ASIDE from people who have an interest in non-league football, the FA Cup fourth qualifying round tie between Hitchin Town and Leatherhead will bypass most of the Hertfordshire market town of 35,000 or so people.
Yet in a corner of Hitchin, actually in the heart of Hitchin, a cup-tie will take place that could, for the winners, open the door to fame and fortune – not to mention the £ 25,000 prize money on offer.
This game is, effectively, the FA Cup semi-final for two clubs with a rich heritage in the competition. The de facto final, for clubs from step three of the non-league game, is a place in the first round proper. Anything above that is comparable to “going into Europe”.
Leatherhead rekindled the fire of FA Cup glory in 2017-18, reaching the second round and losing to Wycombe Wanderers, a club that played in the same division as “the Tanners” when a team spearheaded by striker Chris Kelly reached the last 32 in 1974-75.
Kelly became known as “the Leatherhead Lip” for his outspoken views on the game, including some criticism of full-time professionals. He had a brief spell with Millwall, playing 11 games, before returning to Fetcham Grove.
Ironically, before Leatherhead played Leicester on January 25 1975, they had a London Senior Cup tie against Hitchin to fulfill at Top Field. The game, which Leatherhead won 3-2, was featured on TV as the cameras sought to catch a glimpse of Kelly and his team-mates.
Leatherhead, along with Wimbledon (who were then in the Southern League), captured the imagination of the public that season, but Hitchin also enjoyed a run to the first round in 1974-75, losing to Cambridge United after a 0-0 draw at Top Field. The game, which was largely featureless, was notable for the presence of one Ron Atkinson, who was about to take over as manager at Cambridge. Leatherhead led 2-0 at Filbert Street (even though the amateurs were supposedly at home), but a star-studded Leicester side came back to win 3-2.
Both Hitchin and Leatherhead had a golden spell in the mid-1970s in the FA Cup, but neither were league title contenders at any time. Hitchin’s best finish in the Isthmian between 1974 and 1979 was ninth, while Leatherhead achieved top six placings twice in that period. For both Hitchin and Leatherhead, the FA Cup ignited great interest from the public, attracting people who had scarcely been near the respective grounds of the two clubs.
Hitchin have waited a long time for a crack at the first round again. They almost did it in 2007-08 when they were just a few minutes from beating Weymouth away, only to lose in the replay. The last time the Canaries made it through was in 1995-96, after which that famous 2-1 victory against Bristol Rovers took place in the first round. That will stand as the greatest single victory in the club’s history, but a season before, Hitchin became “giant-killers” for the first time, beating Hereford United in November 1994 4-2 at Top Field.
What made this game so special was that the club started in the first qualifying round at Newmarket and were a goal behind. Tony Caines, a relatively unknown dreadlocked forward from London Colney equalised, and then Mark McGonagle netted a winning goal, only to be sent-off late in the game. Against both Tiptree and Cambridge City they were seconds from elimination and then they pulled off a shock win at Burton in the fourth qualifying round.
Andy Melvin’s team had to come from behind in that Hereford replay, not once, but twice and still ended victorious on an emotional night. That was Hitchin’s cup final and Martin O’Neill’s Wycombe ended any dreams in round two, taking control early-on and romping home 5-0 in front of the Match of the Day cameras.
It’s over 40 years since Leatherhead made big headlines and Hitchin have waited 23 years to get back in the Sunday papers. Make no mistake, this game is a “must-see” – the stakes are high and there’s every chance that one of these teams will get more publicity in just one first round tie than they have managed in 20 or 30 years. Southern and Isthmian League games rarely, if ever, make national headlines, but clubs can dine-out on a good FA Cup run for years – it’s not quite a Halley’s Comet experience, but sometimes they have to wait decades for their next substantial meal!