ON the deep, but just about scalable Chesham terrace, Steve Conroy, formerly of Chesham United and Hitchin Town, stood watching two of his former clubs warm-up. Now a coach with Hitchin, Conroy remains a popular figure and his presence is always welcomed by Canaries fans who remember his three spells at Top Field. Conroy’s place in Hitchin history is indelibly scored in the memory – he headed them in front against Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup in 1995-96, helping them to a glorious 2-1 win before appearing on Match of the Day in a rather uncomfortable interview with Tony Gubba.
Ironically, just a few hours earlier, I bumped into another of Hitchin’s FA Cup heroes on the train out of Kings Cross – Shaun Marshall. As with any of the club’s old war horses, and Marshall’s slot in the Hitchin pantheon is equally assured given his part in the 1994-95 FA Cup saga, the conversation inevitably turns to triumphs past and how they compare to the current day.
Seeing two fine strikers such as Conroy and Marshall, some 20 years after unrivalled and historic times, reminds you that the quality of non-league football has certainly been diluted and also that a considerable period of time has lapsed since Hitchin last enjoyed FA Cup exposure.
More relevantly, it also underlines that the current Hitchin team, with its plethora of technicians, could do with another striker who can look players like Conroy, Marshall and that other Trojan from the mid-1990s, Gary Williams, in the eye. There’s plenty to admire in the Canaries young ensemble, but Burke and Parker will have to ensure that “for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost” does not become their epitaph.
The nail is a forward who can convert the many chances created by Burke’s team, but hardware of the quality of Conroy and Marshall costs money and there doesn’t seem to be too many nails around these days. The leading scorers in the Southern League Premier include Inih Effiong of Biggleswade Town, but Hitchin know all about him and he failed to impress when the two sides recently met.
Chesham United is one of those places that was always difficult for Hitchin. Until the last couple of seasons, the last time Hitchin had won there was when Conroy was in his pomp – a 3-0 win in 1993-94 that saw a vibrant Canaries team beat the Isthmian League champions. There was something of a jinx about the place, but that’s all changed – or so we thought.
Chesham were way behind Hitchin in the Southern League Premier before the two teams collided at the Meadow, but the Generals had played five less games, so a few wins would soon close the gap and make Chesham into challengers. The FA Cup had, happily, got in the way and Andy Leese’s charges reached the first round proper, losing at Peterborough United.
The Chesham team is packed with experience. Barry Hayles, now 44, is still ploughing away, albeit a more heavy, considered furrow. They’ve also got penalty area menace Drew Roberts and central defender Darren Purse (39). On the bench was one Matt Nolan, which briefly raised expectations among Hitchin fans that it was their former striker, but the Chesham version is a goalkeeper!
Hitchin decided to drop Kane Smith to make way for Matt Lench, one of three former Chesham lads (Sam Barker and Lewis Rolfe are the others). The Canaries started well, but fell behind in the 22nd minute to a soft headed goal from Sam Youngs.
By half-time, Hitchin were chasing the game against a somewhat bad-tempered Chesham side. “You’re a shit bag, lino,” said one of their defenders after a debatable decision. It made you wonder if the well-appointed poster in the bar, “Delete that expletive” should have been aimed at the players rather than the more muted supporters.
Chesham added a second in the 48th minute, a far post header from one-time Hitchin target Ryan Blake.
Hitchin made some changes and a series of crosses caused some problems, but Chesham looked comfortable at the back, even finding time to swap further expletives with the visiting supporters. It ended 2-0 to Chesham, which suggested that it was a “return to form” for games between these two clubs. For Hitchin, it was their first defeat since August 29 in the league. All runs come to an end, but just as Kettering showed a few days earlier, there’s quite a few contenders this season.