The non-league condition – Hednesford v Hitchin

THERE ARE times when watching non-league football makes you question your sanity, especially when the weather is cold and damp, the facilities are spartan and the football very primitive. Poor toilets, drenched in stale urine, catering that defies all the rules and a social club that is far from sociable – all too often that’s what presents itself. Not so at Hednesford Town, whose Keys Park ground is one of the best stadiums in the non-league game.

For over 25 years, I travelled up and down the country watching Hitchin Town, sometimes wondering what ever possessed me to commit myself to what was a very average level. Occasionally, an outstanding game would make it worthwhile, but more often than not, the football fan experience of being let-down would be the outcome of a 10-hour round trip to the Midlands or way out west. One now departed fan summed up the non-league condition quite well: “We have a good day out, a few beers, a bit of a laugh, then the 90 minutes is the worst part of the afternoon.”

Hitchin travelled to Hednesford with modest expectations. They had lost all their away games in the league and had won just twice in eight games. The FA Cup run had ended cheaply in the second qualifying round and they had lost at St. Neots in the league cup. A certain level of dissatisfaction had crept in among some fans, although in typical fashion, very few would grumble loudly. Following Hitchin now seems to have become a habit of quiet acceptance and fierce loyalty, but then wasn’t it always like that?

The current team is very young, as it always seems to be in recent years and lacks solid experience. There’s skill and a bit of pace, but the team is lightweight and comes second in physical combat. Unfortunately, they recently lost their best player in Callum Stead, who signed for South Shields. He was a decent forward, but not in the same class as some of Hitchin’s forwards of the past.

After a sequence of poor results, Hitchin produced their best display for weeks at Hednesford, against a team third in the table and unbeaten at home. Before the game, fans were predicting 3-0, 4-0, maybe 5-0 but the Canaries could have come away with all three points.

They went ahead after half an hour, much to the surprise of the travelling fans, a low drive from Luke Brown after Lawrie Marsh saw his effort blocked. Proud Dad Stuart Brown, who played for the Canaries in the early 1990s and was a talented striker himself,  was there to see his son’s goal. Interestingly, Hitchin’s two at Keys Park were almost ignored by the tannoy man, who delighted in shouting the home side’s own strikes.

Hednesford equalised right after the interval, a cross from the left flank turned home by Andre Landell. “That’s it, we’ve had it now,” said one Hitchin fan, introducing a little gallows humour to proceedings. But in the 63rdminute, Hitchin regained the lead, this time Stuart Brown’s other son, Alex, scored with a low effort. Brother Luke almost made it 3-1 when he struck the woodwork and this proved costly as Hednesford equalised with 20 minutes to go with a header from Lewis Ludson-Ison.

A 2-2 draw was just about right and the level of entertainment made it all worthwhile. Hitchin needed a reasonable result and they got it, deservedly. A good crowd, too, almost 700. A proper ground, an atmosphere and some good goals. It made one realise, what’s not to like about non-league when it’s like this?

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