UNLESS something goes horribly wrong, Royston Town should be playing at non-league football’s Step 3 in 2017-18. The Crows are top of the Southern League Central Division and looking good for their five point lead. What’s more they’ve got games in hand on second-placed Farnborough and fellow chasers AFC Dunstable, Marlow and Barton Rovers.

It’s not a town you would normally associate with football. The club’s ground is hidden behind housing off Garden Walk and if you were a property developer, you would probably eye an opportunity or two. But it is a town that’s ripe for expansion and only last summer, media reports suggested that Royston would grow by around 25%. That could be good news for Royston Town FC, who currently play in front of around 175 people per home game.

They undoubtedly deserve more, for gates at Garden Walk, despite the club’s title bid, are down by some 4%. In the past two seasons, Royston have finished second in the Central Division only to lose in the play-offs. The signs are they will go one better in 2016-17.

They’ve certainly got the experience in their side to handle a promotion campaign. Names like Ryan Frater, John Frendo, Danny May, Scott and Stuart Bridges, Kaan Fehmi, Adam Watkins and Matt Nolan have all played at a higher level. Furthermore, manager Steve Castle has a CV that certainly sets him apart from most coaches at step four.

Castle added Matt Nolan to his squad in mid-January and the 34 year-old scored twice on his debut against Farnborough. He added another brace on January 25 when Royston beat Uxbridge 5-2. In Nolan, Castle may have applied the final touches to his promotion-aspiring team.

The fact that Nolan is still playing and in demand at 34 says a lot for the natural talent of a forward that perhaps should have achieved more in the professional game. A product of Hitchin Town’s youth scheme in the late 1990s, Nolan was arguably the club’s best-ever home grown player. Never one to rely on pace, Nolan’s intricate skill, timing and economical use of the ball marked him out as a player that could have made some good money for Hitchin. It didn’t quite work out that way, but 13 years after leaving Hitchin, he’s still playing – and scoring goals.

He left Hitchin for Peterborough United and appeared only briefly before being released at the age of 23. Since falling out of the pro game, however, Nolan has always had his fair share of suitors, and has played for Lowestoft, Telford, Kings Lynn, Ballymena, Cambridge City, Corby Town, St. Neots and assorted other local clubs.

If Nolan is in the mood, £8 admission to see Royston would be well worth the outlay. And so it proved against Petersfield Town, a top versus bottom game that was always going to be a home banker. The floppy hair of Nolan’s youth may have made way for the veteran’s crown, but the movement is still there.

It was a miserable afternoon, bitterly cold with snow always a threat. Royston dominated from the start and it was no surprise when Nolan ran clear of the visiting defence and neatly placed his shot past Petersfield goalkeeper Lewis Watch in the 24th minute. Just before the interval, Nolan grabbed his second, diving to head home after Scott Bridges had struck the crossbar.

He secured his hat-trick in the 49th minute with a nicely taken chip as Royston ran Petersfield ragged. Every time Castle’s team attacked, they looked likely to score.

The fourth came in the 55th minute when Scott Bridges more or less walked the ball into the net, and then just on the hour, the speedy Rod Orlando-Young dashed down the flank, cut inside a sent a low shot under Watch for the fifth goal. It was left to Nolan to have the final say, bundling the ball home from close range on 62 minutes.

Royston Town Photo: GOTP

Royston Town Photo: GOTP

Petersfield were awarded a penalty straight afterwards, but Royston keeper Joe Welsh pulled off an excellent save.  Further goals could have been added as Royston continued to test the Petersfield defence. The woodwork was struck and last-ditch clearances made. It could easily have been double figures.

Matt Nolan’s performance overshadowed the appearance of another former Hitchin striker, John Frendo. He’s netted 16 this season but was consigned to the bench. If Nolan continues in this vein of form, he may find his opportunities limited in the remaining weeks of the season.

It was entertaining fare at Garden Walk. Promotion has still to be won, but I wouldn’t bet against a comfortable title win for the Crows. Not with young Nolan in the team.