Non-League Football

Trophy bitter at the Carlsberg

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THE FA TROPHY doesn’t have the cachet of the FA Cup, but it still represents a mid-season distraction for non-league clubs at step three and beyond. Biggleswade Town v Hitchin Town also had the added spice of a local derby, so it seemed a reasonably attractive tie for a dull, drizzly afternoon by the A1(M).

Hitchin were still basking in the glow of rubbing shoulders with Premier League opposition in the form of Arsenal’s under-21 team, a game that attracted a 1,200 crowd and promises to provide some valuable charity for Bob Wilson’s Willow Foundation.

Biggleswade Town, who were trying to make history by reaching the third qualifying round for the first time in their history, and in doing so, scope up £3,250 in prize money, were also aiming to put one over on a very in-form Hitchin side. The Canaries were also trying to make amends for some disappointing cup exits this season, notably in the FA Cup and Southern League Cup.

Contrary to popular opinion, Biggleswade Town’s ground, The Carlsberg Stadium, is not so far from town to be inaccessible on foot. You walk from the station for 15-20 minutes and you’re there, watching the traffic hurtle past overhead. It is no further from the station than Hitchin’s own Top Field.

It was a big sporting day in the Bedfordshire town of Biggleswade, for the Waders’ local rivals, United, were also at home in the FA Vase second round, meeting the mighty Sun Sports across the other side of the A1. A third club, just plain old Biggleswade FC, were away at Peterborough Sports in the same competition.

United’s ground, Second Meadow, has been the centre of some media attention since Spanish journalist Guillem Balagué was appointed as Director of Football in 2014. While United, who are trying to challenge the status quo of non-league football, have certainly received plenty of publicity and the initial impact meant increased spectator interest, they have seen 25% fewer people at their games in 2016-17. Town, meanwhile, have so far experienced a marginal fall in attendances this season. It does make you wonder if a merger of the two most prominent clubs in a town of less than 17,000 would make more sense than two drawing a combined average attendance of just 270. Indeed, is there an appetite for no less than three senior sides – former Waders’ youth team Biggleswade FC are in their inaugural campaign in the Spartan South Midlands Division One and get less than 50 to their games – and  with Town and United between them drawing 1.67% of the local population, can more really be extracted from the community?

Biggleswade Town and United– average attendance trend

  2016-17 2015-16 2014-15 2013-14
Town 183 184 160 198
United 83 114 68 58
Total 276 298 228 256
% of pop. 1.67 1.8 1.38 1.55

Certainly Hitchin Town fans appeared to outnumber the locals at the Carlsberg.  “I’ve seen so many old faces today,” said former goalkeeper Tony Luff, who spent a lot of his time pressing flesh as old friends remembered him from a decade at the club. Always an instantly recognisable figure, Luff played alongside Hitchin manager Mark Burke in the late 1980s and start of the 1990s. “I’ve seen the team quite a few times this season and I really enjoy watching them. Burkey’s got them playing some good stuff,” admitted “Luffy”.

In the first half, there was plenty of frantic activity, but not too much of that “good stuff”. In fact, the highlight, until the 39th minute, was the formation flying of a flock of Canada Geese, a sight that would have warmed the hearts of natural history buffs anywhere.

It was six minutes from the interval that Hitchin took the lead with a quite spectacular goal from Josh Bickerstaff, who sent a left-foot strike from well outside the area past Biggleswade goalkeeper Ian Brown, a non-league stalwart around the Bedfordshire area who seems to have a unique relationship with the Hitchin faithful. Brown did sign for the club once, for a few days when Darren Salton was manager of Hitchin, but changed his mind and ended up at Bedford Town.

Bickerstaff’s goal, a rare strike for an honest player who always gives 100% to the cause, lit up a first period that looked to be suffering from the greyness of the day. Biggleswade almost scored when Rhys Hoenes struck the woodwork with a free kick, but even at the interval stage, everyone was fearing a Monday night replay, which for Hitchin has seldom been an enjoyable experience. Still, Bickerstaff’s goal kept the punters busy in their half-time analysis.

The second half was similar, with Hitchin wasting some chances and they thought they’d added a second when former Biggleswade Town striker Brett Donnelly netted near the end but it was ruled out by the referee. “That decision smells as much as this ground,” shouted one wag, referring to a broken drain or sewer that added just a note of methane to one end of the stadium!

Hitchin were made to pay for their generosity, however, and in the dying seconds of the game, with the Canaries’ Matt Lench prostrate on the edge of the Waders’ penalty area, the homes side equalised through Connor Hall. The game, like the Geese, had flown south. Waders manager Chris Nunn, celebrating 10 years at the club, was delighted with the way his team “gave all when we looked beat” and the manner in which his players defended against a good Hitchin side. “It will be tough Monday, but we will give it our all.”

Ah yes, Monday. A replay. Hitchin fans are only too aware of the poor record they have in Monday night rematches. Should be interesting.

www.gameofthepeople.com

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