The Non-League experience: Sour for Stour, joy for Jake

IT’S easy to have affection for a non-league home like Stourbridge’s War Memorial Athletic Ground, even if it only has three sides. There’s a peculiar atmosphere as you look across to the cricket boundary and on windy days, it can be bleak, but there is something quite unique about Stourbridge.

The town is renowned for its glass industry, but it considered the most affluent part of the Dudley Metropolitan Borough. It was also where Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, Robert Plant was educated and the birthplace of Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham. 

Stourbridge FC play in red and white stripes, a classic football strip, although it’s a kit that belongs to the past – the last club whose colours were red and white stripes to win anything in England was Southampton in 1976, although they actually wore yellow the day they lifted the FA Cup. The last team to win a major honour wearing red and white stripes? Sunderland in 1973.

Stourbridge FC date back to 1876 but didn’t make the Southern League until almost a century later. In recent years, they have forged a reputation for being FA Cup fighters, reaching the first round or beyond five times since 2011. The 2021-22 season has been a mixed bag so far for the club and they’ve experienced some strange results – losing 8-4 at Peterborough Sports and 5-1 at Alvechurch, as well as 6-2 at home to struggling Nuneaton. So it wasn’t perhaps that much of a surprise that Stourbridge should come a cropper against relegation battlers Hitchin Town just two weeks before the festive season.

Hitchin themselves have struggled this season and despite the margin of defeat often being just a single goal – eight of their 13 losses before travelling to Stourbridge were by 1-0 or 2-1, their team appeared low on confidence and lacking firepower. However, if their season reached a low point when they were beaten by Needham Market at home by six goals to one, since that miserable afternoon, they have lost five times, all by a slenderest of margins and conceded 10 goals in 10 games. Earlier in the campaign, Stourbridge had won 3-0 at Top Field.

A seasonally low turnout from Hitchin didn’t expect much from their team. Gallows humour was very much in evidence, but their fans didn’t need to be so gloomy. The return of 19 year-old Colchester United striker Jake Hutchinson for a second loan spell provided a big boost to the shot-shy Canaries. Hutchinson had earlier been on loan at Tonbridge Angels and is still waiting for his chance in the Colchester first team but has been part of their under-23 squad.

And what a difference he made to Hitchin, scoring a first-half hat-trick and going close to netting a fourth in the second period. Hutchinson was a class apart from the rest of Hitchin’s team. Nobody anticipated the first goal in the seventh minute in what was the visitors’ first attack. Charlie Horlock, Hitchin’s keeper, stemmed the early onslaught from Stourbridge and then turned creator with a long ball to Callum Stead who found Hutchinson and he did the rest.

Hutchinson was at it again in the 25th minute, stunning the regulars who had seen their team dominate the game but get caught twice. And the tall forward grabbed a hat-trick inside 35 minutes to send some home fans into the bar for a consolation pint. 

The second half was mostly played in Hitchin’s half, but their defence held firm and was comfortable. Three minutes from time, they added a fourth goal from substitute Josh Coldicott-Stevens who blasted his shot spectacularly high into the net when it looked more likely to head towards the town centre. Who was more surprised, the travelling Hitchin contingent, the Stourbridge fans or Canaries’ manager Mark Burke?

The implications of such an emphatic victory may not be fully revealed until a few weeks. Hitchin are still bottom of the league, but on the evidence of this display, there’s at least one team with bigger problems. Stourbridge and their friendly fans took their defeat well, but Burke and his team will know that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. It’s a good start, though, and they need to keep hold of Hutchinson for as long as possible. He may be the difference between Premier Division survival and a stint at step four in 2022-23.

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