Did the pandemic draw people to non-league?

EASTER is a good time for local derbies and I decided to go along to see my local team, Hitchin Town, take on Royston Town. The weather was very decent, the sun was shining and the pitch looked superb. Lush. Over 800 people decided that it was a good idea to see some local football which was an excellent attendance for a step three game. 

The crowds at Hitchin have improved significantly in the past few years. For decades, they were a constant 350-400 but they have definitely gained an extra 100 or so, which in percentage terms, is impressive. I have wondered why on many occasions, because in the main, the football hasn’t been anything to write home about, apart from a couple of season when they made the play-offs. Generally, though, this level has, in my humble opinion, gone down in quality and many teams seem to comprise former academy players with little experience of senior football. They’re fitter than past players, for sure, and they act more “professional” in many ways (a good and bad thing – waving the hand to encourage a booking for example is something that non-league can do without), but there’s a lack of aggression and the art of the tackle seems lacking in many players. 

The game between Hitchin and Royston Town was pretty poor at times and resembled an end-of-season contest where the two teams had their minds on the summer. It came to life a little in the second half and the woodwork came in handy for Royston. But in added time, the home team scored an unlikely goal by Toby Syme and won 1-0. All the frustrations of the previous 90 minutes were forgotten – some even felt the game was excellent, which made me wonder if I had been somewhere else for the afternoon. It did prove that most fans don’t care what they have been watching as long as their team wins. Hitchin needed the win because their recent form has been rather lack lustre. 

Not so their crowds because there’s fresh energy at old Top Field. The pandemic seems to have spurred the Hitchin public on to watch non-league football. I can understand that because the lockdown(s) really prompted people to appreciate their locality rather than travel for their entertainment. Moreover, Hitchin have made some excellent progress in connecting with the local community and as a result, the demographic has changed slightly. Football at Top Field is no longer the property of grey-haired, Anglo-Saxon males.

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