Behind the scenes in small-time football

I DISCOVERED what non-league football was all about in, of all places, a gentleman’s urinal. It was 1991 and I had been involved with Hitchin Town of the Isthmian League for just a few weeks when a club “worthie” of many years leaned over and whispered: “The thing is, my friend, we don’t take kindly to outsiders. Just remember that.”

This elderly fellow, who had been in or around the club since the 1940s, had not appreciated being put right in an earlier conversation. “Did you know we are older than the Football Association, in fact we were a founder member,” claimed this doyen of club administrators. “But Hitchin was founded in 1865, two years after the FA,” I responded. He waved his hand dismissively and walked off to down his boardroom whisky. Amid the smell of air freshener and the stale body fluid of a public toilet, he had attempted to warn me off.

I got involved on the basis that the club called out for financial help. I was originally told there was around £ 50,000 of debt but it was revealed to me at Bromley’s Hayes Lane that the real damage was much, much greater. Originally, I had planned to invite a group of pals from the City to get involved in the form of cheque-writing, but given the lack of transparency, I couldn’t compromise my career by luring-in colleagues without more clarity. It was all academic, for a few days after that warning, the club’s chairman resigned and the shares in the club had been handed over to one Andy Melvin. It would have been easy to walk away at that point, but I wanted to give it a go and see if I could be what we called in the City a “change agent”.

I came to the conclusion that people became involved in a club for one of four main reasons: for self-gratification; for financial gain; because they loved football; and to feel part of a community. Mostly, the people at Hitchin were involved for the last two, and I have to say, the club does provide a haven for a lot of folk who want to feel they “belong”.

For a while, however, it was great fun. I became press officer in 1992 and this peaked in 1994-95 when we had a terrific FA Cup run and became giant-killers, beating Hereford United of the Football League. But this exhilarating experience came at a cost. After drawing at Edgar Street, we had to put on a midweek replay. The old ground could scarcely cope with installing segregation, police requirements, stewarding and ticket sales. On the media side, my phone never stopped ringing at work, which was not ideal. I decided that this was as good as it would get, so at the end of 1994-95, I bade farewell to the club to go to University of London to study journalism and to work as a freelance reporter in my spare time.

After five years, with my career change successfully executed, I was asked if I would like to return as media officer. Not a lot had changed, but one thing that remained a problem was money and the ongoing battle with the club’s landlords over Top Field stadium, a subject which Game of the People has regularly documented. Finances at a non-league club are stressed to say the least, but the big problem is many clubs cannot really afford to pay players. After more than 20 years’ of involvement in non-league football, it still staggers me that the Football Association, the leagues, and even the clubs themselves, do not face the reality that, as a business model, non-league football is scarcely viable. Likewise, the geography of non-league football is quite laughable. Where is the sense in a team travelling 200 miles to play in front of 200 people? Again, for those not committed to the game at this level, it is a mystery.

Sometimes, the behavior of people in football is also baffling. The club’s battle with Arlesey sowed the seeds of my departure. It was the 2010-11 season and the clubs were neck-and-neck at the top of the Southern League Central Division. The final game was a title decider at Top Field, with Hitchin needing a point to win automatic promotion. A few days earlier, Arlesey’s lead had been eroded by a points penalty, so there was an air of tension for the last league game. Hitchin lost 0-1 and at the end, a group of Arlesey players – irked by the deduction of points and misguided view that our chairman had somehow been instrumental – ran to the directors box and taunted Hitchin officials. It merely highlighted the lack of dignity and grace in the game. Hitchin won promotion via the play-offs and I was delighted for our manager, Carl Williams.

It was Williams’ decision to resign in 2013 that was the final straw. For months, he had been undermined by stories that Arlesey’s management team was joining the club. There were reasons why I found this distasteful, not least the appalling behavior in that end-of-season game in 2011, but also because I was aware of the effort and emotion that “Charlie” put into the job. Mark Burke, something of a club legend, was appointed as Williams’ successor. However, I had decided to sever my ties.

I never wanted to become a “stalwart” or be defined by my involvement with the club. The catalyst was a hike with my wife across the fields of North Hertfordshire where I had a “light bulb moment”. I had long expressed a desire to visit Europe’s top football clubs – Barca, Real, Bayern etc. She reminded me that for almost 20 years, I had been visiting Bedworth, Redditch and Banbury. That afternoon, I informed the club I was stepping down.

There had been some good times, a great deal of frustration (I realised that it was I that was out of sync), some sadness – the death of our one-time secretary Alex Sexton in 2009 was especially tragic – and, at times, the beer and good humour flowed. Hitchin fans remain incredibly loyal, despite modest success and over the 25 years, support has been very consistent. To sum it up, Hitchin Town is one of the last bastions of the great British eccentric. Actually, the place is full of them!

This is an abridged version of a story that appeared in The Football Pink, a publication that has now, sadly, folded.

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