A NOTE to the national media – football clubs that enter the FA Cup are not, mostly, “amateur” and they do pay their players hard cash. This oft-repeated and somewhat patronising term, used to describe non-league clubs when anyone wants to underline a story about the “butcher, baker, candlestick-maker” element of football outside the professional game, continues to be used when national media turn up at the local “Town” or “United” in pursuit of a heart-warming FA Cup story reflecting the great class divide in our beloved national game.
Of course, the old cliché of humble artisans putting on a football shirt and creating a little bit of history has been replaced by call centre operatives, sports science students, teachers and IT professionals skipping-off work early to play for, at best, a couple of hundred quid.
Regardless of the misconception by national TV and newspaper journalists, describing the likes of Hitchin Town as “amateurs”, the FA Cup manages to draw enormous attention when clubs from outside the upper echelons venture beyond the hazardous qualifying rounds of the competition. In Hitchin, the TV cameras came to town and screened the draw for round one at Top Field. It was an evening that was interesting and suggested, once more, that national media doesn’t always “get” non-league football.
The BBC and Daily Mail should certainly be aware that the amateur code was all but abolished, or let’s say redefined, back in the 1970s. In fact, Hitchin may well have helped accelerate that process when a club official exposed the infamous “shamateurism” aspect of football in the Athenian, Isthmian and other leagues back in the 1950s and 1960s. Nobody liked the whistle being blown, even back in the free-speaking 60s – the unfortunate fellow was sent to Coventry for revealing the well-known but rarely spoken-about truth that amateurs were getting paid – but this incident probably contributed to changing the face of non-league. Nevertheless, the local paper headline, “a man without friends” also emphasised how football has often swept its problems under the boardroom carpet.
Amateur or not, Hitchin Town received more publicity from the FA Cup draw being hosted at their clubhouse than in a whole campaign of Southern League games, and having deservedly beaten Leatherhead in a dramatic fourth qualifying round replay, undoubtedly they have had their busiest and most demanding fortnight in over two decades as they prepared to face Solihull Moors of the National League.
As in the mid-1990s, national journalists have descended upon the Hertfordshire commuter-belt town in search of FA Cup romance. To be frank, it is only when there is the prospect of a round one tie that casual onlookers start to take an interest.
Most people sipping their flat-whites in the plethora of coffee shops dotted around town are unaware that a club like Hitchin begins its campaign in the competition some four rounds earlier. Crowds in those banana-skin laden weeks are invariably very tepid, but get to the last qualifying stage and out come those tin foil FA Cup effigies.
But what’s really vital to clubs like Hitchin, and indeed fellow survivors Haringey and Met.Police, is the very generous prize money now on offer from the Football Association. That win at Leatherhead brought the total snared by Hitchin to £ 55,000 and with the prospect of a tidy share in a bumper gate in round one, plus TV money that will come the club’s way, the Canaries – and all round one participants from non-league – will have a head start on 2019-20’s budget.
The FA Cup also reminded us, that while many things change, the heart of non-league football remains stubbornly constant. In 1995, when Hitchin beat Bristol Rovers, the long-serving captain was Mark Burke, the chairman was Terry Barratt and treasurer Roy Izzard.
While some people from that era have either moved on or sadly died, these three individuals are still immersed in the club’s affairs, Burke, after ending his playing career in 2005, is now manager and deeply involved in the club’s financial management, Barratt – a man who shuns publicity – is the club’s longest-serving chairman and also heads-up the Southern League, and Izzard, who is now secretary-treasurer – a reflection perhaps of the difficulty in finding volunteers at this level – has seen more than 3,000 games.
At the same time, Hitchin have recently benefitted from an influx of a younger and more diverse group of people that are moving the dial in embracing the community while using social media to broaden the club’s appeal. They are doing a great job in bringing renewed energy and a fresh dimension to the media profile. As well as twitter and facebook being harnessed to good effect, the club now has a diversity officer, more women involved on the committee and has also benefitted from live radio commentary of games.
Hitchin may have been a little disappointed that the snooker balls didn’t go in their favour, a first round clash with a non-league team emerging from the lottery, but the game has still captured the imagination of the public and tickets have sold extraordinarily well – the new people at Top Field have been partly responsible for reawakening this interest. There won’t be many gaps in the crowd when the teams run out on Sunday November 11. Round one is round one, after all, and when you’ve been waiting 23 years, it is understandable that people want a piece of the action.
Importantly, while stalwart administrators ensure clubs continue to function, institutions such as Hitchin could not survive without the die-hard fans who travel across the country watching clubs that rarely gets the chance to bask in the glare of the spotlights. Hitchin seem to have more than most of the type of supporter that would walk across hot coals to ensure they attended a fixture, regardless of the location or competition.
The FA Cup repays these people by providing that little bit of gilding that can elevate a club from a minority-interest entity into a national TV curiosity. Just consider that a couple of years ago, the most talked-about club and manager outside the very top bracket was Lincoln City and Danny Cowley – then in the non-league game.
One newspaper, a couple of years ago, said the competition was drifting towards irrelevance – try telling that to the fans of Haringey Borough, Metropolitan Police and Hitchin Town as they reflect on their latest achievements on FA Cup round one weekend.
Photo PA: When amateur was amateur – Walthamstow Avenue against Manchester United