HITCHIN folk tend to be masters of the understatement. They don’t like show-offs, self-promoters or any amount of hubris. That’s an observation of living almost 30 years in the North Hertfordshire market town that has played host to Association Football for 150 years in some shape or form.
Followers of the town’s football team have often made do with second best and the classic Hitchin Town fan is a person who shrugs his shoulders and accepts mediocrity while revelling in the fact that the club has been around for years and still enjoys reasonable support. They don’t get too excited at Top Field, the ground that has been at the centre of public debate for the past couple of years. There’s no politically-motivated “ultras” on the wooden terraces singing about anti-facism, just talk of shoulder problems, arthritic knees, bad backs and high blood pressure. Ironically, the club’s former doctor was in attendance, for the first time in years. “It’s 15 years since I last saw a game,” he said. “Everyone’s still here, but looking a lot older!”.
The town’s blood pressure was certainly raised as it came out in support of “saving Top Field” but was then told in October last year that the club, after all, might have to relocate. The latest twist is a floodlight fighting fund that aims to put renewed illumination onto the Top Field pitch.
That very pitch has seen some good football this season and Hitchin are genuine candidates to win promotion from the Southern League Premier Division. Two club legends, Mark Burke and Adam Parker, are in charge of a team that continues to surprise people.
Hitchin welcomed Hungerford Town to their ancient home hoping to extend a four-game winning sequence that had revitalised their promotion hopes after an indifferent spell that followed the departure of two key players, Matt Lench and Sam Barker, who gave into their urge for wanderlust. There have been few more impressive seven-day periods than the one that included away wins at Leamington and St.Neots. Hungerford had also been in good form, although in midweek, they were beaten at home by Leamington.
Hitchin have adjusted to the loss of Lench and Barker and are on track again
While mid-February is too early to call this game a play-off eliminator, the top of the Southern League Premier is tight, so a victory for either side would help cement their place in the upper quartile. Crowds at Hitchin have been lack-lustre this season for a team chasing honours, but the last two league games, against Frome and Histon, had attracted a combined total of almost 1,000. With Hungerford bringing a few likely lads along, the turnstiles clicked in excess of 400 for a game played on a cold, damp and windy afternoon.
Among the crowd were two former Canary heroes from the 60s and 70s, Paul Giggle and Hughie Pratt. It is a feature of the club that old players regularly return to Top Field, and while Pratt is something of a regular, Giggle is exiled in Scotland and his visits are fleeting. Nevertheless, Giggle’s place in Hitchin folklore shows no sign of being eroded and the news that the former winger was in the ground raised a smile among veteran supporters.
He might well have been impressed with the way the current Hitchin side played in the opening stages of the game.
Their two first half strikes were down to good set-piece delivery. The first, after just 11 minutes, came from a nicely-flighted free kick from sought-after full back Kane Smith, who found the head of Dan Webb. He produced the proverbial “textbook” header that sailed beyond Hungerford goalkeeper Paul Strudley.
In between the goals, the waspish Jonny McNamara had two chances to extend Hitchin’s lead, but both times he was thwarted by Strudley’s agility.
In the 31st minute, however, Hitchin went two ahead when Lucas Kirkpatrick’s free kick to the near post was touched home by Brett Donnelly.
Hungerford came out after the interval with renewed vigour and within five minutes, they pulled a goal back. Hitchin seemed to have trouble clearing their lines, and from the edge of the area, a low shot by Mike Jones was deflected past Charlie Horlock by Garyn Preen.
Both sides had chances in the second period, but Hitchin hung on to win 2-1. Mark Burke, who looked a shade relieved, commented: “We’ve grown up today. We knew they would be hard and in the past we have struggled against them. Although they put us under a lot of pressure in the second half, we showed enough composure to win the game.”
There seemed to be a little bit of bad blood between the two sides – Hungerford were upset that some Hitchin players didn’t shake hands after the final whistle – and it wasn’t until after the game that I realised why there might have been friction. In both 2013-14 and 2014-15, Hitchin had a man sent off in this corresponding fixture.
Burke’s opposite number, Bobby Wilkinson, felt that his side deserved a share of the spoils. “It was a game of two halves. We gave them two goals in the first half – they really didn’t have to work at it – but I am pleased with the way we responded after the break. We deserved a point.” Wilkinson was visibly upset that his team had lost and even apologised for being miserable! “People keep writing us off, but we just take things game by game. This is a very tight division this year and we are certainly in the mix.”
And so are Hitchin. They have tough games approaching at Poole and Redditch. “This win puts us in high spirits….our confidence is high,” said Mark Burke.
The way things are going, this could be a notable season for the Canaries. Riding high in the league, already in the Herts Senior Cup final. A fitting way to end their 150th anniversary season.