin Furby, have been exploring alternatives.

A one-stop shop is often attractive for non-league clubs in need of a new ground

The concept of a new site is logical and will  be better for the club in the long run, but it was surely no surprise that the reception was mixed from the audience. This was mostly attached to the sentiment around the mobilisation of the town to act as a pressure group, but now, to quote one attendee, “the past year has been a wasted exercise.” Melvin insisted, however,  that the “lock stock and barrel” idea was just that.

Although the meeting was designed to hear “what you think”, the comments from the audience appeared to frustrate both Melvin and Furby. The reaction was partly attributable to the intensity and success of a campaign that discounted a move away from Top Field. In January 2015, Game of the People warned the club that  decrying any move would be counterproductive should it  prove unavoidable in the future. Non-League clubs invariably succumb to the prospect of a “one-stop-shop” to secure a brand new home, which admittedly, is an attractive proposition. And so it goes.

For Hitchin Town supporters – and those interested in the welfare of the town –  to embrace a possible move, they need to understand exactly what it would mean for the club – in terms of tenure, management, transition and governance – and the immediate area. Equally, there needs to be more dialogue around the options for Top Field, if indeed there are any other than a possible partial development.

To dismiss enquiries about the identity of any future landlord as “a technical issue”, was strange given the club’s relationship with its landlords has been central to its angst. Presumably, if Melvin persuades the Cow Commoners to sell Top Field, relocate the club and build a new stadium at the Priory site, the landlords will continue to be the Cow Commoners. But if Melvin decides to go it alone and purchase a site that includes a stadium, anxiety will persist over Top Field’s future. That won’t matter too much to the club, but it will be a  major issue for the people living around Fishponds Road and surrounding streets.

One of the club’s neighbours questioned why the possible move, drawing the reaction, “ok, we stay here and bodge it”, which seemed a defensive  action from the top table. Ironically, one of the club’s greatest defenders, Mark Burke – currently leading a vibrant young team – brought some sanity to proceedings with a “head over heart” argument which always appeals to football folk.

The appetite for relocation can be nurtured

The club now needs to canvas its supporters with a proper consultative survey and not be afraid of the outcome. Public meetings have a purpose, but many people are reluctant to stick their head above the parapet. A straw poll conducted by Game of the People in December 2014 revealed that 60% of Hitchin fans would consider a move to a better site than Stevenage Road, so the appetite for relocation can be nurtured. On many levels, it makes sense, but the supporters and the public need to be handled sensitively.

What happens next, then? A strong, inclusive PR strategy needs to be conducted by the club to win back trust and support and add some granularity to any plans. Although only around 100 people attended the meeting, gossip travels fast and the news of the less-than-positive gathering will already be tap-room talk. The club also needs to be more open and more democratic – they might consider a share issue as the first move towards making the club 100% or at least partly supporter-owned. Then perhaps all animals will be equal.

If nothing else, they need to look at how others are doing it, notably Dulwich Hamlet, whose talismanic, heart-on-sleeve supporter, Mishi Morath, returned to Top Field to lend his voice. Hitchin Town could do far worse than take a trip down to South London to see how Mr Morath and his pals have transformed an ailing club into one of non-league football’s most talked-about outfits. And by the way, they are also moving…again.

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