WHEN Hitchin Town installed some wooden terracing at Top Field in the 1930s for a big FA Amateur Cup tie against Wimbledon, it was supposed to be a temporary measure. Those terraces, some of which still exist, became a little like “Trigger’s broom” from the much-loved TV comedy, Only Fools and Horses, constantly patched-up, nailed in place and replaced over the decades.
At long last, though, the 21st century has arrived at Top Field, with the removal of the dangerous, insurance policy-testing planks and the installation of some purpose-built metal terracing.
It’s an impressive sight, for they run almost the entire distance behind the goal and are safe, sturdy and welcoming. The old construction was like a listing ship, creaking and swaying with the crowd and always just one slip away from a litigation case.
The old facilities couldn’t go on any longer and didn’t live up to the ground test, so Hitchin had to do something. They raised £ 60,000 from a public crowd-funding appeal and the money appears to have been used wisely, making the ground more secure and far more appealing. Never mind the nostalgists that enthuse about period pieces that are essentially a mix of corrugated metal and rotting wood, Top Field is starting to look like a modern stadium.
It’s all part of a grand modernisation scheme at the club, with better catering facilities and proper fencing to enclose the ground. There’s also a more dynamic approach to social media and a greater focus on online commerce, notably around merchandise, which has disappeared from the ground after the collapse of the supporters club.
But Hitchin Town may find they have scored an own goal in bravely opting for a cashless stadium with advance tickets as the sole form of admission. The public simply cannot turn up on the day if they suddenly fancy watching a game of football.
For non-league clubs, cutting off this avenue of income may be a foolish decision. This level of the game has long benefitted from international weekends, postponements and good weather enthusiasm – the non-league game depends on floating support as much as the die-hards who commit themselves on a week-by-week basis. It is the flexibility of non-league, as opposed to the complexities of the senior game, that makes it attractive.
In short, non-league football needs spontaneity because the product generally doesn’t drive people to commit to games in advance. It works for some, but if any club wants to grow its audience, it needs all avenues to be open. Losing 10-15 wavering floaters could deprive the club of thousands of pounds a year and there’s also the loss of peripheral income from spare change fund raising like raffles, golden goals and “50/50” draws. Card-only may be the future for a lot of commercial transactions, but non-league football may not be ready for such a draconian move, especially when a stadium is usually only 10-15% full. It will be interesting to see if this approach works.
It is undoubtedly a good time to encourage people who may not have been bitten by the bug. Football has been missed during the pandemic, even though TV has been flooded with it. Hitchin certainly seem to be appealing to a broader crowd these days which is encouraging given the number of older fans that have passed away in the past 18 months. Against Nuneaton, the attendance was 452, a healthy figure swelled by a strong contingent of noisy away fans, who became the first to discover the rear of the new terracing makes for good percussion.
Hitchin won 2-1, thanks to two goals from Callum Stead, a nippy, pocketable forward who benefitted from a couple of breakaways to give the Canaries their first points of the season. It was an entertaining 90 minutes, an encouraging performance from the home team and the new terracing performed well, standing-up to the rain. It might be worth putting your money (digital, of course) on a good campaign for Mark Burke’s side.