ONE YEAR ago, the people of Hitchin marched in support of their club, its ground and, if you followed the narrative, the economy of the old market town. Amid the frenzy of activity, which was to the great credit of a handful of people who orchestrated the campaign, there was a groundswell of optimism that, at last, the long-standing issue of the Top Field stadium could head towards a conclusion.
On the day that around 1,500 people took a stroll around the town centre, the club hosted a “free” game that attracted over 1,600 to see Hitchin beat Poole Town 1-0. It was, to quote Lou Reed’s song “just a perfect day”.
Twelve months on, fewer than 300 attended Hitchin’s game with Chippenham Town at a windswept Top Field. On the pitch, Mark Burke continues to build a team that is attractive to watch, full of youthful vigour and doing things the right way. Off the pitch, there are rumblings of discontent. The Top Field campaign lost its legs in October when another public meeting hinted that the game was up in Fishponds Road and that a move to the nearby Priory School might be in the best interests of the club, after all. It was a fractious meeting that chipped away at the emotional backing given to the club by more than just a handful of football fans. Today, some supporters feel a little deflated by this twist given the “Top Field or dead” mantra of the march and other events.
Club officials everywhere wring their hands anxiously when gates fall
Hitchin’s gates this season are averaging 317 – that’s lower than usual for a club that enjoys incredibly loyal support. In fact, this figure is the lowest the club has recorded since 2008. It is not a reflection of the quality of the fare on offer, because, to quote a long-standing Canaries’ fan, “we are playing the best football we have seen in years.”
Falling attendances invariably cause club officials to wring their hands and seek credible explanation. In Hitchin’s case, there can be only two – the cost and a certain loss of faith following the recent meeting. It is probably a mixture of both. I sense the club needs a positive PR exercise or two to win back some of people who feel that the energy of 2014-15 was expelled in vain.
Those that did turn up to see Hitchin face second-placed Chippenham saw an entertaining game of more than decent quality. Pre-match talk focused on the Canaries’ young full-back, Kane Smith, who has been trialling with Crystal Palace. Hitchin have an “in” at Palace in the form of Garry Issott, the Academy head who once played for the club. Smith, who was earmarked as something of a find last season, has emerged as a talented player with great promise.
Apparently, he aquitted himself well in the two under-21 games he has played for Palace, against Cardiff City and Charlton Athletic. The rumour mill suggested that Palace are about to make some sort of offer to Hitchin for a player who is under contract.
Smith was left on the bench against Chippenham, which only added fuel to the rumour. “He [Mark Burke] doesn’t want to get him injured ahead of Palace coming in,” said one Hitchin die-hard. “You watch, Palace will make an bid this week.”
Smith aside, Hitchin played some good football against a robust Chippenham team. Most of the “robust” came from the Bluebirds’ two front men – Alan Griffin (always a popular opponent at Hitchin) and Andy Sandell. How Sandell did not receive a red card during the game is something of a mystery, but he’s an experienced hand who knows how to get away with subtle misdemeanour.
Hitchin got off to a perfect start with a tame goal from skipper Alasan Ann, who netted from close range. Both Sandell and Griffin missed easy chances for Chippenham, but at half-time the lead was still intact.
A walk around Top Field at the interval revealed why the need for progress on the ground front is well overdue. While the romantics want to see the club remain at this “heritage” site, supporters still wonder how a new ground can emerge from the current impasse.
Chippenham scored a deserved equaliser in the 49th minute, a curling shot from Matt Smith. Hitchin introduced their own fan Smith, prompting one regular to comment: “This is the last time we’ll see Kane in action in a Hitchin shirt.”
The game ended 1-1, a fair result and one that maintains the healthy momentum of both teams. As for Kane Smith, there could yet be a bit of cash coming Hitchin’s way. They already have a replacement among the players they have in their squad, so it won’t affect the team in the way that losing goal machine John Frendo did.
A threatening high wind swept through Top Field as the crowd filed out of the ground. One always looks fearfully at the corrugated roof of the stand and rusting floodlight pylons on days when the gusts dramatically bend the skeletal trees surrounding the ground. It serves to remind people that their beloved home, in all its austere glory, is also a vulnerable place – in more ways than one.