THERE’S a different mood at Hitchin Town these days. For so long a club that bemoaned its lack of funds and absence of a long-term lease, the residents of Fishponds Road seem to have acquired fresh impetus from somewhere.
It started with the “Save Top Field” campaign, which despite its confusing finale, reminded people in the town there was a football club playing over the other side of the common, opposite the swimming pool. What really stirred things at Top Field was the appointment of Mark Burke as manager. A dyed-in-the-wool Hitchin Town man, although a Lutonian, Burke has been involved with the club for 30 years. When he was appointed, some eight years after his playing days finally ended, the sceptics wondered if he could make a go of the manager’s job. But he has proved the doubters wrong.
Burke, over three seasons, has built a team that is young, industrious and really “together”. It may lack the type of prolific goalscorer that has graced past Hitchin teams – often at the expense of an all-round, balanced side – but they have half a dozen players who could yield the club transfer income in the next couple of years. Such has been the quality of football on show that even cynical, long-standing members of the wooden terrace brigade are singing the praises of Burke and co.: “Burkey and Parks [Adam Parker, Burke’s number two] have done a wonderful job over the past three seasons. I’ve never enjoyed coming up here so much in 40-odd years,” said one regular.
The club has also undergone something of a metamorphosis off the field, embracing new initiatives to encourage fans and show that a non-league club can contribute to the community. When the 150th anniversary campaign was launched, nobody expected that the club would make significant donations to both local and national charities. Almost £14,000 was shared between the Letchworth Garden House Hospice and Children in Need charities, demonstrating that clubs’ do not just take all the time.
Five years ago, it is doubtful that the club would have contemplated offering free entry or “pay what you want” initiatives, but both have proved successful and also generated heaps of goodwill. As the Canaries closed-in on a play-off place this season, the club decided to offer the latter for their final league game at Top Field on April 23 against St. Neots.
A few days earlier, Hitchin had clinched a play-off berth, the prize on the last day was positional – second or third would secure a home tie in the semi-final and, possibly, the final on Bank Holiday Monday.
Attendances at Top Field had, initially, been disappointing in 2015-16, but more recently, over 700 had seen the home games with Poole and Weymouth as people started to believe that Hitchin could actually win promotion. Little wonder that it took time to ignite as the club has been somewhat “Ranieriesque” about the possibility of going up. But the league table doesn’t lie and people do start to take notice. And the local newspaper, The Mercury, did the club proud in the days leading up to the St. Neots game, devoting its front page to the cause.
Would the public respond? “If they don’t today, they never will,” said Roy Izzard, the club’s Secretary and Treasurer. Izzard, one of the driving forces behind the very public ground debate, need not worry, for half an hour before kick-off there were plenty of people in the ground. The turnstiles were not operational, but a bucket was strategically poised to capture what people wanted to throw in.
The strange thing is that on days like these, people feel inclined to be fair about payment. It’s unlikely that you will get the sort of receipts that you would normally accrue for a sizeable crowd, but it is equally probable that you will get more than your average attendance.
There were certainly lots of people who were clearly unfamiliar with Top Field or Hitchin Town. For a start, there was noise – the Hitchin crowd are invariably quiet, but a number of youngsters broke the silence. It helped that the club had invited a gang of school children along, adding a shrill soundtrack to proceedings. There were almost 1,200 people in the ground by kick-off.
It was a tentative start by Hitchin, their passing hasty and misplaced. Nerves may have got the better of them in the early stages, but St. Neots were not really equipped to take advantage, despite the presence of hired gun Drew Roberts in their line-up.
The second half was better and four minutes into the restart, Hitchin went ahead. Callum Donnelly played the ball inside to the sought-after Kane Smith (one of the players who could be sold this summer) and he slotted the ball home. Smith looked offside, but apparently, a St. Neots player got a touch on its way to the youngster.
That calmed Hitchin down and the excellent Dan Webb went close with a diving header. Hitchin stepped up the pressure but it was not until the 71st minute that they scored again, Robbie Burns netting from close range after a good pass from Callum Donnelly. Two-nil was enough for Hitchin. The crowd awaited news from elsewhere to work out the permutations.
Meanwhile, people streamed onto the pitch – well, those that obviously didn’t know the protocol. The youngsters making their first Top Field appearance decided it was appropriate to celebrate with the players. They were unaware that pay what you want is not “do what you want”! All the more important was the need for a tidy pitch when the news was confirmed that Hitchin Town will play Hungerford Town at home in the semi-final play-off.
What next then, for Hitchin? You sensed that having strived and succeeded in reaching the play-offs, the team has the energy and verve to actually go on to win promotion. And that will come with a few challenges. Notwithstanding any ground improvements that might be needed, there is just the slightest chance that National League North may be on the agenda. As ridiculous as that sounds, such a crazy scenario has happened before. In the meantime, Hitchin Town can look back on a memorable season. It could be just the start of a golden era for the club.