Non-League: Time used wisely – transforming a football ground

LATER in the evening, football was supposed to be coming home, and indeed it did to some extent. While towns like Hitchin became transformed into melting pots of drunk fans wearing England shirts, there was a chance to remind people the local non-league club was alive and kicking and was staggering out of the bunker to open their doors once more.

Behind the scenes at Hitchin, activity has been intense during the past few months. At long last, the wooden terracing that provided ice-skating for beginners in the wet and winter, became a victim of ground-grading requirements and the need to move on from an age when safety standards began and ended with extinguishing stray cigarette butts. It had to go if the club was to keep its ground grading.

Top Field looks incredibly healthier for it, even though new metal terracing is poised to be installed before the new season starts proper to complete the task. Not everyone was pleased to see the end of the wooden planks, but removal of the Heath Robinson-designed terracing (which were originally installed as a temporary measure for a cup tie in the 1930s) meant the club got a big tick from the men in bowler hats.

The ground, which was mockingly called “the wood yard” by some opposing fans, divides opinion and always has. Traditionalists and nostalgists love and yearn for its its olde-worlde charm, but pragmatists and modernists see it as an obstacle.

The terracing is only part of the story. The ground has never looked smarter in the past 30 years, although it is clearly a work in progress. Thanks to the public appeal for money that raised a remarkable £ 60,000, the club was able to ensure the work was funded.

The catering facilities are a massive improvement and no longer fulfil basic requirements but offer choice and a degree of quality. The days of china cups from the top tea bar have long gone, but these new caterers have “barista” coffee available, which may break new ground in Southern League circles. Certainly, the upgrade is clear recognition that customers demand better quality from event catering these days.

The club has also made the ground more secure with proper, security-minded fencing, which is a huge improvement from the days of painted fibreboard. And there’s a new fixture board to replace the forlorn structure that soldiered on bravely far longer than expected.

But there’s something else stirring at Hitchin which may surprise one or two people. There is just a hint of the hipster to be found about the place, which suggests younger fans are getting a taste for the club and even becoming involved. At the Luton game, there was even a bearded fan with a St. Pauli t-shirt, the club whose fans are renowned for left-wing politics and causes, but he was actually a Luton fan, not a new recruit for Hitchin Town. The club has long needed an influx of younger fans and it does seem as though it might be slowly getting it. You get the feeling that the decision to adjust the club’s visual identity may have been aimed at future generations.

Luton won easily 7-0, not unsurprisingly given they are a Championship side. Hitchin’s willing youngsters looked slower, less physical and a little tired. The game itself wasn’t that important, the 1,200 crowd was, though.

The real winner was the new-look Top Field, which when completed will make the ground a much better, more comfortable and secure place. Football actually came home several hours before the Lightning Seeds got an airing across the pubs of Hitchin.


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