NON-LEAGUE football has changed significantly over the past 20 years – players are younger (or is it me?), the quality has declined a little, the cost of watching it has gone up and clubs travel ridiculous distances to play in front of small crowds. The game is more scrutinised than ever before, so it is hard to get away with some of the sins of the past. Back in the 1996-97 season, I attempted a “fly on the wall” experiment at Hitchin Town on the day they played old rivals Enfield. It was an interesting and revealing experience worth re-telling. It was, indeed, a very different time.
Dave Mosley was already standing in the doorway of the dressing room as I arrived at Top Field. Ramrod straight, with near-perfect posture, he completely blocked the thoroughfare. The ruddy complexion, the result of many years of outdoor activity, made him appear full of vitality, while his broad grin suggested that this was clearly a man relishing his new challenge in local football.
Hitchin’s number two is a man of immaculate appearance. I almost expected to see a guardsman’s uniform hanging up in the snug manager’s changing room. Yet the statuesque frame does not hide a man devoid of emotion. Throughout 1995-96, Mosley felt every kick of the ball as Baldock Town clung onto their Beazer Homes Premier Division status. At the end of the last match, a 1-1 draw with Burton Albion that kept his side up, he stood exhausted, at last able to relax, and for once he was not “saying nowt”.
A native of Yorkshire, and a Barnsley supporter to boot, Mosley, unlike many of his counterparts, refuses to distribute the cliché-ridden prose of the football manager. He says little, but when he does impart information, you know it’s true and carefully considered.
Mosley’s new task at Top Field may be similar to his last season at Baldock, for Hitchin Town are also in need of the battling mentality, despite being mid-table in the ICIS (Isthmian) League. “I like this place,” says Mosley, looking across the ground. “The people are good, and behind the scenes, things are run well. My only regret is that I don’t live closer, because I would use the club on a social basis. Being involved with a club is not just about turning up on a Saturday. It’s much more than that.”
For a team that has crashed out cheaply in both FA competitions, struggle to score goals and has just returned from a single goal defeat at lowly Hendon, the spirit at Hitchin was remarkably good. The opposition on this particularly Saturday, Enfield, may have had something to do with that.
Games with the ICIS League artistocrats always carry a cup-tie tag and invariably, inspire an extra yard of pace in the players. Last season, Hitchin beat them 1-0 at Top Field and three years ago, they won 3-0 at Southbury Road, but generally, Hitchin do not win against Enfield.
Mosley, a teacher, is not schooled in the culture of the Isthmian League. He’s never come up against George Borg, Enfield’s volatile manager and a man who uses the currency of non-league football to good effect. He’s well known for his unique relationship with officials and for his dressing room oratories.
“I think from what I have seen so far, the ICIS is not as physical as the Southern league, which may owe much to the old amateur code of the Isthmian and the traditional Southern league constitution of ex-pros on their way down the ladder,” says Mosley of his new environment.
Hitchin manager Andy Melvin has now joined Mosley in the dressing room. The vibe is positive, plenty of banter, lightweight abuse and players wandering around getting ready. John Coley, a favourite with the crowd, strolls in, his cap resting at a jaunty angle. He looks a little like a Chicago gangster with his big overcoat, rakish moustache and dubious headgear, but Coley is far from menacing. “I close my eyes and I can hear Paul Giggle in his heyday,” said one long-suffering Hitchin official, which is as near to a compliment as you can get if you’re a Hitchin player.
Two o’clock, and the players are sipping their pre-match tea, supplied by another backroom stalwart, Reg Brown. He’s a popular figure with the players, full of jokes and recollections from his time as a player, a prisoner of war and as a matchday helper.
Mark McGonagle, a name from the not-too-distant past, has returned to the club, fully recovered from a near-fatal car accident, but complains that the tea hasn’t improved. “He’s very fit,” insists Melvin as he begins his psyching-up process with a series of short, sharp sentences, delivered calmly and fairly quietly.
“Last week. Hendon. Lost 1-0”
“They had one chance, scored”
“We should have done better”
“Adam [Parker], for 20 minutes you were different class. You didn’t start so good – look at me, son – but you improved”
“Coops [David Cooper], you’re not as fit as Wakka [Mark McGonagle] – I don’t know why you’re not, but anyway, two super strikes.”
Dave Mosley stands nodding and adding endorsement.
Melvin moves on to the task in hand:
“Today, Enfield. Borg likes to play 4-3-3 and if St. Hilaire plays, he’ll be a problem. I’ve not seen a decent side this season and the margin between success and failure is very narrow. A few weeks ago, we only just lost against this lot, so I’m not over-impressed with them. Tim [Allpress], Burkey [Mark Burke], you’re playing well, keep it up. Scotty [Ian Scott], you’re the best passer in the league, son. If you keep finding your man, no problem.”
Now it is over to Mosley. “Get changed. We go out at 25-past, back in here at quarter-to.” Since his arrival at Hitchin, Mosley has taken training sessions in conjunction with Mark Burke and Melvin. “Training has been very good. The lads are enjoying it and working hard.” On matchdays, a group warm-up has been part of the regular schedule, which seems to be the trend nowadays as Enfield’s own routine confirms.
After the warm-up, it’s back to the dressing room. The classical odour of the male locker room mixes in the warm, humid air with muscle rub and smelling salts to form an aromatic animal cocktail that is neither pleasant or unpleasant. McGonagle takes a sniff of the salts, clearing his nostrils. Scott does the same but he’s not so convinced. “I don’t know what’s in this, but I’m taking it out with me tonight around Luton,” says McGonagle. Meanwhile, Cooper gets his boots out of a sink of water, softening the leather.
Suddenly, somebody seems to have switched on the “Go” button. The mood changes – instantly. Melvin’s own team talk picks-up tempo, becoming full of expletives and very bullish. Adam Parker takes his instructions from afar – he’s still emptying his bowels in the toilet, much to the disgust of his team-mates.
This is where Burke and Mosley come into their own. Burke’s set-piece sketches are accompanied by simple instructions. “You move here, you whack it there,” while the players sit in silence, taking it all in.
Then, with the referee’s buzzer, signalling the start, Mosley moves in. “Right, listen in now. Today we’re playing a very powerful unit and if we’re not careful, they’ll murder us. They are second in the table and they’ll be thinking that they are the bees knees. But, if we get our heads right, think positive and stick to doing the things we’re good at, and do things simply, this will be a big fucking scalp to take. The team-spirit is good here and we’ve got a great bunch of lads. If you keep thinking about the things we’ve been doing over the past few weeks on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and believe in ourselves, we can do it,” he shouts, each sentence rising in volume. The players all join in, adding their own form of encouragement, yelping and shouting. It’s all very tribal, almost simian.
Enfield, bedecked in a very public school outfit of red and green quarters, would have received George Borg’s own style of pre-match motivation. As they run out, Mosley admits that they “look a classy bunch”, as Hitchin prepare for action.
Enfield have brought along a few hundred supporters, a large group of which have settled in for the afternoon behind Melvin, Mosley and Borg.
Mosley’s opinion is not far wrong, for Enfield use the width of the pitch to expose Hitchin. It takes just 10 minutes for the visitors to score. Darren Annon, a neat, tidy player always buzzing around, receives a through-ball from Underwood, walks around Allpress – “where the fuck was Tim, where was he?” – and side-foots his effort past goalkeeper Lee Pearce. “What a stupid goal to give away,” screams Melvin, completely ignoring the quality of Enfield’s build-up.
On the half-hour, Enfield score again. Annon causes the damage once more, lofting a high ball that gets lost in the setting autumn sun. It comes to earth out of reach of Pearce and Paul Moran accepts the gift, sending his shot into the far corner – 2-0. “Two silly goals, we’ve given them a fucking two-goal lead. They’ve done nothing else,” says Melvin.
Mosley comes over from the directors box. The last time he and Melvin exchanged words, their team was on level terms. Now, they were staring defeat in the face after a third of the game. Half-time was going to be interesting.
In the Hitchin dressing room sat 11 silent yellow shirts. Their occupants may as well have been naughty schoolchildren awaiting their punishment. Melvin grabs a cup of tea and looks at his watch. He seems amazingly calm.
“Tomorrow may be December the first” [Quietly]
“But you lot seem to want to hand out fucking Christmas presents [louder], TODAY [very loud].”
“You pass the ball out of defence and seem to want to give yourself a fucking cigar. Meanwhile, Enfield have regained possession and we’re in trouble again.”
Mosley chimes in. “I’ve sat and watched 45 minutes of people messing around. You’ve got to get the ball out quickly and take the pressure off.” At this point, Mosley gets some backchat, which he cuts off in mid-stream – sometimes, teaching skills come in handy in football.
“Listen, we’ve got 10 minutes to put this right, so shut up and keep quiet. It’s going to be hard, but no way is this over. If we can nick an early goal, we can give them a game. So get out there and show them.”
The spirit picks up and the players trudge across a floor that is a mixture of saliva, discarded fluid and mud. Across the passage, Borg is also flowing, but his team are two goals to the good. On the way out of the dressing room, Reg Brown adds his own unique summary of the game. “We’re like the man who fell out of the aeroplane,” he said. “We’re not in it.”
Enfield remain in control, although they allow Hitchin to swarm around them like midges in pursuit of an opening. Steve Terry, a product of Graham Taylor’s Watford, looks like a squaddie in a football kit, with the language to match. He dominates the back-line, rarely allowing Hitchin near goal. “if it were 0-0 now, they’d be worried,” says Melvin, clutching at straws. “They haven’t done a thing this half.” Mosley looks across, slightly bemused. “They don’t have to, Andy, they’re two-nil up.”
Rudi Hall comes off, giving Coley the chance to impress, which pleases the crowd. “Andy, there are no options, no movement,” says the panting Hall. Coley adds some energy, but he is also running into blind alleys.
With four minutes to go, Enfield net an easy third goal by Gentle, one of a trio of Enfield subs that would grace Hitchin’s side. One of the other men on the bench is Shaun Marshall, a player who netted over 40 goals in his last season with the Canaries. Marshall was the hero of the 1994-95 FA Cup run, but then left to join Stevenage.
He’s now a chunkier player than during his time with Hitchin, but he comes on to show his old club what they’re missing. A few days later, he nets a spectacular FA Cup goal for Enfield on TV – some things do not change.
The final score is 3-0 and the Hitchin fans are gracious in defeat. They’ve almost come to expect this sort of result against Enfield over the years. Melvin insists his side lacks only a goalscorer. Creativity and solidity at the back also looked debatable – they barely mustered up a shot against Enfield.
Next stop St. Albans on Tuesday (they won 4-0), training Thursday and then another game next week. As Dave Mosley said, it’s not just about running up on a Saturday…
This article first appeared in The Local Sportsman in January 1997.