Amid Boxing Day’s cobwebs…opportunity lingers


Photo: Peter Else

BOXING DAY is a strange football occasion. People hand out greetings as if they haven’t seen each other for decades, talking about a single day’s eating and drinking to excess as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime event and men bring their wives to football for the one and only time in the season. It’s an odd ritual, especially when the previous game might have been just a few days earlier. And when kick-off times are altered, in this case, 1pm, everyone wanders around bleary-eyed and disorientated. “So this is what the ground looks like before 3pm?”.

Boxing Day matches were supposed to be all about Dad and his kids going to the game with their Christmas presents on display – new scarves, gloves and maybe a nice pair of sturdy boots to kick through the slush. Today, if the kids unveiled their haul, it would involve something electronic with the power cable trailing behind them. In some ways, Boxing Day football is a hindrance when you’ve got FIFA or Call of Duty to play. Generally, the romance of Bank Holiday football – I especially recall David Webb of Chelsea being called upon to play an entire 90 minutes in goal at Christmas due to snow delaying the club’s third choice keeper – has long been compromised by public transport.

But more locally, Hitchin entertained Dunstable at 1pm on December 26, 2016. I say entertained but there cannot have been many people in the 600-plus crowd that considered 90 minutes on the wooden terrace to be the most engaging part of their day. But never mind, these are title-challenging days for Hitchin and it is results over performance. Points are points after all, no matter how to grind them out.

It’s the first time this season that I have come away from a Hitchin game wondering what all the fuss is about. But equally, the 1pm kick-off, not long enough to digest the turkey or wash away the effects of Jack Daniels & Coke (or whatever players quaff these days) may have had a lot to do with that.

Hitchin and a robust and agitated Dunstable side failed to shake-off a day on the sofa watching TV and eating for England. But it all started to change when Dunstable’s extremely angular Josh Oyinsan allowed his elbow to floor Hitchin’s Dan Webb. Oyinsan was immediately shown the red card and strolled off to kick his way back to the away dressing room.

It helped change the game, but Hitchin were too sluggish to take full advantage of the extra man. But cometh the 82nd minute minute, cometh the man. Mason Spence was replaced by Kieran Barnes, a diminutive fellow who has been out on loan at Histon. Within a minute or so, Barnes sent a mis-hit shot into the net after the ball had bounced around the Dunstable area with little purpose. Barnes was buried by his team-mates, it was literally his first touch of the ball.

With the Dunstable dam breached, Hitchin went in search of a second, and in the 87th minute, they grabbed a spectacular points-clincher. Ben Walster must have been more than 20 yards out when he hit a free kick into the top corner of Jamie Head’s net. “Worth the money just to see that,” said one fan, and he wasn’t wrong, it was a goal that belonged to a higher level. Two-nil was just about right.

And a higher level is what Hitchin should be looking at right now. There is genuine reasons to believe that the club can move up a gear – not just because of their on-field resources, but also because Hitchin, as a town, may be changing. Various surveys and “lists” have placed the old Hertfordshire market town among the top places to live. Hence, house prices are rising, which is not necessarily good news for young locals wanting to get onto the monopoly board that is the property market, but also brings a certain affluence to a town as well as gallons of Farrow & Ball paint.

The website rightmove suggested that Hitchin is the ninth “happiest” place to reside – whatever that means. I was also reliably informed that Hitchin is slowly becoming a so-called “hipster” destination and the early signs are already there – a craft beer shop, vinyl records and artisan coffee – all of which makes the town a more appealing place. At the Boxing Day game, it was noticeable that there were a few people around who fit the stereotypical idea of a “hipster” – more likely just similar to the new breed of supporter that recognises non-league as something that provides an alternative to the sterile, corporate and expensive world of Premier League football.

This might be tomorrow’s audience for Hitchin, but it is also an audience worth reaching out to. Things like “craft beer” may or may not be passing phases, but Hitchin Town has a compelling offering for a number of reasons.

Hitchin is the number four non-league club in Hertfordshire. Boreham Wood, St. Albans and Bishop’s Stortford are ahead of them. Remember that the immediate circle around Hitchin – Stevenage, Luton and Bedford either have a Football League club or a non-league club in decline. Where can you go to see non-league football at a good level in a town that offers quite a lot of social and cultural attractions? The answer is Hitchin.

The status of Stevenage and Luton, and Bedford’s current malaise, is a big plus for Hitchin in attracting fans looking for an alternative, an antidote if you like.

Moreover, these are good times for Hitchin. They have a young team that has grown together over the past couple of years, they play positive football and they could finish in the top six for the second consecutive season – something almost unknown in post-war history.

At present, Hitchin’s crowds are sub-400, but they have an acceptable crowd/population figure of 1.11%. On Boxing Day, they attracted 613 and the vast majority were there to support Hitchin. There’s been a lot of new faces in the crowd in the dozen games I have seen in 2016-17 and it may just be that there’s a new type of fan waiting to coming through. Hitchin Town a trendy club? – now that would be something.