More crowd tension for non-league football?

MOST non-league clubs are quite friendly places, very few have fans that carry an air of menace with them. At many stadiums, the atmosphere is sleepy, welcoming and sedate. That’s not to say some clubs could do with a more youthful demographic to liven up the place, but nobody wants supporters who fancy a punch-up.

Alcohol has a lot to do with it – it always has – but there’s also an element of beligerance about some fans not normally associated with the non-league game.

Banbury United was always a decent ground to visit, a peculiar stadium close to the railway station in a prime spot. Little wonder that property developers have always liked the look of it. Banbury were never particularly well supported, 10 years ago they averaged less then 300 people for their home games. But something has changed in their little corner of Oxon. Not only have they run away with the Southern League Central Premier, they have also attracted more fans. With more people comes the potential of more troublesome individuals being among the crowd. At some Banbury games this season, there have been some problems, including an artificial pitch being damaged by a flare.

When Banbury arrived in Hitchin for their game on April 16, there was a police van parked outside Top Field, an image more in keeping with the miners’ strike in the 1980s. There was also a plethora of high-vis clad stewards, more than usual at Hitchin games. Interestingly, while the Banbury numbers were modest, they made plenty of noise, the script not always in keeping with the sort of family environment Hitchin have been encouraging.

Just after half-time, the peace was broken, but it was not entirely the fault of Banbury’s travelling support. Indeed, there were about a dozen Luton Town fans at Top Field who decided they wanted to antagonise the Banbury crew. There was some ritualistic throwing of beer, lots of pointing, aggressive posturing and a few blows were exchanged. The high-vis team swung into action and police arrived on time to disperse the problem, ejecting the Luton fans from the ground. Hitchin’s chairman and his matchday staff did well to quell the problem.

Non-league needs more fans, but the question is, where will they come from? The game at this level needs younger customers, but clubs may have to get used to more energy, aggression and the occasional fracas.

One of the comments I have often heard from young people is that non-league football is passionless, lacks a certain atmosphere and is a game for older people who don’t want to go to Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs. To a certain degree this is true, because it is the crowd that makes the stadium experience at a higher level. The noise, emotion and passion is fuelled by the people watching the game. A stadium doesn’t have an atmosphere with no people, no matter how people try and romanticise the vision of floodlights towering over empty stands. Therefore, more people means a more intoxicating atmosphere. For all the discomfort created by those Banbury fans, a big percentage of the near-600 crowd at Top Field were watching the situation as if it was something of a spectacle. It’s rather like the Atlético Madrid-Manchester City game, everyone was complaining about the antics of the home team, but they could not help but rubber-neck the action.

I am not advocating Football Factory-type scenes in the Southern League, but it could certainly do with a little more passion, singing and influence from the terraces at the majority of grounds. What it doesn’t need is needless scrapping and foul-mouthed day trippers who are not really non-league fans. There’s a big seam of disenfranchised football fans out there, non-league has to make sure it draws the right type of follower, but it also ensure it encourages rather than deters. It’s a bit of a challenge.

Citizen Kane…back for good?

Photo by Peter Else
Photo by Peter Else

FOOTBALL LEAGUE scouts were queuing up for a glimpse of Kane Smith, Hitchin’s talented wing-back/full back last season. Most people expected that the talented youngster would be snapped up in the summer, but he’s back at Top Field after Coventry City failed to take up an option on him.

Smith is Hitchin’s prize asset and some over-zealous pundits were predicting a big fee coming Hitchin’s way. West Bromwich Albion, Bristol City and Ipswich were all interested at some point – I spoke to a scout from Wolves at Slough last season who was taking a look at him. But the big move hasn’t materialised yet.

Is Smith worth a punt? I think so – he has pace, tenacity and the ability to get past his man and send in dangerous crosses. He has to be worth £20,000 of anyone’s money, one would imagine.

For the time being, Smith is plying his trade with Hitchin, and after a shaky start to the season, that can’t be a bad thing for Mark Burke’s team. Hitchin lost two of their best players in the summer, and it showed – Jonny McNamara defected to Hemel Hempstead and goalkeeper Charlie Horlock signed for Eastbourne.

Hitchin won just one of their first five games and straight away, the purveyors of doom and gloom at Top Field started to ask questions. A lot of Hitchin’s attacking impetus over the past year or so came from the dashes of McNamara and Smith, while Horlock emerged as an outstanding keeper. When any Hitchin side is successful, the usual next step is that the best players get snapped-up by other clubs. It has happened this way for decades and the momentum of 2015-16 meant that other clubs started to pay attention to what was going on in North Hertfordshire. It was no surprise when McNamara departed and Smith was being courted for some months. Like many Hitchin managers in the past, Mark Burke had to regroup following the loss of key men.

When Banbury United arrived at Top Field, Hitchin fans were looking forward to seeing Smith start a game for the first time this season. He had appeared briefly at Stratford Town a week earlier – a 3-2 defeat in Shakespeare country. Hitchin’s new goalkeeper Zac Barrett was still sidelined, allowing Michael Johnson to continue between the sticks and Burke also started with Brett Donnelly up front.

Banbury were promoted to the Premier last season and had started the campaign well but had lost their last two games. Life was starting to get more difficult for the Puritans. You sensed that Hitchin were eager to get a good result after four games had passed since their opening day drama against Cinderford.

The fans didn’t have to wait long for some relief. Following a corner, the ball pinged around the area and Brett Donnelly applied the finishing touch.

Hitchin’s confidence grew and before too long it was 2-0, Brett Donnelly’s shot parried by the goalkeeper and Matt Lench followed up to score. “Hitchin are very technical and it’s causing problems for Banbury,” said the radio commentators from Oxfordshire, and you couldn’t really disagree.

Banbury did have a resurgence and their tall centre forward Ricky Johnson’s aerial power did cause some trouble. Generally, though, Hitchin’s neat passing and energy was too much for the visitors. With four minutes remaining, Kane Smith showed again what Football League clubs are missing, a beautiful cross into the centre and Robbie Burns dived headlong to score a quite spectacular goal.

Banbury pulled one back in the 90th minute, Leam Howards working his way through and touching the ball past Johnson. Final score 3-1, which was just about a fair reflection.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we played a lot better today,” said Hitchin manager Mark Burke. “We’ve got a few things to sort out in defence, but scoring goals is clearly not a problem for us.”

Knowing Mark Burke as I do, he’s not one to single out individuals, but I couldn’t help feeling that the return of Kane Smith had much to do with Hitchin’s comfortable afternoon. Perhaps somebody will take another look at him soon.

Do Banbury deserve the CSKA Moscow treatment?

BanburyBanbury United is not an easy club to dislike. Actually, there are plenty of positives about the Puritans. But there was nothing puritanical about the referee getting a bottle thrown at him as he walked off at half-time in Banbury’s clash with Slough Town.

Now Banbury have not had a good time in recent seasons. Indeed, they are red-hot favourites for relegation from the Southern League Premier division this season. You can appreciate that some people may be upset at the moment. Strangely, it was supposedly an empty plastic water bottle that was hurled at the official, by a teenager. That doesn’t sound like a dramatic event, but nevertheless, a missile is a missile and the referee fell to the ground.

But was that enough for the referee to claim he was feeling unwell and unable to continue? And did it warrant police intervention? Surely it was more lethal than an empty Evian container? Thrown from distance, this would not cause much in the way of impact. There must be more to this than meets the eye.

Banbury had taken an early lead and had fallen 2-1 behind in the final minute of the first half. Emotions may have been running high. But the Banbury manager, Paul Davis, is a little naive to claim that the club should not be punished because of the actions of a fan. Talk of a fine or points deduction is one thing, but Banbury should be forced to play their next home game behind closed doors. And Slough should be awarded the points from the abandoned game.

Also, Banbury should issue a lifetime ban for the teenager in question for life. Draconian? Maybe, but it is supporters like that who drag a club down. There should be zero tolerance for such behaviour and failure to punish will not deter others from doing likewise.

One would hope that the Southern League show some cojones and discipline Banbury for this event at their ground. But if it is anything like their fixture compilation (and that’s another story), think again!

As for Banbury. You’re a good bunch at the Spencer Stadium. Ban the culprit.