BASINGSTOKE TOWN have always struck me as a good club, mildly ambitious and reasonably well supported. Basingstoke itself is a sizeable town of more than 100,000 people, which makes it comparable to a handful of Football League locations. You would assume there’s upside potential.
In April this year, the club announced that it would be going “full-time” with effect from 2016-17 with the aim of recruiting the best young players released by Football League clubs in the south of England. Quite what “full-time” really means is anyone’s guess, but given that over the past decade, Basingstoke have averaged gates of 460, it does make you wonder how such a commitment can be sustained at Step 3 of the non-league pyramid.
At the time of the announcement, the club’s manager, Terry Brown, always a highly respected football man from his time at Hayes, among other clubs, said that the move was all about making Basingstoke more financially viable and removing the need for the club to rely on individuals pouring money into the coffers.
Sustainable growth is an ambition that every non-league club should aim for, but is “full-time” not the road to disaster? It depends how you define it, but enough clubs find it tough enough to maintain semi-professionalism, let along the real thing. The timing is also an eyebrow-raiser.
Basingstoke were relegated in 2015-16 after being in the National League South since 2004-05. Terry Brown was appointed in March with the remit to stave off the drop, something he had never suffered in his long career. Unfortunately, he was unable to prevent Basingstoke falling out of National South, just one year after they had finished in third place.
Basingstoke turned up at Hitchin after a mediocre start to 2016-17. “They’ve gone full-time, you know,” said one regular. “How the hell can they afford to do that?”. “Yeah, but it’s a bunch of kids…academy lads…they will sink like a stone…hang on, they’ve got Terry Brown as manager…he’s no mug…there’s Paul Fairclough, he’s looking at one of Basingstoke’s players, they must have a couple of decent youngsters in their line-up.”
Certainly, Basingstoke looked fresh-faced and energetic as they warmed up, but after seven games, they had won just twice and had eight points. After dropping down a level, attendances at the Camrose had fallen by almost 10%.
Hitchin’s record was similar. They had not quite recaptured the form that took them into the play-offs last season, but a 4-2 FA Cup win revived their spirit after a Bank Holiday defeat at Dunstable.
Autumn had arrived as the Top Field pitch, slippery and fast-moving, was showered with leaves from the trees that fringe the stadium. The first half was fairly one-sided, with Hitchin moving the ball around well but not really testing Basingstoke’s impressive goalkeeper, Alex Tokarczyk.
It wasn’t until well into the second half that Basingstoke conjured up something worthwhile, a header from Aaron Redford. But then Hitchin, for all their possession, didn’t overdo things in the creativity department. Robbie Burns tried his best to threaten Tokarczyk, peppering the goal with some long-range efforts.
The game was finally settled with a minute to go and it was a textbook header from Brett Donnelly, who rose to meet Sam Barker’s cross and send his effort beyond the keeper. A little touchline skirmish added some drama to the occasion, but it was a goal worthy of three points.
It was another day of disappointment for Basingstoke and merely gave the home fans some ammunition: “Not a good advertisement for full-time,” said one Hitchin die-hard. “They didn’t look any fitter than us…shouldn’t they be fitter?”.
It’s going to be a keenly-watched experiment, but on their showing at Hitchin, patience may be something that’s also needed at Basingstoke to accompany bold ambition. The first-time promotion that some crave may prove too much of an ask this time around.