Non-League Football

Rebels with a cause

Photo: Peter Else

Photo: Peter Else

SLOUGH TOWN were once a big noise in non-league football. FA Amateur Cup finalists in 1973, Conference residents until 1998, Isthmian League champions in 1981 and Athenian League champions three times. The success of the football team arguably made them the second most well known resident of the Bucks town of 140,000 people – after Mars, the confectionary giant. Slough was also renowned as the inspiration of John Betjeman’s poem that was none too complimentary about the town.

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now, There isn’t grass to graze a cow. Swarm over, Death!

For the past decade, Slough have led a nomadic existence. They are in their 6th year of sharing with Beaconsfield SYCOB where crowds have held up well. A prolonged period away from their home town could have killed off some clubs, but Slough have retained their core support.

Later this year, Slough will return home to a new stadium in the town. It is sure to be an emotional occasion and one senses that it may result in an upturn in support and perhaps provide the springboard to better times.

The new ground, called Arbour Park, will be council-owned, and in keeping with the current trend in non-league football, will include an artificial pitch. Needless to say, Slough die-hards are looking forward to the day they have their own home once more. Slough have the potential to become a big noise again – when they were last in the Conference, they could attract close to 800 people on a regular basis.

The Beaconsfield ground that has been their adopted home for the past nine seasons has served them well and brought bigger crowds to Holloways Park. Skirted by trees and sitting on the edge of a the sort of town that has so-called “yummy-mummies” navigating 4×4 push chairs around its affluent streets, Beaconsfield was once (it may still be) the home of former Chelsea and Leeds chairman Ken Bates, as well as Enid Blyton and Benjamin Disreali.. As far as I know, nobody has been moved to write a poem about it, although it was reported to be Britain’s richest town in 2008.

The area is also well known for its abundance of Red Kites, the once endangered bird that seems to proliferate the area. Indeed, a popular sport is Red Kite watching and once again, the very identifiable birds could be seen undergoing a reconnaissance of the football ground.

On the day Hitchin Town were the visitors to Holloways Park, Beaconsfield’s ground was struggling to cope with traffic. It’s a problem they probably don’t get when the home side, SYCOB, are playing, given their average gates (80) are somewhat less than Slough’s usual attendance of 270-plus.

Before playing host to play-off chasing Hitchin, Slough hadn’t played since Boxing Day due to a spate of postponements. If ever there was a reason to go 3G, it is surely the January-February period that wipes out so many non-league fixtures.

Hitchin, meanwhile, had been on an excellent run and only lost an unbeaten sequence in the league that began in October. They had lost the previous week to Frome at home, just days after two key players, Matt Lench and Sam Barker, had departed the club to go back-packing around Australia. Hitchin fans were still bemoaning the fact that players don’t have the type of commitment they once had for non-league clubs. Both players are decent and will be missed and it will be interesting to see if Canaries manager Mark Burke accommodates them when they return from down under.

But all the talk was about one player still at Top Field but also likely to be on his way for other reasons – Kane Smith. Apparently, a couple of scouts were present to see the young full-back in action at Holloways Park, following clubs like Bristol City (who have made an offer) and West Bromwich Albion.

Smith looked good going forward, but defensively, he laboured against a Slough team that gave Hitchin precious little room. When he dashed forward, he looked one of Hitchin’s most dangerous players – somebody will surely take a punt on him soon.

The first half was a tame affair but Hitchin goalkeeper Charlie Horlock pulled off a couple of good saves from Charlie Mpi and Lewis Putman. At the other end, Hitchin went close when a cross from Jonny McNamara found Robbie Burns  but Slough’s goalkeeper,  Mark Scott, superbly tipped the ball over.

Photo: Peter Else

Photo: Peter Else

The only goal of the game came from Lewis Putman and was not a good one from the Hitchin defence’s perspective. Putman, a player that Hitchin courted for some time, often generating rumours that, “Putman’s coming here soon,” on more than one occasion, notably when he scored prolifically for Oxhey Jets. He signed for Wealdstone, much to Hitchin’s disappointment, and has found himself at Slough where he’s scoring goals.

Putman’s languid run to the edge of the area went unchecked by Smith and other Hitchin players and he sent a lazy, low left-foot shot through a crowded area. It should have been prevented, but it was well directed.

Hitchin didn’t have the firepower up front to seriously trouble Slough, although they enjoyed plenty of possession and tried to play their way through the area without much success. McNamara went close with a low shot when he burst through on goal and Kane Smith had a shot blocked when he raced into the area from deep.

Slough were strong on the counter-attack and Lee Barney, in particular, gave Hitchin little chance to think at the back. The diminutive number 10 went off to strong appreciation from the home crowd.

In the closing seconds, Burns was denied by Scott as Hitchin went in search of a late equaliser. It wasn’t to be and the visitors were left to reflect on a second successive defeat. “We may have peaked at Weymouth,” said one Hitchin fan as he left the ground.

Slough, meanwhile, just about deserved the points and celebrated, with the management team – Neil Baker and Jon Underwood – acknowledging the crowd as they left the field. The duo, referred to as “Unders and Bakes” and “Bakers and Udders” in the programme (with classic men of destiny “management in black” images) looked pleased. In two previous meetings with Hitchin at Top Field, they had ended the game with 10 men!

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