Non-League football can lead the way in the climate agenda

MY local non-league club, Hitchin Town, has averaged round trips of 120 miles per away game this season and on four occasions, the milometer has almost hit the 200 mark. This is a part-time club, run mostly by volunteers and their home attendances for league games average around 450. They are loyally supported, both at home and away matches.

They are unfortunate in that they are in the Central Premier of the Southern League, Hitchin often feels like an outpost and therefore they travel quite a distance to some games. At times, you have to wonder if a 200-mile round trip is worth it for a game played in front of less than 500 people, but that’s non-league. Hitchin are just one of dozens of clubs in a similar position.

Travelling to away games by coach is certainly better for the environment than any army of cars, including the very harmful, gas-guzzling and climate unfriendly SUVs that proliferate British home counties towns. Coaches are even less damaging than trains, often thought to be the most friendly mode of transport. 

Local football should encourage less travelling to games. It is quite remarkable that even in a town like Hitchin, a lot of people still drive to the Top Field stadium. The myth that everyone walks to the ground is just that, the stream of parked vehicles in surrounding streets tells you that many opt for convenience. While any club can claim to be “green” in its processes and practices, while a big percentage of the crowd drives to the match, the damage will continue. Perhaps a day of walking to the ground would be a good initiative for a club, or maybe a non-driving day?

In order for travelling to be restricted, leagues may need to become more regionalised than they are at the moment. While football is an essential part of so many lives, there is ample scope for recalibration of an activity that should have a degree of flexibility. As Real Betis in Spain proclaim in their stadium, “No planet, no football”, so we should all be motivated to help. It is arguably time for the governance of clubs to include stronger rules around environmental issues that can be punished if breached.

And that would include floodlights. Around a third of Hitchin’s games in 2021-22 have been under floodlights, and one can assume this applies to most of their peers. One could argue that midweek games are needed to ensure fixtures are fulfilled, but smaller league constitutions could help the reduction quite easily. As for Saturday games, making kick-off times earlier would reduce the need for “lights on” in the winter months. With fewer games, closer rivals and earlier kick-offs, non-league clubs would surely cut their fuel and travelling costs. Less reliance on artificial lighting would also reduce light pollution.

Pitches are another issue. The average football pitch needs approximately 20,000 litres of water per day. That’s a huge requirement, so recycling has to be a priority for clubs. Artificial pitches may be a commercial winner for some clubs, but there has to be some question marks about their environmental impact. Water conservation has to go hand-in-hand with energy efficiency technology such as solar panels.

Many non-league clubs are proud of their position in the local community, but a firm commitment to the environment can make them even more important and also local standard bearers for the green agenda. But this won’t be fully effective unless leagues and governing bodies grasp the task at hand and reshape the game beyond the Premier League and EFL. While COP26 has stole all the headlines, nobody should be fooled into believing that small-time football will be immune from the consequences of severe climate change.

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.